Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has said the ongoing US extradition case against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is “disturbing” and “has worrying implications for all journalists”.
And he has said it is “surprising” that more don’t share his concerns.
While Assange has garnered support from a range of campaigning groups for his plight, the response from journalists and the news industry in the UK has been relatively muted.
Rusbridger was editor of the Guardian for 20 years, leaving in 2015. Under his editorship the paper worked with Wikileaks on the 2010 Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and, a few years later, the Snowden Files.
Assange (pictured) is fighting extradition to the US on 17 charges under the Espionage Act and conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. He could face up to 175 years in a US prison if extradited and found guilty.
Any charges against Assange relating to journalistic activity, such as the publishing of material in the public interest, “should be dropped”, Rusbridger told Press Gazette.
Assange, an Australian national, claimed asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 while on police bail over rape allegations in Sweden, which he denied and have since been dropped. He lived in the embassy for for nearly seven years before his arrest in April last year.
Assange has been held at Belmarsh Prison for the past 16 months, serving a 50-week sentence for skipping bail which finished in September last year. He is currently being held on remand while his extradition case continues.
Rusbridger said that while Assange had done things he can’t defend, and which “stray beyond the conventional definition of journalism”, the Australian is not “all good or all bad”.
“When you stand back and say, well, whatever we think of Assange, what he is being targeted for is the same or similar as many journalists have done, then it’s surprising to me that more people can’t see that this case has worrying implications for all journalists”
Rusbridger said the precedent set by the UK of allowing someone to be extradited for prosecution under another country’s official secrets laws could ultimately be used by regimes to target British journalists who report on sensitive information about foreign powers.
“It’s quite a disturbing thing that we should send somebody to another country for supposedly breaking their laws on secrecy. If journalists are not concerned by that, then I think they should be,” he said.
“The danger here is that if everyone sort of shrugs and leaves Assange to his fate and this sets some kind of judicial precedent, then the next time… a journalist on the Sunday Times writes about a secret Israeli weapons system, as has happened in the past, the Israelis say ‘well actually that breaches our Official Secrets Act, under the Assange precedent we now ask for this person to be returned to our country so we can prosecute them’.
“You could see how what seems like a sort of tangential case involving somebody that I know lots of journalists don’t really regard as a proper journalist suddenly becomes something that has set a very alarming precedent.”
Assange’s raw publishing approach, which the US has claimed put the lives of sources at risk, is seen by many as falling short of the responsible journalism culture found at major news publications.
On the question of whether Assange is a journalist, Rusbridger said he was “one of these complicated figures that we’ve never had to deal with before the 21st Century” and had “many identities”.
He said Assange clearly did “some things that are journalistic”, pointing in particular to the Collateral Murder video that showed a US air attack in Iraq that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters media workers.
“Any newspaper would have been thrilled to run that story,” said Rusbridger. “It was a really, truly shocking story in the public interest.
“So that was clearly journalism, but [Assange is] also an activist, he’s a publisher, he’s a kind of impresario, he is a whistleblower, he’s a kind of information anarchist, and so that that makes him very difficult to categorise or to work out what our attitude to him is.
“But in this case what he’s being prosecuted for is dealing with a source and publishing material in the same way that journalists do. So I think you have to not get too hung up on trying to pigeonhole him as one kind of animal or another.”
Rusbridger said he feared Assange’s extradition case was the “thin end of the wedge” and that governments around the world, including the US, UK and Australia, “have already or are itching to outlaw any kind of reporting about national security”.
He added: “The way they’re going to do that is by stripping away any remnants of a public interest defence by making it illegal to even receive documents, nevermind publish them, and also define the public interest as, however the state defines it.
“Well any journalist who’s read any beginner history of press freedom will know that the moment you start allowing the government of the day to state what the national interest is then you’re in trouble.”
He went on: “I fear that we may be in a situation now where any editor or reporter who tries to do national security reporting will be told that they have no public interest defence, the government will say what the public interest is, and not just the publishing but also the receiving of documents would mean that you could be arrested and charged.
“And so that means that a whole range of behaviour by the state then becomes unreportable and, again, if British journalists aren’t concentrating on that and the dangers of that then I think they should be.”
Assange’s partner, and the mother of his two young children, Stella Moris, has launched a crowdfunded campaign to fight his extradition to the US.
“Julian is being targeted by the United States administration for the crime of journalism,” she said. He helped expose war crimes and human rights abuses which the US would have preferred to keep hidden from public view.
“He revealed the killing of unarmed civilians and the torture of innocent people. No-one has been held responsible for the serious crimes Julian has exposed. This extradition aims to entomb and silence him forever.
“This is a monumental legal case which is an attack on everyone’s right to know about scandals which politicians and governments want buried. If the US government is successful, the ramifications are unthinkable.”
Referencing US President Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on the media, Moris added: “[Assange’s] targeting by the US is about politics. It is a case brought by an administration that refers to the press and whistleblowers as the ‘enemy’ and important news as ‘fake’.”
The National Union of Journalists is supporting Assange’s case.
NUJ national executive member Tim Dawson told a rally in February: “Debating whether Assange is, or is not, really a journalist is irrelevant at this moment. So are judgements on his past behaviour or character.
“The legal devices being deployed to try and take him to the US are unprecedented and terrifying for anyone whose journalism touches on state security, defence or espionage. If Assange is sent from here to start a prison sentence that could be as long as 175 years, then no journalist is safe.”
Assange’s extradition hearing is set for 7 September at the Old Bailey.
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