Sat | Feb 27, 2021

Editorial | Grave issues in WikiLeaks case

Published:Wednesday | January 13, 2021 | 12:13 AM

Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Central District Court of England and Wales reached the right decision against extraditing Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, to the United States, but for the wrong reason. Which is bad for journalists and journalism, including in Jamaica.

For the judge didn’t decide in Mr Assange’s favour on the fundamental merits of his arguments, which, essentially, is that the Americans want to put him on political trial, to be made an example of. Rather, the decision was based on his mental health, and the possibility that Mr Assange would commit suicide.

She said: “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man who genuinely fears for his future. I find that the mental condition of Mr Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”

The Americans will possibly appeal. If they do, we hope that the ruling against extradition is upheld, but the appeal judges overturn Ms Baraitser’s finding that this case has little to do with journalism and how reporters go about their jobs.

Mr Assange is a co-founder of the WikiLeaks website, which has irritated governments and powerful people around the world with its habit of finding, and putting in the public domain, information that they would like to keep secret, such as how they spy on citizens, commit and/or cover up human-rights abuses, or evade taxes by hiding wealth, sometimes ill-gotten, in murky shelters.

Indeed, a decade ago, The Gleaner was among a network of newspapers globally that published cables dispatched to Washington by American diplomats, which were leaked to Mr Assange’s organisation. Those exposures made many governments, including Jamaica’s, very uncomfortable. Indeed, it was through a WikiLeaks dump that Jamaicans learned of some of the Golding administration’s actions in the Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke extradition affair.

LARGER PRINCIPLE

In the current matter against Mr Assange, the United States wants to try him under that country’s espionage laws for purportedly helping former US soldier and intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning, in 2010, to commit “computer intrusion” by providing her with codes and passwords to cover her hacking of classified computers. The upshot: Ms Manning leaked information and records from US departments and agencies.

In 2013, Ms Manning was court-martialled and jailed for 35 years. Three years after Private Manning’s conviction, former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence to seven years, including time in confinement, which effectively meant her immediate release.

By most accounts, Mr Assange, an Australian, is not an easily likeable character. He was, for example, accused of rape in Sweden and to avoid being sent there for trial, he absconded bail in London and found refuge, for seven years, in Ecuador’s embassy.

Some people, especially on the political left, grew disenchanted with Mr Assange because of WikiLeak’s reported role in disseminating damaging emails hacked from Hillary Clinton’s election campaign. That is believed to have helped Donald Trump win the US presidency. Others, perhaps, are conflicted over WikiLeaks’ dumping of intelligence data.

But as we warned in commenting on this matter nearly two years ago, there is a risk of conflating personal dislike for someone like Mr Assange with the larger principle of protecting freedoms and providing oversight of governments and their institutions. The latter is a legitimate role of the press. And there is no proprietary disdain for transparency on the basis of the ideological spectrum in which a government may, at the time, reside. Its spotlight tends to be equally discomfiting.

Further, we find it hard to determine the distinction between WikiLeaks and countless other media outlets – whether broadcast, print or digital – which aim to bring information to their audiences. Some specialise and their journalism may be based on advocacy. What, however, we consider to be important in all cases is that their information is founded in fact and truth.

UNDER THREAT

On the face of it, the Mr Assange/WikiLeaks engagement with Chelsea Manning isn’t materially different from what the press does all the time – get information from sources, which is published after verification. With respect to certain information, the media might attempt to keep their sources secret and may bring a moral determination to their decision to publish.

It is not the norm in liberal democracies, though, even when they fume about the publication of sensitive information, that they go after publishers. That is to break the pact which recognises the press’ role as a shiner of light that helps to prevent political overreach and to protect freedoms.

It is this essential element of the press that is under threat with the attempt to convict Julian Assange and should be understood by the British court. Were it to do otherwise, there would be a chilling effect on the free press globally.