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Indictment and arrest of Wikileaks founder ‘a threat to press freedom’

International organisations call for charges to be dropped, as UN expert says Julian Assange is a victim of torture.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

A United Nations expert on torture who visited Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in prison last week observed an alarming deterioration in his mental and physical state, as international organisations call for charges against him to be dropped.

Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and ill-treatment said Assange was displaying signs of “extreme stress, chronic anxiety, and intense psychological trauma” after being subjected to “progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

Assange is in HM Prison Belmarsh in the UK where he is serving 50 weeks for breaching bail conditions in 2012. The platform he established caught the world’s attention in 2010 when it published a series of leaked diplomatic cables that revealed the US government was responsible for gross human rights violations.

In 2012, he was granted asylum by Ecuador. He spent the next seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London until his protection was withdrawn last April. The British police then entered the embassy and Assange was arrested.

Melzer wrote to the British government to express his concerns, asking for them to block his extradition to the US where he will face charges of violating the US Espionage Act. If found guilty, he is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.

The US Department of Justice has accused him of conspiring with former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to commit “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.

“My most urgent concern is that, in the United States, Mr Assange would be exposed to a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” Melzer said.

News of his arrest, the charges brought against him, concerns over his welfare, and the 175 years he could face if found guilty, have resulted in widespread outrage and condemnation.

Many of the world’s press freedom and human rights organisations, as well as journalists from around the globe, have called for his extradition to be refused and for charges against him to be dropped.

‘A threat to press freedom’

The UK-based organisation Index on Censorship said Assange’s arrest was “a threat to press freedom”, adding that the 17 charges against Assange send a signal to other countries that it is acceptable to “pursue and prosecute journalists who cover national security stories”.

The diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks revealed civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture in Iraqi prisons, a helicopter attack that killed two Reuters journalists in Baghdad, and opposition to a minimum wage law in Haiti.

They showed the US government had breached international law and buried human rights violations for which it was responsible. The news was covered by media across the globe.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom pointed out that “publishing information in the public interest that others would like to keep secret is a common task of investigative journalists”. The organisation said “whistleblowers and publishers of leaked materials are no foreign agents” and should not be treated as such.

The Chair the Executive Board, Henrik Kaufholz, called the arrest of Assange a “disaster” and expressed concern on its implications for investigative journalism and press freedom all over the world.

He added: “Regardless of whether one considers Assange a journalist or not, it bears the risk that it can be applied to journalists as well in consequence”.

US-based organisation Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) pointed out that both the Nixon and Obama administrations had decided not to pursue such cases due to concerns over the precedent it would set for media and press freedom.

CPJ’S North America Coordinator Alexandra Ellerbeck said “The Trump administration has bullied reporters, denied press credentials and covered up for foreign dictators who attack journalists. This indictment, however, may end up being the administration’s greatest legal threat to reporters” and a “reckless assault on the First Amendment”.

International media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) voiced deep concern over the ramifications of Assange’s arrest, saying the charges filed against him could be “truly disastrous” for those who choose to report on national security in the US.

“We have seen the Espionage Act used far too many times against journalistic sources already. RSF worries that this extraordinary measure by the Trump administration could set a dangerous precedent that could be used to prosecute journalists and publishers in the future for engaging in activities that investigative reporting relies on,” said Sabine Dolan, the interim Executive Director for the RSF North American bureau.

She noted this was the fifth time someone has been charged under the 102-year-old Espionage Act since President Trump assumed office.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), as well as its European arm, said in a statement issued with their Norwegian affiliate Norsk Journalistlag that uncovering secret or classified information relevant to the debate in society was at the heart of media’s public mission. They said such an indictment “criminalises journalistic inquiry”.

“By publishing information that powerful stakeholders want to keep undisclosed, the media can contribute to keeping those in power accountable. It is therefore crucial that the publication of such material lies within the freedom of the media, even when authorities wish to keep the information undisclosed,” said the three organisations that represent over 600,000 journalists in 139 countries.

Just because a government decides something is confidential it does not make it so, PEN International said, adding that on “many occasions” the public’s right to know surpasses the desire of the State to keep it secret. Examples of this include “human rights violations and corruption”.

Article 19 Executive Director Thomas Hughes urged the Trump administration to drop the charges, saying “free societies everywhere are best serviced by journalism that holds governments and powerful actors to account”.

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