On January 4, there was some big news. In an unexpected turn of events, British Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against the extradition of Julian Assange to the US. There was relief for Assange the man, husband and father, but WikiLeaks supporters were quick to point that the verdict isn’t good news for journalists and the future of free press. The Italian investigative reporter Stefania Maurizi is one of them.
Nadja Vancauwenberghe spoke to Maurizi about why the verdict casts a shadow on the future of free press and why more journalists should care about this verdict and Assange’s fate.
How did you react to the London ruling against Julian Assange’s extradition?
Relief. No one expected it. It is a massive scandal that since publishing the US secret documents exposing war crimes and torture, Julian Assange has never known freedom, and his health has been seriously undermined by the last 10 years of arbitrary detention. The UK authorities have hugely contributed to destroy his health: first they contributed to create the legal and diplomatic quagmire which has kept him arbitrarily detained in London since 2010, as my FOIA litigation has allowed to reveal. Then they refused to grant him safe passage so he could enjoy his asylum, which is a basic human rights, then they arrested him and have kept him in a maximum security prison in the middle of a pandemic.
Then they denied him bail.
Yes, and this is just incredibly wrong. Why should a peaceful man, a journalist who is at risk for his mental and physical health – as the judge acknowledged – be denied bail and remain in a maximum security prison? Meanwhile the UK authorities released the London Bridge attacker, Usman Khan, who had been convicted of preparing an act of terrorism – he immediately killed two people and injured three others.
In addition to this, two highly respected UN bodies looked at his case and have repeatedly called for his release. In February 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) established that the United Kingdom and Sweden had been responsible for his arbitrary detention since 2010, the United Kingdom tried to appeal this decision, but lost its appeal.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, has declared that, “Julian Assange has been intentionally psychologically tortured by Sweden, Britain, Ecuador and the US” Both UNWGAD and Nils Melzer have called for his release over and over. Britain has behaved like a lawless country during the Julian Assange case.
This judgment isn’t good news for the future of free press and investigative journalism. Can you explain why?
This judgement is concerning because the judge, Vanessa Baraitser, denied extradition only on account of Assange’s health condition. It would have been tremendously important to see a strong position from Judge Baraitser stating that revealing war crimes and torture is what journalists should do in our democracies. It is the quintessential mission of the Fourth Estate.
Britain has behaved like a lawless country during the Julian Assange case.
It would have been vital to have a judgement written in stone stating: we don’t extradite journalists for revealing 15,000 previously unaccounted civilian deaths in Iraq. We don’t extradite journalists for revealing the horrors of Guantanamo. We don’t extradite journalists charged with Espionage Act violations, as if they were spies. A judgement like this would have not just protected Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks journalists, but all journalists. It would have protected freedom of the press and democracy, because there is no democracy without real freedom of the press and there is no freedom of the press if a journalist ends up in prison for life for revealing torture. The fact that Judge Baraitser didn’t issue such a judgement makes me think that the British authorities don’t want just to punish Julian Assange, they want to keep the door open for similar cases
What do you expect to happen now?
I am not optimistic, unfortunately. I believe Julian Assange is at serious risk. He might get infected from Covid in prison, because we know that he has a chronic lung problem which I have reported about since November 2012, the first time I visited him at the Ecuadorean Embassy, just six months after he took refuge inside. His mental condition can get even worse and we might wake up one day and learn he has committed suicide.
They definitely want to set an example to terrorise any journalist and publisher. “Do what Julian Assange did, and you will be smashed as he was,” that’s the message.
As I told my editors every time I visited him in the embassy, I would have gone mad after seven months of confinement, not after seven years. He is tremendously resilient, but he is still a human being, so it might happen that he has a complete mental breakdown. This is very likely to be what the British and US authorities hope: to break him down once and for all, because they want him completely neutralised.
They want to destroy any chance that WikiLeaks goes ahead and keep publishing classified documents exposing their horrific abuses. They are also terrified that Julian Assange might go back to his work as a journalist. They definitely want to set an example to terrorise any journalist and publisher. “Do what Julian Assange did, and you will be smashed as he was,” that’s the message.
When you think that Julian Assange has been deprived of most basic freedoms for the last 10 years and no journalist has tried to get the full documentation on his case, you realise how much the media failed.
You’re one of those courageous journalists who’ve never given up on their mission to seek the facts. No matter how uncomfortable, you showed indefectible support to Assange, when most colleagues who also worked with WikiLeaks preferred not to. Do you think we, the media, collectively failed in our mission to inform the public during the whole Assange case?
I have been there from the very beginning, and I am convinced that, had the media done their job, he wouldn’t have suffered what he has suffered in the last decade. A small minority behaved decently, but the great majority has greatly assisted his persecution – and I stress persecution, not prosecution – from the very beginning. For example, they’ve been blindly reporting whatever the Pentagon told them, such allegations as that WikiLeaks “have blood on their hands”. A decade later, the US authorities are still unable to bring any evidence of actual “blood”: no one was killed, no one was injured, no one was imprisoned or tortured.
If my editors send me out for an assignment together with a colleague and my colleague falls off a cliff, I don’t abandon him. I try to save him.
However, prominent media still keep circulating those allegations, no matter how ungrounded they are. When you think that Julian Assange has been deprived of his most basic freedoms for the last 10 years and no journalist has tried to get the full documentation on his case, you realise how much the media failed. How is it possible that it took me, an Italian journalist to litigate a freedom of information request on Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks journalists in Britain, United States, Australia and Sweden? How come no one looked into how the UK Crown Prosecution Service – which is currently in charge of the US extradition case – contributed to create the legal and diplomatic quagmire which has kept Julian Assange arbitrarily detained since 2010?”
So what motivated you to investigate the facts when most of your colleagues didn’t?
Since 2009, I have worked on the WikiLeaks documents for every paper I wrote for – initially for the Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso, the daily la Repubblica and, today, Il Fatto Quotidiano, How can I remain indifferent to the fact that Assange and his team shared documents I could use and publish for an entire decade, and no one stopped me or arrested me – whereas Julian Assange has gone through real hell, and ultimately all the WikiLeaks journalists could end up in prison? I don’t know how other media partners can be silent and indifferent about this.
If my editors send me out for an assignment together with a colleague, and my colleague falls off a cliff, I don’t abandon him: I try to save him. I guess I have a conscience and I do have professional principles and ethics. But there is much more at stake: the future of our democracy and our journalism. I am firmly determined to contribute to creating a society in which a journalist and a journalistic source can reveal war crimes and torture without risking ending up in prison for life, like Julian Assange, or without being pushed to three suicide attempts, like Chelsea Manning, or without having to escape to Russia like Edward Snowden. Unless we fight to make this possible, no one will do it for us.