Julian Assange

U.K. Judge Rejects Assange Extradition, but It's No Win for Freedom of the Press

The fear that harsh federal jail conditions will lead to Assange’s suicide is the only reason he won’t face espionage charges in the U.S.

|

Today a United Kingdom judge denied a United States request to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face conspiracy and espionage charges for publishing secret Iraq and Afghanistan war documents.

Unfortunately, the judge's explanation is not the victory for press freedom that it should be. It's instead rooted in concerns that the harshness of America's prison system might drive a mentally ailing Assange to commit suicide while in detention.

Assange, for his role in encouraging Chelsea Manning to leak military and intelligence documents back in 2009 and 2010, was indicted in 2019 on 18 charges of espionage and additional charges of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by giving Manning some minor suggestions on how to crack a password.

The decision to prosecute Assange for his role in publishing classified information crossed a critical threshold—never before had a media figure or journalist been charged with espionage for such an act. Leakers themselves have certainly been charged and have served prison time. But until Assange, the Department of Justice had not charged those who had published the classified information with crimes.

As such, a number of journalists (including many of us here at Reason) and organizations representing journalists have been critical of the charges against Assange. During the extradition hearings, Assange's lawyers brought forth media experts to argue that what Assange had been doing is normal and widely permitted behavior by journalists and that the public had the right to know the information that he published.

The judge, Vanessa Baraitser of Westminister Magistrates' Court, ultimately agreed with the Justice Department's arguments that Assange's actions went above and beyond journalism and into the realm of criminal conspiracy, looking not just at U.S. law, but British and European Union precedents determining when press freedom may be constrained:

The defence submits that, by disclosing Ms. Manning's materials, Mr. Assange was acting within the parameters of responsible journalism. The difficulty with this argument is that it vests in Mr. Assange the right to make the decision to sacrifice the safety of these few individuals, knowing nothing of their circumstances or the dangers they faced, in the name of free speech. In the modern digital age, vast amounts of information can be indiscriminately disclosed to a global audience, almost instantly, by anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection. Unlike the traditional press, those who choose to use the internet to disclose sensitive information in this way are not bound by a professional code or ethical journalistic duty or practice. Those who post information on the internet have no obligation to act responsibly or to exercise judgment in their decisions. In the modern era, where "dumps" of vast amounts of data onto the internet can be carried out by almost anyone, it is difficult to see how a concept of "responsible journalism" can sensibly be applied.

Baraitser found that Assange would have been charged with similar crimes for his actions had they taken place in England or Wales, rejecting the defense claims that Assange's indictment was political in nature.

Nevertheless, the judge rejected the extradition request because of how America's federal prison system operates. She noted that Assange, given the nature of the charges, faces a high likelihood of "restrictive special administrative measures" that could potentially leave him in isolation, unable to communicate with the outside world, while the charges make their way through the court. Baraitser's ruling quotes at length several accounts of the cruel isolation and its impacts on those who are subjected to solitary confinement in prison, and Jeffrey Epstein's suicide last year is mentioned.

Assange has been diagnosed with depression, and according to the ruling, has claimed to be experiencing visual hallucinations and to be regularly thinking about suicide. Multiple doctors testified about his poor mental state. A psychiatrist who visited Assange testified that segregation or solitary confinement in prison could lead to further psychological decline. The judge determined "Mr. Assange's risk of committing suicide, if an extradition order were to be made, [would] be substantial."

And so for that reason, and only that reason, was the request to extradite Assange rejected. The United States is appealing the decision. In a statement, representatives from the Justice Department said it was "gratified that the United States prevailed on every point of law raised."

While Assange is protected (at the moment) from facing trial in the United States for publishing leaked information, there is absolutely nothing in Baraitser's ruling that suggests she thinks that Assange's behavior amounted to legitimate journalism. She accepted every single argument presented by the federal government that Assange's behavior was not protected speech.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University very quickly put out a statement after the ruling warning people that the Assange ruling was not, in fact, a win for the freedom of the press.

