Everything at stake in the extradition of Assange the inconvenient

Everything at stake in the extradition of Assange, the inconvenient symbol of press freedom | International

It's not just Julian Assange's future that is at stake if he is extradited to the United States for alleged violations of the 1917 Espionage Act. Rather, it is about freedom of the press, say the editors of the newspaper, which in 2010 published the revelations about American foreign policy in collaboration with WikiLeaks, the organization founded by Assange.

The revelations could cost Assange extradition and possible conviction on charges of obtaining and disseminating classified U.S. government information. But the costs could go beyond his personal case, say those who 14 years ago headed the editorial staff of Der Spiegel and Le Monde, The Guardian, The New York Times and EL PAÍS, newspapers that had obtained the 251,000 diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks received , examined, verified and contextualized.

“Sometimes we are not primarily defending a person or their actions, but rather a principle,” says Georg Mascolo, editor of the German weekly Der Spiegel. “If that [la extradición y condena de Assange en EE UU] is successful, I don't understand why I or my colleagues at EL PAÍS, Le Monde, The Guardian or The New York Times should not be prosecuted.

EL PAÍS interviewed Mascolo and his colleagues after this week's hearings at the High Court of Justice of England and Wales, which will decide whether or not Assange can continue to appeal his extradition to the United States in the United Kingdom. The five they agree on the impact that extraditing the Wikileaks co-founder would have and a sentence that his lawyers say could be up to 175 years in prison for the 18 violations he is accused of.

“A terrible idea,” summed up Bill Keller, who ran the New York Times in 2010. “The relationship between Julian and the directors who worked together to publish the information we received from WikiLeaks was delicate,” he admits. “He was not easy to deal with, but that does not justify criminalizing journalism, which means using the Espionage Act against Assange.”

From left to right: directors Bill Keller (“The New York Times”), Alan Rusbridger (“The Guardian”), George Mascolo (“The Mirror”), Javier Moreno (“EL PAÍ S”) and Sylvie Kauffmann (“ “Le Monde”).  '), in 2011.From left to right: directors Bill Keller (“The New York Times”), Alan Rusbridger (“The Guardian”), George Mascolo (“The Mirror”), Javier Moreno (“EL PAÍ S”) and Sylvie Kauffmann (“ “Le Monde”). '), in 2011.CLAUDIO à LVAREZ

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The Espionage Act was passed in the United States during World War I. It was intended for spies and traitors. It has never been used to incriminate a newspaper editor before. Although Assange is not, nor is he a journalist in the traditional sense, the revelations he is accused of were published in traditional and reputable media and underwent a rigorous editing and selection process.

“I think that his extradition and of course the subsequent verdict would have serious consequences for press freedom,” said Sylvie Kauffmann, editor of the French newspaper Le Monde for 14 years and leader of the effort to publish the book News from the WikiLeaks Documents.

Javier Moreno, the then director of EL PAÍS, emphasizes: “The precedent it opens is brutal.” The message to citizens is: “Be prepared, because we are heading towards a world in which things we “We took for granted or guaranteed will no longer be the case.”

“Whatever you think about Assange, the precedent is dangerous,” agrees Alan Rusbridger of Britain’s The Guardian. “[La extradición] “It would lead to intimidation of people who wanted to publish this type of news.”

More than a decade without freedom

The English journey of Assange, a 52-year-old Australian citizen, began when he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition demands from Sweden, where he was under investigation for rape in 2019. He spent seven years until he was deported . He was later sentenced to nearly a year in prison for violating his probation in the Swedish case. And he has spent the last five years in the high-security Belmarsh prison, also in London, waiting for the extradition request to the United States to be resolved.

In 2019, when Donald Trump was in the White House, the US justice system accused Assange of involvement in the theft of diplomatic cables and other secret documents in 2010. The accusation was later expanded to include, among other things, the publication of these documents.

The expanded accusation — not just of stealing secret documents but also publishing them — is worrying media directors and investigative journalists. In the future, the Espionage Act could also apply to traditional media and impact their daily work.

After the 2010 revelations, Wikileaks continued to publish private and secret documents on its own, without the cooperation of the reference media mentioned above. In 2016, he published emails about then-candidate for the 2016 US presidential election, Democrat Hillary Clinton, which were allegedly obtained from people linked to Russian intelligence services. In the middle of the election campaign they were a help to the Republican Trump.

The discussion about the true nature of those responsible for WikiLeaks finds its origins in conversations with former newspaper editors. Hacker? Activist? Journalist? Press entrepreneur and publisher of WikiLeaks? Whistleblower or Whistleblower in English? Simple source of information? Or even an agent (voluntary or involuntary) of Vladimir Putin's Russia?

“I can't speak for all directors, but I don't think any of us saw him as a colleague,” says Keller. “It was a well. A sensitive source that had to be handled with care.” At the same time, he specifies: “I try to be a little modest when I decide who becomes a journalist.” Is Tucker Carlson [el presentador de televisión favorable a Trump que recientemente entrevistó a Putin]? Trading disinformation. He is a propagandist, most recently for Putin.

