Today Julian Assange, the Wikileaks publisher, begins his third year confined in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. He fled there, receiving political asylum, when Sweden sought his extradition to answer sexual assault allegations. Although both Assange and Ecuador are on record that he was willing to go to Sweden, he feared Sweden would hand him over to the United States. A US grand jury has been investigating him for four years in relation to the case against Chelsea Manning, who was convicted in July 2013 for leaking a massive trove of secret diplomatic documents to Wikileaks.
Assange’s lawyers say he’s willing to be interviewed by the Swedish magistrate but that Sweden has refused to talk to him at the Ecuadorian embassy or give assurances he wouldn’t be extradited to the US should he go to Sweden.
There are hints that the US government is trying to cast Assange as Manning’s co-conspirator for providing technical assistance. Of course, mainstream news organizations provide “technical assistance” to sources all the time, including those who have sensitive information they want to impart securely and anonymously. That doesn’t necessarily make them co-conspirators with leakers or justify prosecuting them for reporting on matters of public importance.
Like the sword of Damocles, the grand jury proceedings hang over not just Assange, but the other journalists, technical experts, and supporters connected to his actions, however tangentially. They have experienced intrusive questioning, confiscation of their data, and the possibility they might one day be summoned as material witnesses or even arrested. That, in fact, may be the whole point of the apparently inconclusive proceedings – to harass and deter any who might support or emulate Wikileaks.
It is time to recognize these US actions as a broad assault on press freedom. Even if the Swedish case disappeared, Assange’s first step out of the embassy could land him in a US jail, courtesy of the United Kingdom. The indictment of Edward Snowden has similarly cast a pall on the journalists who brought his revelations to the public, and who face similar fears of harassment, surveillance, questioning, and possible detention, notwithstanding their prestigious awards for their reporting.
The US, long a champion of freedom of the press, should uphold that tradition, and make good on Attorney General Eric Holder’s words that “no reporter is going to jail for doing his or her job.”