Threat to free expression – from the US!

‘Take down Assange and any journalist who angered a US president is vulnerable’, says Tim Dawson

Friday, 27th August 2021 — By Tim Dawson

Tim Dawson_Julian Assange (credit Cancillería del Ecuador)

Tim Dawson, left, and Julian Assange

HOW wretchedly sour has turned Joe Biden’s tenure in the White House?

The unfolding Afghan tragedy reveals day-by-day his grotesque error of sticking to his predecessor’s crazed plan for disengagement.

A mother or two’s tears on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice earlier this month (August 11) were emblematic of another area in which Biden’s slavish adoption of Donald Trump’s initiatives is no less troubling.

The woman was Stella Moris, Julian Assange’s fiancée, who had witnessed first hand the renewed aggression with which the United States is pursuing her partner.

Her tears are personal. For the rest of us the issue is that an avowedly progressive administration is pursuing a policy that poses a grave risk to free expression.

The Assange saga seems now almost as old as the Afghan war itself, but it would be folly to let weariness occlude our concern.

A decade ago the Australian Wikileaks founder published an electrifying series of leaked documents.

Among them was the “Afghan war logs”, a database of US military records. There was much that was shocking in the granular details these revealed – a significantly higher death toll than previously revealed, friendly-fire casualties, and evidence of foreign powers colluding with the Taliban.

It cast significant fresh light on the conduct of the war.

President Barack Obama, then Commander in Chief, rejected plans to bring Assange to book however.

The issue is usually described as the “New York Times” problem: prosecute Assange and, by logical extension, it would be necessary to pursue news platforms considered cornerstones of US democracy.

Trump had no such reservations.

His department of justice cooked up an extraordinary list of charges against Assange, most of them for offences against the espionage act, a statute most often used to imprison domestic trades union and working class leaders.

It is to answer these that Assange faces extradition.

This matters because the activities for which prosecution is sought are characteristic of the work of most journalists – cultivating sources, encouraging revelation of wrong-doing, and communicating discreetly.

Take down Assange for these, and any journalist who angered a US president is vulnerable.

Last year an extradition hearing in London heard the US application.

For five weeks District Judge Vanessa Baraitser considered arguments about the Extradition Act, media freedom, the events surrounding Wikileaks publication; and Assange’s autism and prior suicide attempts.

It was on the grounds of the last point only, that the judge eventually rejected the application.

Were Assange sentenced to 175 years solitary confinement, as the US hoped, the risk of his committing suicide, it would be “oppressive”, Baraitser ruled.

That was January 4. Three weeks later Biden was president.

His easiest course would have been to quietly drop the appeal. There were no shortage of media-freedom activists calling for just that. Alas, in the gothic splendour of the High Court, we learned that there was to be no let up.

Claire Dobbin QC, for the US government, denounced the testimony of the expert psychiatrist whose evidence established Assange’s vulnerability.

It was enough to persuade Lord Justice Holroyde, presiding. He ruled that the appeal could proceed on the widest possible grounds. When the case returns to court in October it is clear that the Americans will contest every scintilla of evidence that went Assange’s way.

For Assange it is another two months in Belmarsh. For the rest of us it means that the risk to free expression, from the “land of the free” is still critical.

It might lack the visceral trauma of the Afghan crisis, but we should be no less concerned.

• Tim Dawson is a past president of the National Union of Journalists.

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