The “elephant in the room” at attorney general Mark Dreyfus’ press freedoms roundtable this Monday is going to be Julian Assange, as any discussion on countering the erosion of local media protections will be left wanting without addressing his plight, the Assange Campaign is pointing out.
Criticisms have already been levelled at the forum, as it will preference the participation of media giants, like News Corp and Nine, over that of small independent news outlets, which will be left out in the cold.
But considering the chief threat to press freedoms on the global stage is the ongoing prosecution and persecution of Assange, who also happens to be an Australian, to leave the WikiLeaks founder unrepresented or even unaddressed at the forum is to give the roundtable an air of the Kafkaesque.
“The Albanese government believes a strong and independent media is vital to democracy and holding governments to account,” remarked Dreyfus on announcing the roundtable. “Journalists should never face the prospect of being charged or even gaoled just for doing their jobs.”
And the irony in the chief lawmaker’s statement is brutal. Townsville-born Assange has been held in London’s Belmarsh Prison, as UK and US authorities deliberate upon his extradition, since April 2019, and with his health deteriorating, many consider that being sent to the States will mark his end.
For the crime of journalism
“You can’t have a discussion without talking about a high-profile Australian publisher who faces an effective death penalty, over 170 years in prison, for exposing war crimes and other activities of the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Assange Campaign legal advisor Greg Barns SC.
“His case is a threat to press freedom,” the lawyer continued. “It’s also a threat to press freedom because it amounts to the United States going after someone who has not set foot in the US, who is not an American citizen, but who’s published material, which it has deemed to be embarrassing.”
Assange published a series of what amounted to hundreds of thousands of classified US government and military documents over 2010 and 2011, which were leaked to him by former US army officer Chelsea Manning, who, whilst having spent time in prison, now lives freely in the United States.
And following the UK having taken the Australian into custody in 2019, over a charge of breach of bail, the US has been attempting to extradite Assange in relation to an 18 count indictment carrying a joint maximum penalty of up to 175 years prison time.
Seventeen of these charges are under the US Espionage Act 1917. And while the UK government has given the greenlight to extradition, there continues to be two final appeals pending.
“The extraterritorial reach of the proposed prosecution is so dangerous because, one day, it could be another Australian journalist or publisher who finds themselves on an extradition request,” Barns told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
Whilst in opposition in early 2021, PM Anthony Albanese stated “enough is enough” in relation to the ongoing legal attempts to prosecute Assange. And he’s since reiterated this position and explained that backdoor negotiations have been underway with foreign counterparts.
Indeed, foreign minister Penny Wong recently confirmed that “enough is enough” is the official position of the Labor government.
“We know that the prime minister is on the record saying he wants the matter brought to a quick resolution, and the attorney general has said similar things,” explained Barns.
“We’d like to see some form of resolution from those who are going to participate in the roundtable, asking the Australian government to move as quickly as it can to end the Assange case.”
The legal advisor added that those representing the Australian media at the 27 February roundtable should assert that the best way to protect and improve press freedoms in this country would be to call on Washington to drop the Assange prosecution.
Attacks on the fourth estate
Barns does welcome the attorney general’s roundtable, however, with the chance it provides to improve protections for journalists and publishers in this country, as press freedom “has been under attack in Australia for some years”.
In enacting the metadata retention regime in 2015, provisions were made to protect the identity of journalist’s sources via a warrant system. However, a 2017 Commonwealth Ombudsman inquiry found AFP officers had mistakenly accessed the data of journalists without a warrant, regardless.
Legal experts have pointed out that the Turnbull government’s 2018 espionage and foreign interference laws could potentially see a journalist imprisoned for life for prejudicing national security via the communication of classified information that reaches a foreign country.
And the notorious AFP press raids on a News Corp journalist and the ABC’s Sydney offices over a two day period in June 2019, in relation to both organisations having received and disseminated classified government information from third parties, were taken as a clear warning to media.
Support in high places
Successive Australian governments have shirked at providing Assange with assistance going back to his time when seeking asylum over seven years in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, while former PM Scott Morrison announced Julian wouldn’t be receiving “any special treatment” on his incarceration.
But Albanese stands out as a leader who has publicly questioned the ongoing treatment of an Australian son. He’s one of the few MPs with their name down as a supporter of the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, and he’s repeatedly called for an end to the legal proceedings.
“We’ve been heartened that the prime minister has taken this issue up, made a number of statements on it and indicated that he’s raised it with the United States,” said Barns.
However, Albanese’s assertion that “not all foreign affairs is best done with a loud hailer”, in relation to diplomatic negotiations over Assange being kept quiet, is leading long-term WikiLeaks supporters to question whether the PM is serious in his attempts to see Julian freed.
“What he needs to be doing is letting Australians know what further steps he will be taking in a broad sense,” Barns said in conclusion, “and making sure that Australia uses its extraordinarily strong alliance with the United States to say that Australians want this case brought to an end.”