U.S. Charges Against Julian Assange Pose Serious Threat to Press Freedom

Interview with Joe Emersberger, an independent Canadian-based journalist, conducted by Scott Harris

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested inside Ecuador’s London embassy on April 11, after that nation’s President Lenín Moreno withdrew asylum protection. Assange took refuge in the diplomatic compound in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault case that has since been dropped. 
Assange now faces extradition to the U.S., where the Justice Department unsealed an indictment of Assange filed in March 2018. If Britain extradites Assange to the U.S., he’ll face one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, related to incriminating Pentagon documents on Washington’s human rights abuses in the Iraq war published by WikiLeaks, which were received from then-U.S. Army Private Chelsea (Bradley) Manning in 2010.
Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson said they would be fighting extradition to the U.S. and warned that it would set a “dangerous precedent” where any journalist could face U.S. charges for “publishing truthful information about the United States.” Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Joe Emersberger, an independent Canadian-based journalist, who talks about the arrest of Julian Assange and the serious threat to press freedom.

JOE EMERSBERGER: Chelsea Manning, who’s in jail again because she’s refusing to testify to a grand jury – she’s already spent seven years in jail because she was the Defense Department analyst who leaked files to WikiLeaks and she spent seven years in jail. I mean, just think about that – she exposed war crimes. That’s why she did this. She was horrified by what was going on in Iraq. There was that infamous collateral murder video that WikiLeaks released that came from Manning, where it showed U.S. troops in Iraq gunning down civilians and laughing about it. One of the troops involved got kicked out of the army because he subsequently requested medical, psychiatric attention for the trauma of treating children who were seriously wounded in that attack.

So it was just a horrific thing that they exposed. And so that alone, just based on that alone, Manning, just Manning herself should never have spent a day in jail. And she spent seven years. I mean, she exposed a horrific crime. So whatever breach of contract or confidentiality she perpetrated is totally justified by what she was trying to expose. And that extends to – if she shouldn’t spend any time in jail, obviously Assange, merely was acting as a publisher, trying to get the information out. If you read the indictment, basically most of it is just accusing him of doing journalism, of working with a source. But there’s one specific thing that media has latched on to where it says that Assange in the indictment, Item Seven, says there was an alleged agreement between him and Manning to try to crack a password so that Manning could download the files in a way that would help her avoid detection.

So he was trying to help her download the files in a way where she wouldn’t get caught and you know, suffer horrific conflicts. And she did suffer terrible consequences. And you could tell from the indictment, from item 10 that, you know, because they used the word “would have” – that it would have allowed Manning to log on and would have made it more difficult for investigators to find out who she was.

So basically they’re there in the indictment itself. The so-called agreement – whatever it was – if it existed between Assange and Manning, it didn’t work. So it’s not even what resulted in the files being downloaded. So, I mean, it’s just flimsy all over the place. They law should protect somebody who did what Manning did. The same way, you know, the law should protect, you know, if I use violence for no reason, obviously I should be held accountable. But if I have used violence to protect myself or to protect somebody else, the law should protect me. The law should not throw the book at me. And, that’s basically the approach you should take to Manning and to Assange. Obviously.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Joe, what are the essential issues that the British judiciary will have to deal with in the coming extradition hearing as to whether or not Assange will be extradited to the United States to face these charges?

JOE EMERSBERGER: When you mention the extradition hearing, it is very worrying because the UK government is not going to face a lot of pressure from a lot of people who should be sticking up for Assange. We’ll be making a very half-hearted defense. It shows that Theresa May’s government, the UK, will not face a lot of pressure if she decides to just ship him off to the United States.

Now, the leader of the opposition in the UK, Jeremy Corbin, he came out with a very strong statement initially, anyway, defending Assange very forcibly, pointing to the collateral murder video in his tweet. He came out saying that he should not be punished for releasing this information. So that was very encouraging. But within his own party, there’s such reactionary people who would just be happy to see Assange shipped away. Or, put up a very hypocritical, half-hearted defense, which again just makes it easy for him to be shipped to the United States.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Joe, I wonder if you would explain to our audience how these charges pending in the United States against Assange could jeopardize freedom of the press if Assange is a extradited to the U.S. and is found guilty and imprisoned. How does this affect the work of investigative journalists here in this country?

JOE EMERSBERGER: In a recent article I wrote for FAIR, I know that even the former general counsel of the New York Times, he said that this whole idea of a conspiracy charge is probably one of the most dangerous things – threats to the free press that the Trump administration could possibly do, because it’s such a vague thing. If a journalist is contacting a source confidentially, if the journalist is trying to encourage him to say, “Hey, what can you get for me? If the journalist is dealing with somebody who they know, “no way, he’s not supposed to be doing this,” right? He’s not supposed to be giving information, even if the journalist isn’t actually doing it – actually breaking into the computer itself, but just trying to help or work with the source or suggest to give advice about how to avoid detection or anything like that. It’ll be the burden of proof will be on the journalist to prove that they haven’t done something wrong.

This will impact the journalists who actually want to do something. It won’t impact the journalists who just want to curry favor with the powerful, which is unfortunately most corporate journalists in my opinion. But it will affect those who actually try to expose wrongdoing and publish things that the powerful people really do not want published. That’s when the journalism really becomes important and valuable – when you’re actually publishing something most valuable anyway. When you’re actually publishing something that they want hidden. That’s what Assange did to a huge extent. And that’s why they’re going after him.

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