Today marks the 32nd Anniversary of World Press Freedom Day. It also marks almost 4 years to the day since Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, was sentenced to rot in Belmarsh Jail, home to some of the most notorious and dangerous prisoners in the UK. Whilst the UK and USA are supporting World Press Freedom Day with fine words, saying how important it is to defend the media from attacks on their independence, both countries have shown a callous disregard for the rights of the journalist Julian Assange, who is being persecuted in the most cruel and vindictive way for doing what all journalists should be doing, carrying out investigative research that holds power to account.
The case against Mr. Assange relates to hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as diplomatic cables, which were made public by WikiLeaks, working with the Guardian and other media organisations. Rather than focus on the horrifying abuses by the US and other governments that would not otherwise have been disclosed, the US, aided by the UK, has hounded and tortured Assange in what appears to be an act of revenge. Despite claiming otherwise, US authorities could not find a single person among the thousands of American sources in Afghanistan and Iraq, who could be shown to have died because of the disclosures
If extradited and found guilty by a US court Assange faces up to 175 years in jail. This action potentially opens the door for journalists anywhere in the world to be extradited to the US for exposing information deemed classified by Washington.
The UK has continued to issue warm and supportive statements for World Press Freedom Day each year. On the 30th Anniversary, the statement extolled “the importance of freedom of expression”, saying that citizens must be “allowed to discuss and debate issues, to challenge their governments and make informed decisions. Governments need to respond to legitimate aspirations with reform not repression.” The statement concluded that “encouraging an open and effective press serves to improve the environment for long-term social, political and economic stability”.
If there was an ounce of sincerity in the claim that the UK government is a supporter of media freedom, respective foreign secretaries would have done everything in their power to stop the US government from getting its hands on Julian Assange. Instead, Priti Patel approved the extradition of Julian Assange to the US last June. A statement from Wikileaks said anyone who cared about freedom of expression should be “deeply ashamed” that the Home Secretary had approved Assange’s extradition. “Julian did nothing wrong. He has committed no crime and is not a criminal. He is a journalist and a publisher and is being punished for doing his job,” it said. “It was in Priti Patel’s power to do the right thing. Instead, she will forever be remembered as an accomplice of the United States in its agenda to turn investigative journalism into a criminal enterprise.”
Understandably, journalists across the world are worried. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is gravely concerned about the impact of Assange’s continued detention on media freedom and the rights of all journalists globally. It has launched a global campaign calling on the US government to drop all charges against him and asking all media unions and press freedom organisations to urge their governments to secure Assange’s release. Irrespective of personal views, his extradition will have a chilling effect, with all journalists and media workers at risk.
So, while the Special Rapporteurs will launch the 2023 Joint Declaration on media freedom and democracy during the official UNESCO conference at the UN headquarters in New York City today, Julian Assange will be spending another day in solitary confinement. His physical and mental health have seriously deteriorated. He has been denied the fundamental human right of the enjoyment of his family, watching his children grow, and spending time with his wife, because he dared to expose the criminality of the US and other secretive and powerful governments. He is being punished because he did his job as a journalist. For all our sakes, they must not be allowed to get away with it.
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