"The court makes clear that it would have granted the U.S. extradition request if not for concerns about Assange's mental health, and about the severe conditions in which the U.S. would likely imprison him," Jameel Jaffer said. "In other words, the court endorses the U.S. prosecution even as it rejects the U.S. extradition request. The result is that the U.S. indictment of Assange will continue to cast a dark shadow over investigative journalism. Of particular concern are the indictment's counts that focus on pure publication—the counts that charge Assange with having violated the Espionage Act merely by publishing classified secrets. Those counts are an unprecedented attack on press freedom, one calculated to deter journalists and publishers from exercising rights that the First Amendment should be understood to protect."

NEXT: Pandemic-Slammed Small Businesses Require Regulatory Relief

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “The judge determined “Mr. Assange’s risk of committing suicide, if an extradition order were to be made, [would] be substantial.”

    Feature, not bug.

    “and Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide last year is mentioned.”

    And he was only in jail for a matter of days.

    1. [ PART TIME JOB FOR USA ] Making money online more than 15$ just by doing simples work from home. I have received $18376 last month. Its an easy and simple job to do and its earnings are much better than regular office job and even a little child can do this and earns money. Everybody must try this job by just use the info
      on this page…..work92/7 online

  2. “Unfortunately, the judge’s explanation is not the victory for press freedom that it should be.”

    Why would it be about press freedom in the UK?

    We instituted the First Amendment because we didn’t want to be like them.

    They don’t have the First Amendment. Their First Amendment protections are rationalizations like this one. Our rights are like that. Violating them has all sorts of negative consequences, so they find ways to rationalize respecting them to avoid the negative consequences.

    The original Muslim hoards did the same thing when they overran Persia. The local Zoroastrians were a lucrative addition for the holy Muslim army’s tax coffers, and slaughtering the Zoroastrians would have been a waste. They were NOT people of the book, but they did have a book! So, they declared them acceptable–even without conversion. Later, when the Zoroastrians started converting anyway, in order to avoid the tax, the Muslims made it against the law to convert to Islam.

    Who’s going to pay the tax if they all convert? There was still a significant minority Zoroastrian community in Iran after the revolution of 1979. In this way, religious rights are persevered.

    Assange got away with it?

    Three cheers for freedom of the press!

    1. I’ve read this statement a few times, and “unlike the traditional press, those who choose to use the internet” seems to mean that any one who takes an internet, at least in England where there is no First Amendment

      1. Get $192 hourly from Google!…Yes this is Authentic since I just got my first payout of $244567 and this was just of a single week… I have also bought my Range Rover Velar right after this payout…It is really cool job I have ever had and you won’t forgive yourself if you do not check it… =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= USA ONLINE JOBS

    2. Under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, “everyone has the right to freedom of expression” in the UK. But the law states that this freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

      1. The ‘Yeah But’ clause.

  3. “Unlike the traditional press, those who choose to use the internet to disclose sensitive information in this way are not bound by a professional code or ethical journalistic duty or practice.”

    As opposed to printers like Benjamin Franklin, whose only qualification was to invest in a printing press and start taking orders?

    1. This decision seems to make distinctions not officially recognized by U. S. law. Well, maybe extradition procedure allows that, far be it from me to nitpick.

  4. There is “a professional code or ethical journalistic duty or practice”? That comes as a surprise to me. I imagine it would come as a surprise to the vast majority of traditional journalists as well.

    Tell me, what disciplinary board sits over investigations of violations of this journalistic professional code? Where can I find a copy of it to see whether my hometown reporter is complying? What potential punishments can be handed down for violations of this code? Can anyone cite the professional sanctions placed against those traditional journalists who made “the decision to sacrifice the safety of [many examples of soldiers, crime victims, undercover cops, etc], knowing nothing of their circumstances or the dangers they faced, in the name of free speech”?

