Major civil liberties, media freedom, and human rights groups speak out against the arrest of Julian Assange

Who is Julian Assange and why is he important?

Julian Assange is an Australian journalist who founded WikiLeaks in 2006. Julian was the editor of WikiLeaks until September 2018: six months of his effective incommunicado detention in the Ecuadorian embassy in London then prompted Julian to appoint Kristin Hrafnsson as WikiLeaks editor-in-chief. Julian remains WikiLeaks’ publisher.

Wikileaks’ publications have had enormous impact. They have changed many peoples’ views of governments, enabling them to see their secrets. They have changed journalism as a practice, as debates have raged over the ethics of secrecy, transparency and reporting on stolen documents. WikiLeaks has gained the admiration of people and organizations all over the world, as evidenced in the numerous awards it has won.

At the same time, Julian and WikiLeaks have incurred the wrath of several governments exposed in the releases, notably the United States. US public officials have threatened to prosecute Julian and WikiLeaks. Probably no organization in the world undertaking legitimate activity is the subject of such intense scrutiny, vilification and threats by the US government as WikiLeaks.

What is WikeLeaks.org?

If you have not visited WikiLeaks.org go there and see for yourself how important this journalism is to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, finding out what governemnts and multinational corporation are really up to, and for protecting our personal civil liberties.

WikiLeaks is an international non-profit organisation that publishes news leaks, and classified media provided by anonymous sources. Its website, initiated in 2006 in Iceland by the organization Sunshine Press, have released online 10 million documents in its first 10 years.

The following reactions were drawn from numerous examples posted on Defend.wikileaks.org.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

While the indictment of Julian Assange centers on an alleged attempt to break a password—an attempt that was not apparently successful—it is still, at root, an attack on the publication of leaked material and the most recent act in an almost decade-long effort to punish a whistleblower and the publisher of her leaked material. Several parts of the indictment describe very common journalistic behavior, like using cloud storage or knowingly receiving classified information or redacting identifying information about a source. Other parts make common free software tools like Linux and Jabber seem suspect. And while we are relieved that the government has not chosen to include publication-based charges today, the government can issue additional charges for at least another two months. It should not do so. Leaks are a vital part of the free flow of information that is essential to our democracy. Reporting on leaked materials, including reporting on classified information, is an essential role of American journalism.

Freedom of the Press Foundation

Trevor Timm: For years, the Obama administration considered indicting WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, before rightly concluding it could not do so without encroaching on core press freedoms. Now almost nine years in, the Trump administration has used the same information to manufacture a flimsy and pretextual indictment involving a “conspiracy” to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—based entirely on alleged conversations between a journalist and source. While the Trump administration has so far not attempted to explicitly declare the act of publishing illegal, a core part of its argument would criminalize many common journalist-source interactions that reporters rely on all the time. Requesting more documents from a source, using an encrypted chat messenger, or trying to keep a source’s identity anonymous are not crimes; they are vital to the journalistic process. Whether or not you like Assange, the charge against him is a serious press freedom threat and should be vigorously protested by all those who care about the First Amendment.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Ben Wizner: “Criminally prosecuting a publisher for the publication of truthful information would be a first in American history, and unconstitutional. The government did not cross that Rubicon with today’s indictment, but the worst case scenario cannot yet be ruled out. We have no assurance that these are the only charges the government plans to bring against Mr. Assange. Further, while there is no First Amendment right to crack a government password, this indictment characterizes as ‘part of’ a criminal conspiracy the routine and protected activities journalists often engage in as part of their daily jobs, such as encouraging a source to provide more information. Given President Trump’s and his administration’s well-documented attacks on the freedom of the press, such characterizations are especially worrisome.”

Amnesty International Ireland

“Amnesty International calls on the UK to refuse to extradite or send in any other manner Julian Assange to the USA where there is a very real risk that he could face human rights violations, including detention conditions that would violate the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment and an unfair trial followed by possible execution, due to his work with Wikileaks.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW)

“Prosecuting Julian Assange for acts often associated with publishing news of public importance – including sensitive or classified information – has potential to open a dangerous precedent for every news organization,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The Trump administration’s open hostility to ‘mainstream media’ has contributed to an increasingly dangerous environment for investigative journalism worldwide.”

