Sydney, Australia: Demonstrations in support of Julian Assange in 2010. © Elekhh / CC BY-SA 

WikiLeaks became a household name in 2010 after exposing the US government for committing severe war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The leaks of highly sensitive information shook the world with an unprecedented magnitude – quickly turning Julian Assange into a symbol of press freedom and a public enemy simultaneously. 

The Australian publisher is currently held in the high-security Belmarsh Prison in London. He awaits the continuation of his extradition trial from the United Kingdom to the United States, reportedly in ill health mentally and physically. Indicted with 18 federal charges under both the Computer Fraud & Abuse and Espionage Act, the WikiLeaks founder faces up to 175 years in US confinement, if convicted. 

How WikiLeaks made its way into mainstream news – Collateral Murder, Cablegate & The October Surprise 

In the past decade, Julian Assange has been called an array of names – from hero to terrorist, from rapist to puppet of Russian intelligence. He is unmistakably one, if not, the greatest digital activist of all time. Unquestionably, Assange is a polarizing figure, but his personality is not the main concern here. What is under investigation is how a possible trial in the United States of America would influence press freedom and the future of independent journalism.   

“WikiLeaks is a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents. We give asylum to these documents, analyze them, we promote them and we obtain more.” stated Julian Assange in an interview with Der Spiegel in 2015. 

The whistle-blowing platform WikiLeaks, founded in 2006, is a website releasing large volumes of highly secretive documents, ranging from corruption within the financial sector and environmental scandals to war crimes. The NGO works closely with over a hundred well-established media organisations such as The Guardian, El País, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and the New York Times. 

In 2010, WikiLeaks has famously published “Collateral Murder”, a video depicting a 2007 US military airstrike in Baghdad from gun-sight of a helicopter. It was heavily criticised for its arbitrary violence leaving 10 Iraqi civilians and a Reuters photographer dead. In the background, soldiers can be heard celebrating their skill. 

Among documents regarding the US warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, the platform also published classified diplomatic cables sent to the US Department of Defense between 1966-2010. The incident, known as “Cablegate”, uncovered analysis and assessment of host countries and world leaders, sparking a global diplomatic crisis. 

Since 2010, Assange was subject to accusations of sexual misconduct in Sweden which were eventually dropped in 2017, reopened and finally closed in December 2019. Facing potential charges in the Scandinavian country led to the WikiLeaks founder seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden in 2012. 

WikiLeaks has been accused of “being in bed with Russia” after it published sensitive emails of the members of Democratic National Committee leading up to the US elections in 2016. The emails were obtained by Russian intelligence officers, as the Mueller Report states. They are said to have impacted Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign majorly, resulting in her loss. Critics, such as former CIA director and current US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, called Wikileaks a “hostile intelligence service” that targets the United States in particular “while seeking support from antidemocratic countries”.

The Embassy Years, Belmarsh Prison & the Extradition Trial

After nearly seven years, Julian Assange’s refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy came to an abrupt end when his asylum status was revoked by Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno in April 2019.

The WikiLeaks founder was forcibly removed by Metropolitan Police and sent to Belmarsh Prison on April 16, 2019. The same day, he was sentenced to 50 weeks of imprisonment on the account of violating bail restrictions in 2012.

London, England. Julian Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates Court on April 11, 2019, gesturing towards the media through the window of a police vehicle.  © Getty Images / Jack Taylor 

The United States have investigated Assange and WikiLeaks for years prior to unsealing an indictment on the account of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, referring to Assange allegedly helping former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to help crack a password to a Pentagon computer. The indictment additionally includes 17 charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, which relate to the obtaining of secret documents as well as endangering a source. 

Earlier this year, on February 24, his extradition trial began with an initial week of legal argument closely monitored by the world press, activists and political entities alike. The trial determines whether Assange will be extradited to the United States – or not. If extradited, the WikiLeaks founder will be tried on American soil. He faces up to 175 years in federal prison without parole if charged on all accounts.

Assange’s legal defence team wants to build on the US-UK extradition treaty of 2003, which deems it unlawful to extradite a person if sought for political reasons. In turn, this means that the prosecution needs to argue that the WikiLeaks founder is not wanted for “political offences”. 

The US vs. Assange – setting a dangerous precedent for independent journalism 

The Assange case has caused a major uproar among academics, politicians, journalists and campaigners alike: A journalist is on trial for doing what essentially is considered as being journalistic work. 

Time and again, sources who engaged in illegal activity to obtain material have been convicted, but it is unprecedented in US history to go after ‘the messenger’ for publishing information uncovering wrong-doings as Daniel Ellersberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower, stated. Many more have expressed severe concerns about Assange being indicted under the Espionage Act, worrying that is a deep and forthright threat to investigative journalism, the First Amendment, as well as international law and democracy. 

Even without a conviction, this indictment is setting out to intimidate. It sets a dangerous precedent to the lifeblood of investigative journalism. In the past, the Obama administration has refrained from making extradition efforts over concerns as it “would be setting a dangerous precedent for press freedom”. 

By initiating measures to extradite Assange in 2019, the Trump administration sent a very clear message, putting a target on the back of independent news media. Indicting Assange as a placeholder for independent media organisations goes against the core value system and democratic responsibility of journalism – keeping the public informed and exposing unlawful activity of those in power. The obtaining and publishing of unauthorized material is the daily business of investigative journalists.

Melbourne, Australia. Demonstrator at rally in support of Julian Assange in December 2010 © John Englart / Flickr

Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm proclaims, “The ability of the press to publish facts the government would prefer to remain secret is both critical to an informed public and a fundamental right”. Others have pointed out that the works of WikiLeaks are not legally different from the works of journalistic outlets and, substantially, the prosecution of Assange will affect journalism in a negative way. 

It remains to be seen how the Assange case will unfold. The trial is set to commence May 18 with an expected verdict in late summer. It is anticipated that the legal team around the WikiLeaks founder will appeal if the trial goes in favour of the United States.

Victoria Becker