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Julian Assange’s Release “Averted a Press Freedom Catastrophe” But Still Set Bad Precedent: Jameel Jaffer

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As Julian Assange returns to his native Australia, press rights advocates warn that his case could cast a long shadow over journalists’ work to investigate and expose government secrets. The WikiLeaks founder has pleaded guilty to one charge of violating the U.S. Espionage Act as part of a deal with the Justice Department that lets him avoid further prison time following five years behind bars in the U.K. awaiting possible extradition to the U.S. He had been facing a possible 175 years in U.S. prison if convicted on all charges related to his publication of classified documents in 2010 that revealed U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I don’t think this is an unmitigated victory for press freedom, because we do still have this plea agreement in which Julian Assange essentially agrees that he has spent five years in custody for the kinds of acts that journalists engage in all the time,” says Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and previously the ACLU’s deputy legal director.

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StoryJun 25, 2024Press Freedom Advocates Celebrate Julian Assange’s Release, But Warn of Impact of Plea Deal
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Jameel Jaffer, into the conversation, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Jameel, your reaction to the latest news and Julian Assange’s freedom, and specifically if you could talk about the impact of the High Court decision in the U.K. on May 20th that probably pressured, as well, the U.S. government to reach a deal?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know what ultimately persuaded the U.S. government to make this deal. I do think it’s a great thing for press freedom that we have avoided a judicial ruling from an American court on the scope of the Espionage Act and the scope of the First Amendment, because from the beginning there has been this real concern among press freedom advocates about the possible implications of this case for journalism. You know, the indictment charges — the indictment, that included multiple counts under the Espionage Act, charges Julian Assange with having solicited government secrets and having published secrets, published government secrets. Those are things that journalists do all the time, that news organizations need to do if they are going to play the role that we want them to play in our democracies. And so, the concern was always that if this case went to an American court, an American court would rule or might rule that the Espionage Act made that kind of activity illegal and that the First Amendment didn’t protect that kind of activity. And that would have had, obviously, catastrophic implications for Julian Assange, but it would have also had catastrophic implications for press freedom more broadly. So we have avoided that possibility, and that is something worth celebrating.

I guess, you know, one thing I would add, though, is, I don’t think this is an unmitigated victory for press freedom, because we do still have this plea agreement in which Julian Assange essentially agrees that he has spent five years in custody for the kinds of acts that journalists engage in, again, all the time. And while this plea agreement doesn’t have the same kind of judicial sanction that a judicial opinion on the scope of the Espionage Act and the scope of the First Amendment would have, it still is a kind of political precedent. It’s a precedent that some future administration could point to in bringing this kind of case again. And it’s a precedent that other countries can, and inevitably will, point to to justify their own abuses relating to press freedom. So, not an unmitigated victory, but still we’ve averted a press freedom catastrophe, I would say.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jameel, you heard Stella Moris Assange, Julian’s wife and also a human rights lawyer, that last clip we played, where she said, “We are now seeking a pardon.” What does that mean?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Well, I mean, this is on Julian Assange’s record, right? There is a conviction, that, you know, has a kind of formal legal status, and a pardon would vacate that conviction. You know, in terms of the legacy of this case for press freedom, I do think it would be better if this case had never been brought in the first place. You know, that’s, I think, every —

AMY GOODMAN: And this was a bipartisan affair. From one administration to the next, they brought these — 


AMY GOODMAN: — charges against Julian Assange.

JAMEEL JAFFER: That’s true, although, as you know, it is a complicated story, because the Obama administration considered bringing these charges, decided against it, because they were concerned about the implications for press freedom. The Trump administration then filed the charges.

AMY GOODMAN: Even though President Trump, when he was running for president, said, “I love WikiLeaks,” repeatedly.

JAMEEL JAFFER: That’s right. But, you know, I think that President Trump saw the press freedom implications as a positive thing about this case. You know, part of the reason the Trump administration wanted to bring this case was because they saw it as an opportunity to curtail press freedom. And then the Biden administration inherited the case, but then pursued the extradition for three years. So, yes, it’s bipartisan, but it’s a complicated story. My guess is that the Biden administration will be thrilled to have this case behind them. I don’t think that they wanted this case to be part of their legacy in the way that the Trump administration did.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jameel, if that is so, why did they pursue it, even though, for instance, the Biden administration announced in 2022 that it was going to limit the use of subpoenas against the press?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think they should have pursued it. And my institute, the Knight Institute, repeatedly asked them to drop the charges. But it is also true that the Biden administration resolved this case yesterday, and I think that’s — you know, that’s a sign that the Biden administration didn’t want the case to be part of its legacy.

I don’t want to give the Biden administration too much credit here, because they did require Assange to agree to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge. And as I said, that plea agreement creates a kind of political precedent. This is the first time that the Justice Department has successfully held a publisher liable under the Espionage Act. And that is a precedent that I think will be used by future administrations, and it’s a precedent that will be used by other countries, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Jameel, it is interesting. As this case begins to be resolved and Julian Assange is a free man, though he had to plead guilty to publishing what was called illegally publishing national security information, you have Evan Gershkovich in Russia —


AMY GOODMAN: — right? — who’s charged with attempting to publish state secrets.


AMY GOODMAN: There’s an interesting parallel here.

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, part of the concern about this case, the Assange case, is that it made it a lot more difficult for American government officials to champion press freedom in other contexts. And I think Evan’s case is one of them. There are many others, in which the message of the American government in favor of press freedom is complicated by the government’s own actions in this particular case.

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to see all our interviews with Julian Assange over the years, back to when he was wearing an ankle bracelet and under home arrest when we went to London to speak with him, then in the Ecuadorian Embassy for seven years, finally for five years he was in the Belmarsh prison, you can go to democracynow.org.

We want to thank Jameel Jaffer, Knight First Amendment director at Columbia University, and Peter Whish-Wilson, Australian Greens senator who co-founded the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, speaking to us from Canberra, the capital of Australia.

When we come back, at least 22 people have been killed in Kenya as police opened fire Tuesday on growing protests against a bill to raise taxes. We’ll speak with a number of people, along with President Obama’s half-sister Auma Obama, who was tear-gassed by the police yesterday in the streets. Stay with us.

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