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Assange extradition is just latest in UK’s crackdown on the free press

Journalism is under attack – yet MPs will line up on Tuesday to pay lip service to ‘World Press Freedom Day’

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Martin Williams
17 June 2022, 2.40pm

The founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, is facing extradition to the US.

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Foreign Ministry of Ecuador

British politicians will celebrate World Press Freedom Day next week by debating the safety of journalists and the importance of free expression with no sense of irony.

The government claims to be a “longstanding champion of media freedom,” saying that independent journalism is “essential” for democracy.

Yet today, Priti Patel has approved the extradition of WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange to the US. If convicted, he could be jailed for 175 years.

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This is not just an attack on Assange – it has alarming implications for investigative journalism in the UK. And it is part of an aggressive war that Boris Johnson’s government is waging against the free press.

The extradition order follows a long and bitter struggle for revenge after Assange exposed US war crimes. He proved that children had been executed in cold blood by American troops, and that authorities had kept secret about the number of civilians killed.

WikiLeaks also published a harrowing video that showed US Apache helicopters launching an unprovoked attack on innocent civilians, including two Reuters journalists. And documents revealed how the US Army had routinely ignored the torture of civlians by Iraqi authorities.

Those in power have wanted to get their hands on Assange ever since. So rabid is their ire that CIA officials even plotted to abduct or assassinate the editor on the streets of London.

The ‘witch hunt’

The list of crimes Assange now stands accused of includes having “unauthorized possession” of secret documents and “publishing them on the internet”. This is nothing less than a description of investigative journalism – and it will have a chilling effect on the free press.

Some now claim that Assange is not a journalist, but he was certainly regarded as one at the time. When WikiLeaks started publishing classified information, almost every British newspaper described Assange as a “journalist” or “editor”. WikiLeaks worked with the Guardian and New York Times to publish revelations from the leaked documents.

This continued even after Assange was first accused of sex crimes in Sweden (charges that were eventually dropped due to the delays): the Guardian condemned the “witch-hunt” against him and accused some critics of being hypocritical. And in America, the New York Times acted as an intermediary when Assange wanted to make contact with the White House.

The legal process to extradite Assange has been long and messy, and has faced accusations of bias.

The extradition was signed off in the High Court by Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett. He is a “good friend” of Alan Duncan, the former Tory minister responsible for arranging Assange’s eviction from the Ecuadorian embassy in 2019, where he was trying to avoid arrest. Duncan had previously called Assange a “miserable little worm”.

Meanwhile, one of the key witnesses against Assange turned out to be a convicted paedophile who has since been jailed in Iceland’s highest security prison after being described as a “sociopath” in court.

The war against journalism

The UK’s efforts to help jail Assange are part of a broader agenda undermining the freedom of the press.

MPs are currently debating a new ‘national security’ law that could criminalise a lot of investigative journalism while simultaneously granting immunity to ministers for involvement in war crimes. The government wants it to be illegal for journalists to reveal ‘restricted’ official information if they or their organisation has ever received funding from a foreign government.

The government also plans to overhaul the Official Secrets Act, removing the “public interest defence” for reporters who published leaked documents. Senior journalists have condemned the move as a “menacing threat to free speech”.

And the Online Safety Bill, which would oblige social media companies to remove harmful content, could inadvertently target legitimate journalism about sensitive subjects, it has been warned.

When we at openDemocracy campaigned against government secrecy, Tory minister Michael Gove attacked our journalism, describing it as “ridiculous and tendentious” – until we won a landmark legal victory against him.

Last year, a freelance photographer was arrested after taking pictures of a protest at an asylum camp in Kent.

And a government minister was criticised for attacking a journalist on Twitter, accusing her of “making up claims”.

Nor does Britain seem to care much about the state of the free press among its international allies.

In May, Israeli forces shot a veteran journalist dead using a bullet allegedly made in the US. Even at Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral, police officers attacked the pallbearers, almost causing them to drop the coffin. The UK government called for an independent investigation into her death, but has said little else on the matter.

MPs will line up on Tuesday to say how much they value press freedom (even though World Press Freedom Day actually took place in May). The event is supposed to act as “a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom”.

But if you want to know how much the government really values a free press, you don’t have to look far. There is a war against journalism. That’s why here at openDemocracy we are working hard to stop these attacks on media freedom. And we need your help, too.

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