The Press Freedom Case of the Century

As the official case against Assange stagnates, an international movement to free him has only grown stronger

by Kate Horgan

By Kevin Gosztola

In March 2023, when my book on the case against Julian Assange was published, the detained WikiLeaks founder was waiting to find out if an appeals court in London would allow him to appeal extradition to the United States.

Now, Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange has been available on bookshelves for one year—and Assange still does not know if he has permission to appeal.

Such limbo has developed into a feature of the prosecution against Assange. The march of time whittles away at Assange while cold-blooded authorities keep him in arbitrary detention.

Assange was 38 years of age when WikiLeaks garnered praise for publishing disclosures from US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Assange was an ardent, nimble, and sharp-witted advocate for the truth. But at 52, Assange is increasingly frail as delays in proceedings compound physical and mental health problems that he must endure in Belmarsh prison.

President Joe Biden’s administration may prefer the limbo to an unprecedented trial that will invite global condemnation. No Biden official has expressed any reservations when it comes to charging Assange.

Biden officials still sidestep reporters, who ask why the US government won’t drop the charges against Assange. Biden’s National Security Council spokesperson said in October, “This is something the Justice Department is handling, and I think it’s better if you go to them on that.”

But the State Department has not always been so disciplined. On World Press Freedom Day in 2023, State Department spokesperson Verdant Patel endorsed the prosecution that was launched under President Donald Trump.

“The State Department thinks that Mr. Assange has been charged with serious criminal conduct in the United States, in connection with his alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in our nation’s history. His actions risked serious harm to U.S. national security to the benefit of our adversaries,” Patel stated.

Patel added, “It put named human sources to grave and imminent risk and risk of serious physical harm and arbitrary detention.”

What the State Department uttered was familiar. This is how officials responded when WikiLeaks first published US diplomatic cables in 2010.

To be clear, Assange’s “role” was that of a publisher who received documents from Manning and engaged in standard newsgathering activities.

A 2011 Associated Press review of sources, whom the State Department claimed were most at risk from publication of the cables, uncovered no evidence that any person was threatened. In fact, the potential for harm was “strictly theoretical.”

Despite the stagnation of the case against Assange, an international movement to free him has only grown stronger. Lawmakers in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Mexico sent letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding an end to the case.

Twenty unions affiliated with the European Federation of Journalists showed solidarity by granting Assange honorary membership in each of their organizations.

On March 4, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that he hoped the British courts would block extradition, which is remarkable given Germany’s status as a powerful NATO country.

More significantly, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese backed a motion passed by the Australian Parliament that called on the US government—a close military and intelligence partner—to “bring the matter to a close” so that Assange may return home to his country.

Assange is one of the world’s most well-known political prisoners. If the US government puts the WikiLeaks founder on trial, it will not only threaten the First Amendment in the United States but also imperil investigative journalism everywhere around the world.

It is unlikely that the legal system in the United Kingdom or the United States will save us from the damage to global press freedom that officials are inflicting on our collective rights. To prevent further damage, we will have to find a way to shame the US government into abandoning the case. Otherwise, even more of us may find ourselves prosecuted for committing acts of journalism.

Kevin Gosztola is the author of Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange from Censored Press and Seven Stories Press. He edits and publishes “The Dissenter” newsletter, which regularly covers press freedom, whistleblowing, and government secrecy at The Dissenter.