Can Julian Assange appeal his extradition to the US? A British court will decide

In 2019, Ecuadorean authorities allowed British police to enter the country’s embassy in London and arrest Julian Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks, who had been living there for more than seven years. Ecuador granted asylum to Assange in 2012 on the grounds of political persecution, but reportedly grew irritated by his behavior. Since then, Assange has been incarcerated at Belmarsh prison and fighting attempts by the US Justice Department to extradite him to face close to twenty charges, including under the Espionage Act, related to his solicitation and publication of classified documents in 2010. In 2022, Priti Patel, then Britain’s home secretary, signed an extradition order. This week, the UK’s High Court held a two-day hearing to determine whether Assange will be allowed to appeal against it. While his personal freedom is clearly at stake, the case could also have significant repercussions for press freedom, too.

Patel’s was actually the second extradition order: in 2019, Sajid Javid, her predecessor, signed a similar one. Assange’s lawyers argued at the time that he could not be extradited to the US because he had been charged with political offenses (a 2003 treaty between the UK and US doesn’t allow prisoners to be extradited for these), and also that being incarcerated in a US prison could endanger Assange’s mental health and increase his risk of suicide. In 2021, a judge blocked this attempt at extradition based on the mental health argument—though the order was later reinstated after US authorities promised that he would be well treated. Assange’s lawyers say that if he is convicted, he could face up to a hundred and seventy-five years in prison in the US. The British court is expected to hand down a decision on Assange’s request for an appeal next month.

According to The Guardian, at the beginning of a hearing in Assange’s case on Tuesday, lawyers representing him told the court that he would not be attending the proceedings in person because he is unwell, but that he was expected to appear on a video link from Belmarsh. (In the end, he did not.) Kevin Gosztola, a journalist covering the case, said that Assange’s team told reporters that he had broken a rib due to excessive coughing. Other journalists in attendance suggested that the court did not seem to want to make it easy for the press to report on the case. Stefania Maurizi, a veteran Italian journalist, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that she and other reporters who tried to watch the hearing were forced to sit in a small Victorian gallery, from which they could barely hear the proceedings.

Note: This was originally written as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On Wednesday, Claire Dobbin, a British prosecutor representing the US Justice Department, argued that the charges against Assange are not politically motivated, and that he went “far beyond the acts of a journalist who was merely gathering information.” Dobbin said that while Assange’s extradition and prosecution may be unprecedented, what Assange did was also unprecedented, in that he conspired with Chelsea Manning, the former US Army intelligence analyst, to steal classified information, and tried to recruit other leakers. Dobbin also told a judge that the US could not guarantee that Assange would not face the death penalty if additional charges were filed following his extradition. (The UK has traditionally refused to extradite prisoners to countries where they might face the death penalty.)

While the hearing was ongoing, Stella Assange, Julian’s wife, spoke at a rally in front of the courthouse, and said that “the ability to publish the truth and expose crimes when they’re committed by states” was at stake in the case. A number of prominent journalists and other critics of the extradition attempt also spoke at the rally, including Jeremy Corbyn, a former leader of Britain’s Labour Party, and Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former New York Times bureau chief. Tim Dawson, the deputy general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, told the crowd that if Assange is extradited, “other vital cases will never come to light,” and that freeing Assange is necessary in order to “safeguard free speech.”

Rebecca Vincent, the director of campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, told the rally that the group has been fighting Assange’s extradition from the beginning, because the case poses a threat to “journalism, press freedom, and all of our right to know.” RSF has written that Assange’s extradition would set a “dangerous precedent that could put other publishers and journalists around the world at risk,” especially since the US government has said that First Amendment protections will not apply to Assange, since he is not a citizen of the US. (He is from Australia, where politicians from across the spectrum have called increasingly loudly for his release, as my colleague Jon Allsop reported last year.) RSF argues that whether we think Assange is a journalist or not, we should defend him because of his contributions to journalism, and because his prosecution would represent “an unprecedented blow to press freedom.”

In a recent editorial, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of Prospect magazine and former editor of The Guardian, wrote: “Enough is enough; we should set Julian Assange free.” Rusbridger argued that many people, including a number of journalists, don’t like Assange because of his “unique ability to lose friends and alienate people,” and because they don’t think he’s a proper journalist. Some, Rusbridger said, will never forgive Assange for his role in leaking information about Hillary Clinton’s campaign for US president in 2016, and see him as a Russian asset. But despite all that, Rusbridger argues, it is “time to wake up and be alarmed.” Meanwhile, James Goodale, who defended the New York Times in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case (which set a crucial precedent limiting the US government’s ability to censor news stories prior to publication), has said that if Assange is extradited, investigative reporting will be “given a near death blow.”

I made a similar argument in 2019, when I wrote for CJR that—while there is convincing evidence that Assange is a reprehensible person in a number of ways, and this makes holding him up as a defender of press freedom problematic—we don’t get to choose the individuals who “provide an opportunity for us to defend free speech and journalism.” Like Rusbridger, Goodale, and others, I argued that the biggest risk in the Assange case is not whether he is extradited to a US prison or not, but whether the allegations in his case “establish ground rules related to the behavior of investigative journalists that could be used to go after reporters who receive or publish classified documents.” That is a very real threat to journalism, and one we should take seriously.

The media critic Margaret Sullivan wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian that some journalists dismiss Assange as a “data-dumping publisher, at best” and therefore are unconcerned about what happens to him—but that, in reality, his fate affects all journalists. Sullivan asks us to imagine what a future Trump administration could do to the traditional press if armed with an Assange conviction; “reporting would be treated as a crime,” she wrote. According to Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, meanwhile, the question of whether Assange is a journalist is “a red herring.” He told Al Jazeera that a successful prosecution of Assange would criminalize a significant amount of the investigative journalism that Jaffer described as “absolutely crucial to democracy.”

In an editorial published on Sunday, The Guardian wrote that while opinions about his personality may be divided, “now is a time to put all such issues firmly to one side [and] stand by Mr Assange.” The request to extradite Assange, the paper said, constitutes a threat not just to Assange himself but to journalism, posing “the most fundamental of questions about free speech.” On those grounds alone, The Guardian says, Assange’s extradition should be opposed without hesitation. Meanwhile, thirty-five law professors wrote a letter to the Justice Department last week, arguing that the Espionage Act charges against Assange pose “an existential threat to the First Amendment.” The professors say the implications of the case could even extend beyond national security journalism to the “prosecution of routine newsgathering.”

In his Prospect column, Rusbridger asked us to imagine a scenario in which an American journalist based in London starts reporting on India’s nuclear weapons program. Her stories clearly breach that country’s Official Secrets Act, and the Indian government wants to prosecute and jail her for a long time. “Can you imagine any circumstances in which that American journalist would be bundled on an Air India flight to Delhi?” Rusbridger asks. “Of course not: no American government would countenance it.” And yet the Assange case goes on.

Even if the High Court refuses his bid for an appeal, Assange might still have one remaining avenue. Stella Assange told a news conference that if the court rules against her husband, he will apply to the European Court of Human Rights for an order that could prevent him from being handed over to the US. Whatever the eventual outcome of the High Court hearing or this potential ECHR appeal, the repercussions of the Assange case in terms of press freedom could be with us forever.

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