Major media outlets from the U.S. and Europe are demanding the U.S. government stop its efforts to extradite Wikileaks founder Julian Assange over the publication of classified documents.
Editors and publishers of The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País pointed to press freedom concerns in urging the U.S. to end its prosecution of Assange. Monday marked 12 years since these editors and publishers worked with Assange on the publication of excerpts from over 250,000 documents he obtained in the “Cablegate” leak, materials for which the Wikileaks founder is facing prosecution.
“This group of editors and publishers, all of whom had worked with Assange, felt the need to publicly criticize his conduct in 2011 when unredacted copies of the cables were released, and some of us are concerned about the allegations in the indictment that he attempted to aid in computer intrusion of a classified database,” the outlets wrote in an open letter. “But we come together now to express our grave concerns about the continued prosecution of Julian Assange for obtaining and publishing classified materials.”
Assange, who is currently being held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison, will face a number of charges, including espionage, if he is extradited to the U.S. He is accused of publishing classified information detailing crimes committed by the U.S. government in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, Iraq and Afghanistan, and reveals instances in which the CIA engaged in torture and rendition.
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Britain’s High Court ruled over the summer that Assange can be extradited to the U.S. He faces a sentence of up to 175 years in an American maximum security prison if he ends up being extradited.
The “Cablegate” material leaked to WikiLeaks by then-U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning, who was convicted in 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses, exposed the inner workings of U.S. diplomacy around the globe. The documents revealed “corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale,” the letter from the media outlets said.
During the Obama administration, which was in office when Wikileaks published the documents in 2010, Assange was not indicted because the administration would have also had to indict journalists from major news outlets, according to the letter. But under former President Donald Trump, the Justice Department moved to indict Assange through the Espionage Act of 1917.
“This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” the letter reads. “Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press in a democracy.”
“Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalized, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker,” it continues.
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A group of journalists and lawyers filed a lawsuit in August against the CIA and its former director Mike Pompeo over allegations the agency spied on them when they visited Assange during his stay in Ecuador’s embassy in London.
Assange sought asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden after two women accused him of rape. The investigations were eventually dropped.
He spent seven years in the embassy before being taken away and put in jail in 2019 for breaching bail conditions. He has remained in prison in London.
The CIA also reportedly previously had plans to kill Assange over the publication of sensitive agency hacking tools, known as “Vault 7.” The CIA said it suffered “the largest data loss in CIA history” after Wikileaks published the materials.
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According to a September 2021 Yahoo report, the CIA under Trump had discussions “at the highest levels” of the administration about plans to assassinate Assange in London. Following orders from then-CIA director Pompeo, the agency had drawn up kill “sketches” and “options.” The report further noted advanced plans to kidnap and rendition Assange and that the CIA made a political decision to charge him.
Assange’s Wikileaks also published internal communications in 2016 from the Democratic National Committee and then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign that revealed the DNC’s efforts to boost Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. He has been blamed for hurting Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency that year.
His legal team has appealed Britain’s High Court ruling to authorize his extradition.
“Publishing is not a crime,” the media outlets wrote in the letter.
Reuters contributed to this report.