A heroic campaigner for transparency, fearless in the face of authority or a dangerous criminal, willfully undermining Western security. Few world figures are as polarizing as Julian Assange. Appearing before a British court this week, the 48-year-old is fighting US extradition attempts — the latest twist in a saga of leaks, diplomatic loopholes, and running from the law.
Assange: Speaking Truth-to-Power or Undermining National Security?
It’s been almost a decade since Assange first stormed world headlines, releasing rafts of classified US government material on his WikiLeaks website. The content was chilling: alleged evidence of torture, civilian deaths, and clandestine military operations in the Middle East.
For many, it was a groundbreaking piece of truth-to-power journalism, exposing the barbarism of US foreign policy. But Washington took a different opinion. In cahoots with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, Assange had violated hacking and espionage laws, the White House said.
Assange’s Escape to Ecuadorian Embassy in London
It was, however, allegations of rape in Sweden that saw the net close around him. Convinced of a cynical ploy to silence him, Assange swerved arrest and holed himself up in London’s Ecuadorian embassy.
There he remained for seven years, before his unceremonious ejection in early 2019. Now, despite the Swedish charges being dropped, he faces extradition to the US. Assange’s personal liberty is at stake, but the case has wider implications, challenging both the principle of press freedom and US-UK relations.
America’s Argument: Assange ‘Put Lives at Risk’
Assange had “put lives at risk” with his leaks, American lawyers told the court on Monday. Specifically, informants feeding intelligence to the US military had been compromised by WikiLeaks’s exposé, marking them out for retribution.
Carrying a 175-year prison term, the charges couldn’t be more serious. But Assange’s defense will be robust. To find him guilty would risk criminalizing investigative reporting, his lawyer argued on Monday. Hacking may not be standard journalistic procedure — but shedding light on alleged American war crimes requires drastic measures.
Journalist Watchdog: Assange Extradition Would Be ‘Body Blow’ to Press Freedom
Unsurprisingly, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) agrees. “The extradition of Julian Assange to the United States to stand trial for his groundbreaking work with WikiLeaks would deal a body blow to First Amendment rights and press freedom,” said CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney.
His argument is clear: the US’s First Amendment — as it applies to the media — restrains the government from punishing the press for what it publishes, a safeguard to protect journalistic freedom.
Crucially, however, it offers no protection to journalists who acquire their information illegally. This is what the US government alleges, that Assange conspired explicitly with Manning to steal the classified documents. With Manning currently behind bars for WikiLeaks-related offences, Assange has good reason to fear extradition to the US.
Assange’s Legal Team Accuses Trump of Quid Pro Quo
Pre-empting this eventuality, his legal team has sought to link their client to Donald Trump, telling the court that the president had — via an intermediary — offered to pardon Assange. The price? Testimony from the WikiLeaks man that Russia had played no part in the 2016 election.
It would’ve been a bold move by Trump, but one not without logic. He has long been plagued by allegations of complicity in a Russian campaign to undermine his presidential rival Hillary Clinton. With WikiLeaks named among the outlets used to disseminate the compromising information, Assange’s denial would go far to quash any notion that such a campaign existed.
Still, the president has little love for press freedom, and his staff were quick to deny the claim.
Sore Spot: US-UK Relations and Extradition
Trump will have a harder time ignoring the case’s implications for UK-US relations. Last year, a young British man named Harry Dunn was killed by a car allegedly driven by Anne Sacoolas, an American claiming diplomatic immunity.
Despite complaints from the UK government, the White House has been clear: Sacoolas will not be extradited. That Washington is now demanding Assange be handed over, a glaring hypocrisy has emerged — one that has Brits furious and threatens already tense transatlantic relations.
How great a bearing this tension will have on the case, it’s hard to say. It’ll be months before a decision is reached, and appeals are likely to follow.