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Press Freedom Advocates Celebrate Julian Assange’s Release, But Warn of Impact of Plea Deal

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We discuss the plea deal and release of Julian Assange with press freedom advocate Trevor Timm. “Thankfully, Julian Assange is finally going free today, but the press freedom implications remain to be seen,” says Timm, who explains the U.S. espionage case against Assange, which was opened under the Trump administration and continued under Biden. Timm expresses disappointment that Biden chose to continue prosecuting Assange rather than demonstrating his stated support of press freedom. If convicted, Assange could have been sentenced to 175 years in U.S. prison, which Timm calls a “ticking time bomb for press freedom rights.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

“Julian Assange is free.” That’s what his wife tweeted after he left the Belmarsh Prison in London Monday, having reached a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors that will allow him to soon head home to Australia, ending a more than decadelong legal ordeal. Julian is now flying to the U.S. territory island of Saipan in the North Marianas, where he will appear before a U.S. district judge. He will plead guilty to one felony. He faced 175 years in a United States prison.

As we continue our coverage, we’re joined in Sydney, Australia, by Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist, longtime supporter of WikiLeaks. And we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a group that’s long advocated for Julian’s release.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! We have spoken to you both about the issue of Julian for many years. Trevor, if you can talk about the significance of this moment, the fact that, I mean, in the last week, it looks like, this deal was negotiated?

TREVOR TIMM: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Amy.

You know, I think the first word that comes to mind is “relief.” This case was a ticking time bomb for press freedom rights in the United States. You know, the case wasn’t getting a ton of coverage in the mainstream media, so I think there was a misconception that Julian Assange, because he was charged under the Espionage Act, was charged with spying. But what the Espionage Act essentially says is that you can’t receive and obtain and publish government secrets. And, of course, that’s what journalists do in this country all the time when they’re covering national security, whenever they’re covering policy. And so, thankfully, we’ve avoided the worst-case scenario, which would have been a court precedent, in a conviction in court, which then would have bound other judges potentially in future cases against other journalists.

But I am still worried about this guilty plea, because the one charge that Julian Assange was — is, essentially, pleading guilty to is a conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act. And so, while there won’t be a legal precedent, there might be a practical precedent in the sense of future federal prosecutors might feel emboldened, now that they know that they’ve secured a guilty plea against a publisher, to go after others. You know, it’s possible, even though judges won’t to be able to cite this case or won’t be bound by this case, that they will know that it has occurred. And so, you know, I still think that the press freedom implications are potentially worrying and that we’re going to need to keep an eye on them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Trevor, why do you think the Biden administration didn’t just drop this case? Why did they continue to pursue it so persistently?

TREVOR TIMM: I mean, it’s really shameful that the Biden administration has kept up this case for so many years. You know, at Freedom of the Press Foundation, we organized a huge coalition of every major civil liberties organization, press freedom organization and human rights organization in the country. And, you know, in the first few weeks of the attorney general being in office, we denounced the case and implored them to drop it. And that coalition repeated its call pretty much every six months for the last three years.

You know, President Biden has gone out of his way to talk about how journalism is not a crime and that he respects press freedom, yet this case has essentially been hanging over journalists for the entire time they’ve been in office. They absolutely should have dropped it when they came into office. And you know what? They could have dropped it yesterday, and Julian Assange could have served the same amount of time in prison.

They seem to have wanted a symbolic victory, which, again, you know, could potentially hang over the heads of national security journalists for years. And, you know, don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame Julian Assange for taking this deal at all. He’s been through an incredibly harsh ordeal himself. But I do blame the Obama — or, sorry, the Biden administration. And, you know, I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt them and haunt us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk some also about the conditions of Julian’s confinement in Belmarsh?

TREVOR TIMM: You know, I think I just know from media reports that Julian has suffered from, you know, a series of serious medical conditions and has been isolated for long periods of time when he’s been there.

You know, we have to remember that this case started during the Trump administration, and the Obama administration actually refused to prosecute Julian Assange, for the exact reason that we’re talking about now. Eric Holder in the Attorney General’s Office during the Obama administration, you know, was reported to talk about the fact that there was this, quote-unquote, ”New York Times problem,” that it would be impossible to prosecute Julian Assange without then affecting newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post, who, of course, also have reporters who talk to sources within the government, who ask them for documents, who receive documents and then publish documents that the government considers classified. So the Obama administration actually rejected this case, despite not liking Julian Assange at all. The Trump administration revived it. And unfortunately, the Biden administration has continued it on for three years. And, you know, again, thankfully, Julian Assange is finally going free today. But the press freedom implications, I think, remain to be seen.

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Journalist Antony Loewenstein on Assange’s Release, WikiLeaks & Israeli Drones Killing Gaza Reporters

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