Blueprint for Free Speech

The current indictment does not directly seek to criminalise publishing, but targets the communications between sources and journalists that make publication possible. The journalist-source relationship is not a transactional, one-way relationship. Journalists develop their sources. Journalists enter into extended conversations with their sources. They discuss ways of verifying allegations. Increasingly, they use instant messaging protocols and encrypted communications. Technology and whistleblowing go hand in hand. They always have. Daniel Ellsberg’s whistleblowing involved a Xerox machine, a phone and the post. Mark Felt used phones, coded messages and a car park. Today, whistleblowers and the journalists they work with use computers and smartphones.

The communication between a journalist and a source is a particularly vulnerable part of the publication process. If journalists are unable to communicate with their sources without fear of criminal liability, the press will have one of its most vital functions curtailed. Wrongdoing in powerful institutions will no longer be exposed and stories will no longer be written, out of fear of prosecution. Combined with the threat of extradition, today’s indictment represents a profound danger to the free press, not just within the United States, but also well outside its borders.

Knight Center at Columbia University (USA)

Jameel Jaffer, Executive Director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, issued the following response: “The indictment and the Justice Department’s press release treat everyday journalistic practices as part of a criminal conspiracy. Whether the government will be able to establish a violation of the hacking statute remains to be seen, but it’s very troubling that the indictment sweeps in activities that are not just lawful but essential to press freedom—activities like cultivating sources, protecting sources’ identities, and communicating with sources securely.”

Reporters Without Borders

“Targeting Assange after nearly nine years because of Wikileaks’ provision of information to journalists that was in the public interest (such as the leaked US diplomatic cables) would be a purely punitive measure and would set a dangerous precedent for journalists, whistleblowers, and other journalistic sources that the US may wish to pursue in the future. The UK must stick to a principled stance with any related requests from the US to extradite Assange, and ensure his protection under UK and European law relevant to his contributions to journalism” said RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire.

Center for Constitutional Rights

Mr. Assange’s arrest and possible extradition to face charges related to an alleged conspiracy with Chelsea Manning to publish documents that exposed corruption and criminality by numerous private businesses, tyrants, and countries worldwide is ultimately an attack on press freedom.The arrest sets a dangerous precedent that could extend to other media organizations such as The New York Times, particularly under a vindictive and reckless administration that regularly attacks journalistic enterprises that, just like WikiLeaks, publish leaked materials that expose government corruption and wrongdoing. This is a worrying step on the slippery slope to punishing any journalist the Trump administration chooses to deride as “fake news.”

It comes in the backdrop of even further cruelty toward and imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, who continues to defend the integrity of her heroic decision to act as a whistleblower and expose U.S. government atrocities it committed in Iraq.

The United States should finally seek to come to terms with the war crimes in Iraq that it has committed rather than attack and imprison those who sought to expose the truth of it.

FAIR Media Watch:

‘Assange’s ‘Conspiracy’ to Expose War Crimes Has Already Been Punished’

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should never have been punished for working with a whistleblower to expose war crimes. Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower, has done more time in prison, under harsher conditions, than William Calley, a key perpetrator of the My Lai massacre. Remarkably, Manning is in jail again, failed by organizations that should unreservedly defend her, as the US tries to coerce her into helping inflict more punishment on Assange.

… Now Assange could be punished even more brutally if the UK extradites him to the US, where he is charged with a “conspiracy” to help Manning crack a password that “would have” allowed her to cover her tracks more effectively. In other words, the alleged help with password-cracking didn’t work, and is not what resulted in the information being disclosed. It has also not been shown that it was Assange who offered the help, according to Kevin Gosztola (Shadowproof, 4/11/19). The government’s lack of proof of its charges might explain why Manning is in jail again.

CAGE (UK)

Moazzam Begg, Outreach Director for CAGE said: “This is a witch hunt against whistleblowers and those who are seeking accountability from the powerful. The UK-US extradition treaty which has always been ripe for abuse, will be used once again to silence voices of dissent.” “Assange must not be extradited to the US. He is a truth-teller and one that has sacrificed his own liberty to shed light on the abuses of the world’s most powerful states. If no one is above the law as Sajid Javid boasted, then surely we should be supporting Assange not arresting him.”

Veterans for Peace UK

We oppose the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States and are deeply concerned that journalism and whistleblowing is being criminalised by the US and actively supported by British authorities.  The indefinite detention of Chelsea Manning and the persecution of Reality Winner and John Kiriakou have demonstrated that a whistle blower will not receive a fair trial in the US court system. We believe the authorities are seeking a show trial for the purpose of revenge and to intimidate journalists.

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