• Sanskriti IAS - अखिल मूर्ति के निर्देशन में

Persecution for investigative journalism

  • 21st June, 2022

(Mains GS 2 : Important Aspects of Governance, Transparency and Accountability, E-governance- applications, models, successes, limitations, and potential; Citizens Charters, Transparency & Accountability and institutional and other measures.

Context:

  • The British government on 17 June ordered the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States to face spying charges.
  • The case against Assange relates to the leaking of hundreds of thousands of classified documents, as well as diplomatic cables about Western abuses and excesses in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in 2010, including a video of the ruthless killing of unarmed civilians. 

Relentless pursuit:

  • The United States’s relentless pursuit of Julian Assange received a fillip after the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, gave the go-ahead to extradite him to the U.S. 
  • Julian Assange is wanted for criminal charges, which include violation of the country’s Espionage Act of 1917 in which Mr. Assange could face punishment ranging up to 175 years in prison if convicted in the U.S. 
  • The charges were framed under the Donald Trump administration after accusing him of collaborating with U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning who published classified documents and communications on wikileaks.org, the website run by Mr. Assange
  • Ironically, during the tenure of Barack Obama the Justice Department had concluded that it would not pursue criminal charges against Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks as it would pose grave threats to the country’s press freedom laws, particularly the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression.

Worldwide Implications: 

  • The most chilling aspect of this case is that Mr. Assange is the first journalist to have been charged under the First World War era Act.
  • In the case of Assange, who is facing ‘spying charges’ under the Espionage Act, has been accused of “soliciting, obtaining, and then publishing classified information”.
  • The blurring of the line between a spy and an investigating journalist or whistleblower by a government has serious implications for press freedom not just in the US but also across the world. 
  • If Assange is indicted it would establish a precedent that deems actions related to obtaining, and in some cases publishing, state secrets to be criminal.

Reveal the severe abuse:

  • The cables and documents published by WikiLeaks reveal the severe abuse of international and humanitarian law, war excesses and crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. government among others, besides shining a light on the inner workings of the elite in democracies and autocracies across the world. 
  • The diplomatic cables in particular, initially released after careful redaction by media organisations, and other documents went on to form the bulwark of a large repertoire of investigative journalism. 
  • In a rational world, the perpetrators of the excesses revealed by WikiLeaks would have been pursued for justice while Mr. Assange would have been released from his harsh and extended stay in a British prison.

Counter to press freedom:

  • The dogged pursuit of Mr. Assange has been renewed by the Biden administration by giving the only guarantee that it has provided is that it will not hold him in a maximum security prison, which has strict confinement rules, and that if convicted, he could serve his sentence in his native Australia if he requested it. 
  • Its position runs counter to its stated aim of bringing the U.S. back to the forefront of world democracies that promote values enshrined in the West as pivotal, such as freedom of expression accorded to the press. 
  • Subjecting Mr. Assange to trial will be a blow against media freedom in the U.S. and will also criminalise investigative journalism, particularly one that is pointed at the inner workings of the deep state. 

Conclusion:

  • The ongoing Ukraine war has, in recent times, served as a theatre for moral grandstanding on human rights and freedom by Western powers. 
  • But the episode of decade-long and single-minded persecution of Julian Assange by the Western powers shows  a resounding warning to all people in pursuit of truth.
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