Assange prosecution a significant threat to freedom of the press

24 May 2019

"The United States Government’s decision to charge Australian citizen and publisher Julian Assange with new espionage offences relating to receiving and publishing classified US Government information raises a grave threat to freedom of the press worldwide, and must be viewed so by the Australian Government," Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick said today.

"It is now absolutely clear that Mr Assange is being prosecuted by the US Government for exercising his rights of free speech and for practicing as a journalist and publisher," Rex said.

On 5 April 2010, WikiLeaks released a classified US Army gunsight video showing US military helicopters killing two Reuters war correspondents - Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen - in Iraq on 12 July 12 2007.  

WikiLeaks’s subsequent publications of US military reports on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including exposés of major war crimes, as well as its publication of US diplomatic cables, were done in close collaboration with major media outlets including The Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel as well as the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times. 

WikiLeaks’s publications relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as US diplomatic cables won the publisher an Australian Walkley Award for excellence in journalism. Mr Assange has been a member of Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance’s Media Section – the trade union and professional association of Australian journalists -- since 2007.

"Whatever judgments might be made about WikiLeaks’ publishing decisions, they were unquestionably the actions of a media organisation that was working in collaboration with other media organisations to publish legitimate news stories that are in the public interest," Senator Patrick said.

"If Mr Assange is extradited from the United Kingdom to the United States to face charges which could result in imprisonment for life, it will have a deeply chilling effect on the freedom of the press, not only in the United States but around the world," Rex said.

"The US Justice Department is asserting that Mr Assange is not a journalist or a publisher, and consequently not entitled to the protections afforded by the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution. This is clearly unsustainable, but it is unquestionably their aim to see the Wikileaks publisher rot in a US prison cell for many years while appeals are fought through to the highest levels of the US court system.

"If Mr Assange is to be prosecuted for communicating and publishing classified information, then so too any journalist or media organisation anywhere that publishes classified US Government information.

"When considering this issue, it is important for everyone to step back and remove the fact that the US is our closest ally. Imagine an Australian journalist being extradited to Russia because he or she obtained and published Russian State secrets relevant to political events of the day," said Senator Patrick. "There would be outrage across Australia on such an attack on an Australian journalist doing their job.

"This highly political prosecution must be strongly opposed by the Australian Government," Senator Patrick said. "Prime Minister Scott Morrison should speak very clearly in defence of press freedom and Mr Assange.

"The Australian Government should be active not only in providing consular support to Mr Assange, who is an Australian citizen, but also outspoken in making representations to the British Government against allowing Mr Assange to be extradited to the United States on charges that so obviously constitute a grave threat to press freedom."

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