Julian Assange's arrest an 'unprecedented' threat to press freedom, advocates warn

In Australia, press freedom advocates have differing views on the impact of the US charges against Julian Assange.

Members of the legal team for Julian Assange have described the US charges against him as an "unprecedented" threat to press freedom. 

The WikiLeaks co-founder was kicked out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London on Thursday night, arrested by UK police and is now facing possible extradition to the US.

His lawyer Jennifer Robinson said all journalists and media organisations are put at risk by the development. 

"This is a free speech question," she said.

"This precedent - if he is extradited - means any media organisation, any journalist anywhere in the world who publishes truthful information about the United States could face extradition and prosecution in the United States."

Assange could face extradition to the US on charges of hacking conspiracy under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, with US legal experts claiming the framing of the charge is aimed at circumventing the country's constitutional protection on freedom of the press.

Julian Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London.
Source: AAP

The charges are aimed at the theft of information rather than the publication of material.

Those materials included thousands of US military and diplomatic files exposing controversial US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those actions included evidence of torture, a video of a US Army helicopter attack that killed two journalists in Baghdad in 2007, and the large numbers of civilian deaths that resulted from US combat action.

US Army intelligence official, Bradley Manning - now known as Chelsea Manning - was jailed for leaking some of the information. 

Another member of Assange's legal team, Barry Pollack, said he believes the US charges could chill press freedom because of the criminalisation of interactions between journalists and whistleblowers.

But journalist and professor Peter Greste, a spokesperson for the group Alliance for Journalists' Freedom, said the Assange case should not be viewed as a press freedom issue.

"I don't think it will have a chilling effect on press freedom because we don't consider this to be a question of press freedom," said Greste, who is also the UNESCO Chair in Journalism at the University of Queensland.

"I don't think of Julian Assange as a journalist. What Julian did is not journalism. Good journalism takes information, it takes data. It filters information out. It takes into account what is genuinely in the public interest. It redacts anything that isn't relevant that is maybe damaging to people who are caught up in these kinds of stories. It places context and information around the data before it publishes.

"What Julian did was dump unfiltered data on the internet. And I disagree with that. I don't think that is journalism. You can have a separate debate about radical transparency that underpins WikiLeaks. But this is not a debate around press freedom."

Professor Greste, who was jailed in Egypt after being falsely accused of espionage, said he is concerned about the implications on protections for whistleblowers.

"The relationship between journalists and sources is of critical importance to democracy," he said.

"One of the main role that journalists play is as a whistle of last resort in a democracy so that civil servants can speak to journalists, can leak information, if they see examples of corruption, of mismanagement, of hypocrisy, of abuse of power. And journalists need to be able to protect those sources.

"That isn't the same as dumping data as Wikileaks did."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australian government assistance for Julian Assange will be limited to the consular assistance provided to any Australian caught in trouble overseas, and "no special treatment" will be given.

The journalists' union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, has urged the Australian government to bring Assange back to Australia.

The alliance's president, Marcus Strom, said Assange has been a long-time member and his actions to publish information from whistleblowers should be protected.

"He is a divisive character and that's why for us it is not about him as a personality. It is not about what he has done since," he said.

"It is about the principles around publishing information in the public interest and being pursued for that. It is solidly around that principle and that is why we're calling on the Australian and British governments to oppose the extradition.

"Not because it is Julian Assange, but because of the principle of being able to publish information in the public interest."

Denis Muller, from the Centre for Advancing Journalism at University of Melbourne, said while he believes the fallout from the case will be limited to Assange and Wikileaks, there are lessons to be learned for journalists.

"I think the lessons were taught to us by Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian. I think the Guardian handled this in an exemplary way," he said.

"They took their time. They went through the vast mass of material. They selected the material that they regarded to be genuinely to be in the public interest. They took steps to minimise harm. And then they published boldly and strongly.

"And I think if I were to be confronted with a similar situation, I would more or less follow the Alan Rusbridger blueprint. Because I think that got the balance right between properly informing the public and responsibly minimising the risk of harm to people."

A protester scuffles with police outside of the Westminister Magistrates Court, London.
Source: AAP

He said ultimately the issue for the US government has been less about national security and more about how to deal with the ensuing embarrassment over the incident.

"Let's face it, a lot of this [for the US government] is not about national security at all. It is about matters to deal with the principle of protecting national security. But a lot of it has to do with government embarrassment," he said.

"The embarrassment of being seen to have inadequate safeguards against this sort of leaking. Embarrassment arising from the actual content of the material. I take the view that the lessons we've learned out of the Wikileaks saga for journalists are pretty clear cut and I think probably have been pretty well learnt."

Published 12 April 2019 at 3:01pm, updated 12 April 2019 at 4:41pm
By Biwa Kwan
Source: SBS News