    Sadly, this judge invented a distinction out of whole cloth. ‘Professional’ journalists are no better (or worse) than the random internet publishers he denigrates. They certainly have no obligation or, based on the available evidence, any desire “to act responsibly or to exercise judgment in their decisions.”

    1. As I cited above, “this freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”. In other words, whatever a judge wants it to mean. I believe this was among the reasons for our separation from the mother country in the first place.

    2. “what disciplinary board sits”

      “Following the Leveson Inquiry the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) was set up under the Royal Charter on self-regulation of the press to judge whether press regulators meet the criteria recommended by the Leveson Inquiry for recognition under the Charter. By 2016 the UK had two new press regulatory bodies, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which regulates most national newspapers and many other media outlets, and IMPRESS, which regulates a much smaller number of outlets but is the only press regulator recognised by the PRP (since October 2016).[14] Ofcom also oversees the use of social media and devices in the United Kingdom. BBC reports that Ofcom analyzes media use of the youth (ages 3 to 15 years old) to gather information of how the United Kingdom utilizes their media.[15]

      “Broadcast media (TV, radio, video on demand), telecommunications, and postal services are regulated by Ofcom.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_regulation#United_Kingdom

      1. Check out the “independent regulator” IPSO here:

        https://www.ipso.co.uk/

  5. The media won’t stand up for Assange because they’re afraid the government will treat them like it treats him.

    1. That and he released Clinton’s emails. He was a darling when he released Iraq war stuff, but no longer.

  6. He would have been charged for similar crimes if his actions had taken place in England, Wales, China, Iran or Russia so it totally wasnt political…..

  7. This man and Edward Snowden are heroes. There should be statues of them in every city of the world!

  8. England has refused to extradite sex offenders too because America is so fucking oppressive.

  9. Like secret documents that show they knew there was no WMD? How would withholding those threaten US lives?

    How can anyone rationally address anything if telling the truth about it is illegal?

    Censoring truth is a crime against humanity.

    Every living thing on earth evolves by recognizing reality and modifying their behaviour to work with it.

    Truth is reality. Any censorship of it, even inadvertently, inhibits our ability to evolve.

    Are you just going to continue to abdicate your personal responsibility to recognize reality?

  10. This documentary demonstrates how your abdication of responsibility is exploited.

    http://johnpilger.com/videos/the-war-you-dont-see

    1. At 7:50 in the video Dan Rather clearly admits that by abdicating their journalistic responsibility, to ask tough questions to get to the truth, the mainstream media led us into an unwarranted war.

  11. Bottom line, this is a great outcome for Julian Assange and Family.

    If Trump really wants to “Stick it” to the Corrupt Swamp Washington DC insider crowd, then he should pardon both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

    While at it, Trump should offer clemency for Ross Ulbricht and thousands of inmates convicted of non-violent crimes to time served.

    Trump should sign an executive order to change the scheduling of Marijuana effectively decriminalizing it. Even if it is reversed it will force a debate. Perhaps a second executive order to legalize Marijuana for medical usage.

    Trump should sign a series of executive orders ending military engagements and troop deployments that are not formally declared by congress. Each one separate so there is a separate debate on each war, when “Warmonger” Biden takes power.

    Trump should sign an executive order that federal funds for schooling travel with the child instead of staying within the government schools system so private and charter schools will benefit if they are the school of choice the student picks.

    Trump should sign an executive order that mandates requirement to produce a photo id when voting for a federal election and mandates signature verification if absentee voting is used.

    Many of these items will likely be reversed, but if Trump piled up executive orders that expand our freedom and place checks on Government power it would force debates that even the Corporate Media would find it difficult to ignore or spin into a negative without exposing the Corporate Media’s malfeasance.

    1. Yeah, but none of that is going to happen. They are specific partisan issues.

      How did you select them? Do they have something in common? Do you think they all represent truthful answers to specific questions?

      How could anyone deny the truth? They do all the time because it’s lucrative and they can get away with it.

      One law, criminalizing lying, as the act of coercion it is, will support the legitimate authority of all truthful solutions to specific questions.

Please to post comments