A pyrrhic victory?
This week, controversial Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's struggle against the US justice system appears to have moved closer to some kind of conclusion. Assange won a relatively small but vital victory when a British judge denied the US request to extradite Assange to face US courts. It is vital to note here that the UK judge, in fact, supported the US side on almost every single aspect of the case. The judge rejected claims that the case was politically motivated, that it was an assault on press freedom or that he (Assange) would not get a fair trial. Indeed, the only reason he was apparently not extradited is that the judge thought he was a suicide risk if he was sent to a prison in the US.
To be certain, Assange has always been held as a polarising public figure. A proponent of absolute freedom of the press, Assange initially enjoyed a vaunted status amongst liberal media circles which saw his work and his website as a symbol of the media's fight against the darkness of society. This was until the 2011 Wikileaks dump which had 251,000 secret US diplomatic cables without any redactions. This, of course, exposed thousands of people who were mentioned in the documents to risks of prosecution or/and harm. Following this dump, Wikileaks' many media partners quickly abandoned ship as they condemned the cables that were not first vetted and edited by a collaborative process. Many journalists indeed later took affront to the idea that Wikileaks was suddenly being considered an unfairly oppressed news organisation. For many, Assange was never a journalist and his 2011 cable dump proved exactly that. Assange did not take the time or make an effort to sort through the cables and identify sensitive material that could endanger the lives of others. In short, he neglected to exercise the responsibility that journalism attaches to the release of sensitive information. This was not the first time bombastic revelations had come through the way of large scale document leaks. News organisations have a history of handling such leaks where the organisation or organisations spend months and years at a stretch uncovering the relevant information while trying to limit the collateral damage.
But this does not mean that Assange's case is not about press freedom in a real sense. The underlying factor here is the same regardless of whether Assange is a journalist or not. The implications of the UK ruling made clear that the judge did not see the case as a danger to journalism and journalists engaged in their role as watchdogs of society. The case ignored the implications of such a ruling on the fate of all journalists and their sources as they try to hold those in power responsible. This is precisely why the Obama administration hesitated with prosecuting Assange in the first place. Whatever you could charge him with, you could charge any other journalist who releases confidential documents with the same (regardless of journalistic due diligence). Media circles in the US are now expressing fears that Assange may the US's way to set a precedent for prosecuting every journalist that has ever willingly or unwillingly come in possession of a secret document. Thus, while this ruling to keep Assange from being extradited for now may be a victory for him, it isn't a moment of celebration for press freedom.
For Assange himself, the fight is hardly over. The US has vowed to appeal the decision, a process that will bog down his legal team's attempts to seek bail for Assange. By reasonable estimations of the legal hoops involved, experts say that he will not be a free man any time soon with the process dragging on for months and even years. In the days before the changing of the US administration, Assange's ultimate fate is even harder to predict. There was expectation earlier that Trump may pardon Assange for his role in releasing the infamous Hilary Clinton emails. Biden has previously taken a stern view of Assange in his time as Vice President but has not weighed in on the matter in the current context. If all else fails, Mexico has indicated that it would be willing to provide political asylum for Assange. The plan may have to wait some time, however, as Assange was denied his bail request on grounds that he is a significant flight risk. His fight for freedom will continue in jail.