Is the blocking of Julian Assange's extradition to the US a victory for free speech?

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By Katy Dartford  with AP
Julian Assange supporters celebrate outside the Old Bailey in London
Julian Assange supporters celebrate outside the Old Bailey in London   -  Copyright  Frank Augstein/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press

The decision by a British court not to extradite the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States on espionage charges should be a relief to those interested in defending freedom of speech, according to Alan Rusbridger, the former editor-in-chief of the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Rusbridger, who now chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, and is on the Facebook Oversight Board was once one of Assange's biggest critics, calling him “a narcissistic egomaniac.”

But now he has warned that the US case against Assange should be a concern to all journalists.

"I've always said I'd stand by him for the stuff that we published together and while we've had our difference as people and indeed the way we did the story, I don't think it's appropriate to use the espionage act, which is basically about spying, to punish acts of journalism."

US prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse – charges carrying a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

Lawyers for the 49-year-old Australian argue that he was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech for publishing leaked documents that exposed US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

'The thin end of a very dangerous wedge'

For Rusbridger, the charges are for things that journalists recognisably do.

"Here we have an Australian journalist being prosecuted in the United Kingdom over the secrecy laws of the United States. Well, suppose an Australian journalist wanted to write about the Israeli nuclear weapons programme or the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme for example and a country were to use this attempted precedent to try and get somebody into jail in Pakistan or Israel for breaking local secrecy laws. I think anyone can see that's the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

"So whilst the judgment wasn't very sympathetic to Julian Assange, I'm very glad that in the end, the judge ruled he shouldn't be extradited to the United States."

In the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations, several countries have toughened up laws over reporting on national security matters. Some argue that this is sensible in the digital age, where it is far harder to keep information under lock and key.

"The problem is when states complain about these kinds of journalistic activities, it's embarrassment rather than security," Rusbridger told Euronews.

"When states cite the national interest as a reason to suppress publication you have to treat that very carefully."