Lawyers for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange have confirmed that they have received a warrant and a provisional extradition request from the United States. The US indictment charges Assange with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for his role assisting whistleblower Chelsea Manning to leak US government information including evidence of civilian deaths and potential war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Emily Howie, a Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that whilst the central charge in the indictment relates to computer hacking, the underlying allegations cited in support of that charge include many acts that are part and parcel of journalistic practice including encouraging sources to provide information and using encryption.
“Governments may be uncomfortable about journalists exposing wrongdoing, but that’s precisely why a free press is absolutely vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy. To the extent the Assange prosecution endeavours to criminalise standard practices of journalism, it sets an alarming precedent,” said Ms Howie.
Although having concerns about WikiLeaks’ disclosure of details exposing human rights defenders and other individuals, Ms Howie said that Assange’s arrest is part of a worrying global trend of cracking down on public interest journalism and whistleblowers, including in Australia.
“It’s worrying that instead of responding to the serious concerns raised by whistleblowers, too often the response from government is to shoot the messenger,” said Ms Howie.
In recent years, Australian authorities have investigated Save the Children whistleblowers for exposing abuse of children on Nauru and police unlawfully accessed a journalist’smetadata to find the confidential sources of asylum seeker stories. Right now the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions is prosecuting Witness K and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, for their role in revealing that Australia was spying on its ally, East Timor, for economic gain during oil and gas negotiations. Former ATO employee Richard Boyle is facing 161 years imprisonment for disclosing unethical tax recovery practices that have since been reformed.
“Australia’s crackdown on whistleblowers is a threat to press freedom. There is simply no room in our modern democracy for reprisals against people who expose wrongdoing in the public interest. People like Witness K should be encouraged and rewarded, instead they are being prosecuted,” said Ms Howie.
The Human Rights Law Centre is calling on the Australian Government to confirm its commitment to openness and transparency in government and to do everything within its powers to ensure Assange, as an Australian citizen, receives fair and proper treatment.
“Whatever your views on Assange or Wikileaks, everyone should be concerned about the impact that Assange’s extradition to the US will have on press freedom globally. We urge Attorney General Christian Porter and Shadow Attorney Mark Dreyfus to publicly call out US laws that criminalise whistle blowing and journalism in the public interest, and commit to similarly improving Australia’s laws if they are elected,” said Ms Howie.
Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519