"Let me be very clear: This case is about journalism," said a campaigner with Reporters Without Borders. "It is about press freedom. If they make an exception of Julian Assange, the rule will be broken."
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange marched the streets of central London on Wednesday demanding his immediate release after U.S. government lawyers argued to the British High Court that the journalist should be extradited across the Atlantic to face espionage charges.
"How pathetic the U.S. case is," Stella Assange, the WikiLeaks founder's wife, told a crowd gathered outside Wednesday's court hearing, which represents the final legal avenue in the United Kingdom to prevent his extradition to the U.S.
"What they're trying argue is that state secrets trump revealing state crimes," Stella Assange said of U.S. lawyers. "This is the balance they're trying to shift. They want impunity, they don't want to be scrutinized, and journalism stands in the way."
BREAKING: @Stella_Assange explains the arguments laid out by the prosecution#FreeAssangeNOW pic.twitter.com/60M286NkMb
— Free Assange - #FreeAssange (@FreeAssangeNews) February 21, 2024
A decision in the case—which will decide whether Julian Assange can appeal his extradition—could be weeks, or even months, away.
If the British High Court rules that Assange can't appeal, his legal team is expected to ask the European Court of Human Rights to halt his extradition to the U.S., where Assange faces 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act and a possible 175-year prison sentence.
United Nations experts, international human rights groups, and even one British judge have argued that extradition to the U.S. would put the 52-year-old publisher's life at grave risk. Assange was unable to attend this week's hearings or even follow them virtually due to his poor health, his lawyers said.
But global calls from
press freedom groups, the government of Assange's home country, and others for the U.S. Justice Department to drop the case and let the publisher go free have not moved the Biden administration, which decided to continue pursuing Assange's extradition after inheriting the case from the Trump administration—whose CIA reportedly considered kidnapping or assassinating the WikiLeaks founder.
During Wednesday's hearing, the U.S. government's lawyers
argued that Assange's decision to seek out and publish classified U.S. documents—some of which exposed American war crimes—went "far beyond" what could be characterized as journalistic conduct, an argument that many journalists have rejected.
"It is impossible to overstate the dangerous precedent Mr. Assange's indictment under the Espionage Act and possible extradition sets: Every national security journalist who reports on classified information now faces possible Espionage Act charges," Laura Poitras, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, wrote in a New York Timesop-ed in 2020. "It paves the way for the United States government to indict other international journalists and publishers. And it normalizes other countries' prosecution of journalists from the United States as spies."
Assange's lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, similarly argued during the first day of the closely watched hearings on Tuesday that Assange is "being prosecuted for engaging in [the] ordinary journalistic practice of obtaining and publishing classified information, information that is both true and of obvious and important public interest."
Thousands marched through the streets to the office of the UK Prime Minister in Downing Street following the conclusion of Julian Assange's court hearing today, calling for his immediate release | via @MintPressNews #FreeAssange #FreeAssangeNOW pic.twitter.com/YIpjdoT65j
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) February 21, 2024
Rebecca Vincent, director of campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, said following Wednesday's hearing that "in these past two days, we have heard nothing new from the U.S. government."
"We have heard them double down on the same arguments that they've been making for 13 years," said Vincent. "Let me be very clear: This case is about journalism. It is about press freedom. If they make an exception of Julian Assange, the rule will be broken—and no one, no journalist, no publisher, no journalistic source, no media organization can ever be confident that their rights will be respected again."