Julian Assange is Free, but His Prosecution Set Precedent Threatening Press Freedom

Interview with Kevin Gosztola, publisher of the Dissenter Newsletter and author, conducted by Scott Harris

After 14 years of incarceration, and virtual house arrest, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is free. The Australian citizen, who has been held in a UK prison for the past five years, gained his freedom on June 25 after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense documents under the U.S. Espionage Act. In return for his guilty plea, Assange was sentenced to the time he had already served in London’s Belmarsh prison, with no parole, probation or financial penalty.

Assange was targeted for prosecution by U.S. authorities for WikiLeak’s publication of hundreds of thousands of classified Pentagon documents and diplomatic cables in 2010 and 2011, exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to embarrassing diplomatic abuses.

A worldwide movement and the Australian government had supported Assange during his long fight against extradition to the U.S. to stand trial. After his release, Assange’s lawyer Barry Pollack called the prosecution “unprecedented” and an assault on free speech, but said it was time the fight came to an end and WikiLeaks’ work would continue. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kevin Gosztola, publisher of the Dissenter newsletter and author of “Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange.” Here he discusses what led to the deal made to free Assange, and how the precedent of the Assange prosecution could threaten press freedom in the years ahead.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: It was abrupt. And the reason, if you read the Washington Post article, there’s at least one attorney in London that was working with the Justice Department that warned that the case was about to collapse, that they were gonna lose in their appeal hearing. There was an appeal hearing scheduled for this month. Actually, on July 9th and 10th, all of us journalists were prepared to cover this appeal hearing where the High Court of Justice, the British High Court of Justice had granted argument over the question of whether Julian Assange would be able to argue that he had a First Amendment right to publish the materials at issue in this case, to use that as a defense when he was challenging the Espionage Act charges. And they were asked to provide an assurance in order to avoid an appeal. And that wasn’t something that the U.S. Government could give to the British High Court of Justice.

And that was concerning to both of the justices there in the Royal Courts. The reason being why they couldn’t offer an assurance the way that they had before. I mean, there was another cycle of appeals. There was another cycle where they assured the courts that Julian Assange would be treated well in U.S. Custody, that he wouldn’t be put in a supermax prison, that he would have access to mental health care, etc., But they couldn’t do it in this case because the Supreme Court has actually ruled that non-U.S. Citizens do not have First Amendment rights. Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. That’s always been a peculiar and very troubling part of this case. Why should an Australian citizen or a foreign national for that matter, have to follow U.S. Laws? Why should somebody who isn’t from the United States be expected to worry about violating a U.S. Espionage Act and the U.S. Espionage Act from 1917?

This law is over 100 years old. And the fact is that the extradition law between the U.K. And the U.S. or the treaty between us as well as their law in the United Kingdom says that you can’t extradite somebody if they’re going to be prejudiced due to their nationality. And so, because Julian Assange was not going to have the same available defenses that a U.S. citizen would have in this case, they were thinking that Julian Assange had a valid appeal potentially. So that made the U.S. Prosecutors panic and they kicked into a mode where they really wanted to get a plea deal before Julian Assange might win in a UK courtroom.

SCOTT HARRIS: Well, Kevin, an important question that you’ve covered very thoroughly in these years of Julian Assange’s struggle for freedom, how does the precedent in the Julian Assange case endanger press freedom in the U.S. and the possibility of future prosecutions under the U.S. Espionage Act?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: My view is that the plea deal is not as much of a precedent as the prosecution itself. The act of charging Julian Assange is worse than this plea deal. The fact that the U.S. government had him detained in London for five years, the fact that they were able to do this to a publisher is much more troubling to me. And I’ve seen journalists at the New York Times and other publications as well as press freedom organizations trying to grapple with this outcome. And, you know, they talk about how this is now going to mean that there’s a chilling effect there. Journalists are gonna hold back material and that it’s gonna make other reporters fearful that they might be prosecuted. And, you know, there’s gonna be legal divisions of these media organizations that decide not to publish stories. The only problem I have with this, Scott, is that we have examples in the past of our media actually not publishing stories without threats of prosecution from the Justice Department.

I mean, just one example is — it’s a really salient example — is the warrantless wire tapping that the NSA did under the Bush administration. The New York Times sat on that story, kept James Risen from going out with the story. And so he said, I’m gonna put it in my book. And that forced them to do a report that was published in their newspaper. And they also sat on the story before George W. Bush was re-elected. And only after he was re-elected then they were willing to go with a story of presidential criminality that now would be immune according to the U.S. Supreme Court. So there’s a lot for the press in this country in the United States to consider.

And then for the worldwide press, I think it’s clear that — and this is the way people in the U.S. should feel about the Espionage Act — globally, I would say all journalists around the world need to fear the Espionage Act and they should be begging people here in the United States and campaigning loudly for the massive reform or abolition of the Espionage Act because it is proven now to be a distinct threat to press freedom.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Kevin Gosztola (25:03) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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