The arrest of Julian Assange and extradition charges brought against him set a grave precedent for press freedom. Both the US and UK governments have once again demonstrated contempt and cynicism for some of the basic principles of watchdog reporting in the public interest. Whatever the legal and political manoeuvrings at play in an attempt to disguise this brazen attack on free speech, Julian Assange is being prosecuted for reporting uncomfortable truths about British and American state-corporate power.
Over the last ten years, documents sourced by Wikileaks have underpinned a slew of headline stories carried by some of the most respected news outlets in the world. Instead of arresting and jailing the whistleblowers behind these stories, the government should hold a public inquiry into the serious allegations of war crimes that have surfaced in their wake.
Instead of feigning concern and preaching about press freedom, the government should repeal the draconian Investigatory Powers Act, introduce a public interest defence for journalists in official secrecy law, and rethink its decision to block the completion of the Leveson Inquiry.
There are ethical questions to ask about some of the material published by Wikileaks. And there are legitimate questions to ask about Assange’s alleged sexual misconduct. But his arrest and detainment, partly on extradition charges related to “conspiracy”, have nothing to do with such questions and everything to do with chilling watchdog reporting. Sadly, many mainstream news outlets and journalists have chosen to applaud this rather than condemn what is an attack on all those who speak truth to power. But many respected journalists (together with leading journalist and free speech organisations) – some of whom have been highly critical of Assange in the past – have rightly called this what it is: an affront to democracy and an attack on investigative reporting.