“[Assange] “He defies classification, he is like an actor: sometimes an editor, sometimes a journalist, sometimes an activist, sometimes a businessman,” claims Rusbridger. “But he is being prosecuted for his work as an editor [de un medio] and there is no doubt that he behaved like a journalist when the five newspapers worked with him.”

Moreno points out: “It is true that Assange is an inconvenient character, an inconvenient victim, not easy to defend, a character with his rough edges, complicated.” And, adds the former director of EL PAÍS, it There is “a degree of separation” between the work Assange and his colleagues do and that of the journalists at the newspapers they run. But he qualifies: “This degree of separation does not seem reassuring to me (…).” We are not the same, but between us, between him and the journalists who wrote with the roles he took on, there is a huge ocean . These are of course different things. But are they different enough that we can stay calm if something happens to him? I would say no; neither us nor democracy in general.

Fourteen years ago, the five who led their editorial teams and teams of specialists had to decide which of the tens of thousands of documents might be newsworthy and how they should be published. They had to assess whether they were endangering the security of their country or their people and compare them.

Mascolo recalls that in 2010 he and his colleagues had many discussions with Assange about how far they could go in releasing the cables, “and there were undoubtedly differences of opinion.” “But the accusation is simply a mistake and very dangerous,” he concludes.

“Julian Assange is a symbol, an imperfect symbol,” describes Kauffman, who remembers an atypical character from that time, but also that the relationship was right. Then there were what she calls “strange deviations.” “Russian drift is one of them,” he says. “It was a mistake on their part: they didn't have to work with RT [la cadena pública rusa]†.

But the French journalist insists on the significance of the 2010 revelations. “The US government was angry, which is understandable, but it was a work of public benefit,” she says. “The national security of the United States was not jeopardized. Instead, it provided an extraordinary amount of very instructive information about how American diplomacy and relations with other countries worked.

The Wikileaks papers: every diplomat's nightmare

The list of revelations of 2010, ranging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the cuisine of diplomacy, is long. Eleven years before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, WikiLeaks reports reported rampant corruption in the Western-backed Afghan government. They showed how Saudi Arabian money financed terrorist groups or how the US government ordered espionage against the UN Secretary General himself.

The WikiLeaks papers, Moreno wrote at the time, “expose comprehensively, as certainly never before, the extent to which the political classes in the advanced democracies of the West have deceived their citizens.” In the Guardian, historian Timothy Garton described Ash she said: “Every historian’s dream.” Every diplomat’s nightmare. And he asked himself: “How can diplomacy be carried out under these conditions?” That is, knowing that private communications could become public at any time.

“We strongly condemn the unauthorized disclosure of classified and sensitive national security information,” the White House responded in 2010. The president was Barack Obama, but his administration avoided denouncing Assange. He explained that if they had done so, they would have had to denounce the media journalists who published the news. “Their position placed great value on freedom of the press despite the unpleasant consequences,” said an open letter the five published in 2022. The Trump administration changed its mind.

Above all, this information sheds light on the darkness – sometimes embarrassing; others, fascinating – about the inner mechanics of the world. It seemed as if the digital revolution was heralding a new era of transparency, but two years later Keller warned in an article: “In fact (…) the exact opposite is the case.” Yes, after Assange and Wikileaks came Edward in 2013 Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency. But the 2010 action had its reaction, in the form of a setback in transparency or a harsh hand against the leakers or against Assange.

Rusbridger claims that after Assange and Snowden, “governments are trying to stop.” [el periodismo sobre secretos de seguridad nacional] and to make it impossible through severe sanctions and the use of laws not designed to prevent the work of the press.”

Given the hypothesis that Assange will be extradited and convicted, Keller explains: “This is not the end of journalism, but undoubtedly it will make a type of journalism more difficult.” And this at a time when we need investigative journalism more than ever The former New York Times director adds: “These are difficult times for journalism.” The business model is complicated. The market is flooded with entertainment news, propaganda and misinformation. And in several countries there are authoritarian regimes that persecute the press. Adding the Espionage Act to the arsenal of attacks on the press is a big mistake that will have consequences.”

Fourteen years later, none of the five journalists are still responsible for the newspapers that published the exclusive Wikileaks release. Keller is retired after founding the nonprofit The Marshall Project, writing books and teaching courses in prisons. Moreno heads the journalism school UAM-EL PAÃ S. Mascolo continues to work as a journalist, as does Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director of Le Monde. Rusbridger is editor of Prospect magazine. And Assange is waiting for the judges' decision. He can either appeal again in the United Kingdom or be extradited to the United States, although he will still have the option of appealing to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

“This man,” notes Moreno, “has already been imprisoned in one way or another for twelve years.” If he is now extradited and sentenced to 175 years in prison, everything would have been so that the readers of this newspaper and others would have read the articles , which they read, could have read. You have to think about that.”

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