1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A blow for Julian Assange and for press freedom

von Hein Matthias Kommentarbild App
Matthias von Hein
December 10, 2021

Journalism is not a crime. But now a court in London has ruled that Julian Assange's extradition to the United States is legal. It's a devastating day for press freedom, writes Matthias von Hein.

Julian Assange greets supporters outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London in May 2017
The US persecution of Julian Assange is a stain on the world's democraciesImage: Frank Augstein/AP/picture alliance

This is a bad day for Julian Assange, but it doesn't stop there. It's a bad day for journalists worldwide, a bad day for press freedom, and a bad day for transparency and the oversight of governments.

In a bitter twist of irony, a court in London has essentially paved the way for Assange's prosecution on Human Rights Day — of all days. And how ironic that it happened on the day two journalists were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Last, but not least, it coincided with the second day of the Summit on Democracy organized by US President Joe Biden.

Just ahead of the summit, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the media's "indispensable role" when it comes to informing the public and holding governments accountable. "The US will continue to support the courageous and necessary work of journalists around the world," he said.

How that claim can be reconciled with the persecution of the WikiLeaks founder and threats of up to 175 years in prison for alleged espionage, and for publishing secret documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is anyone's guess.

Those documents prove the US committed war crimes. Yet so far, no one has been held accountable. Instead, a vendetta has been unleashed against the journalist to whom the world owes those revelations.

Authoritarian regimes are watching closely

Numerous organizations have campaigned for Assange's release: Amnesty International; Reporters Without Borders; Human Rights Watch, and the International Federation of Journalists with its 600,000 members worldwide.

DW editor Matthias von Hein
DW editor Matthias von Hein

They are all witness to his suffering, his isolation in a maximum security prison. And they see the danger his persecution poses to press freedom worldwide. Authoritarian regimes are already deflecting condemnation of their treatment of critical journalists by pointing to Assange.

Technically, the appeal hearing was about Assange's suicide risk in the event of extradition to the US. That risk was considered high in the first instance and had persuaded the court to reject an earlier extradition request.

Guarantees have been made that Assange will not be held under the inhumane prison conditions described by witnesses during a previous trial.

However, revelations made public by a team of investigative journalists about assassination plans concocted by the former US administration under Donald Trump make a mockery of those guarantees.

Pinochet in a villa, Assange in prison

Assange's defense team will appeal the verdict and the case will drag on. But Assange shouldn't have to endure the further proceedings sitting in a prison cell.

He should be released immediately and placed under house arrest. In other cases, the British legal system has done exactly that. The most prominent example is the case of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet — a man responsible for the executions of thousands of regime opponents. When Spain demanded his extradition at the end of the 1990s, he was allowed to spend the 16 months of the proceedings enjoying the comforts of a villa south of London — until he was released.

We're constantly hearing how Western democracies are in competition with autocratic systems. If Biden is serious about that, he should strive to be better than the world's dictators. Commitment to free journalism starts on our own doorstep. The US must end its persecution of Assange. It is a stain on the world's democracies.

This article was translated from the original German.