OPINION - Press freedom does not exist while my husband Julian Assange is in jail

 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

We must defend the right to offend. The most important aspect of the right to offend is the one that confronts those in power with the truths that they most eagerly wish to conceal. Without this right, the powerful become untouchable.

My husband, Julian Assange, pictured below right, has been imprisoned in HMP Belmarsh in Thamesmead since 2019 because, as the publisher of WikiLeaks, he exposed the abuses of the war on terror which the United States wanted to remain concealed. The US has brought charges against Julian that carry 175 years in prison. As Home Secretary, Priti Patel failed to block Julian’s extradition. An upcoming High Court hearing will decide whether Britain allows the most consequential attack on press freedom of our age to proceed.

Our children want to break Julian out of prison. It has been four years already. Four-and-a-half-year-old Max thinks up ways of doing it. Gabriel, who is five, recently started a new calendar. It is not a countdown to Julian’s release but a count up, because there is no end date. Gabriel adds more boxes to tick every day.

Julian’s video shows the US army killing a dozen civilians, including two Reuters journalists

Our little boys understand that Julian’s freedom is part of a n epic struggle that is greater than our family. In June, we travelled to the Vatican where Pope Francis received us in private. In June, more than 60 Australian MPs wrote to the US Attorney General urging him to drop the charges against Julian, as it puts journalists the world over at risk of prosecution and persecution. Last week, a delegation of Australian parliamentarians representing all parties flew to Washington to demand his release.

Julian is 52. He was 38 when he published Collateral Murder and was last free. The video shows the US army killing a dozen civilians, including two Reuters employees on assignment and the rescuers who stopped to help the wounded. Reuters formally attempted to obtain the video but the Pentagon refused to hand it over. The evidence of what had happened remained on US military servers until intelligence whistleblower Chelsea Manning sent it to WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 and remained there until 2019, when he was arrested and sent to Belmarsh, where he has been ever since (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)
Julian Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 and remained there until 2019, when he was arrested and sent to Belmarsh, where he has been ever since (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)

Collateral Murder had a massive impact. The millions of dollars poured into Pentagon PR messaging couldn’t make the public unsee the war crime. The US administration was livid.

Over the next two years, WikiLeaks provided the public with further details of the horror unfolding in Iraq. One cable described the execution of an Iraqi family by US troops, including five children under of five: “Troops entered the house, handcuffed all residents and executed all of them”. Autopsies revealed that “all corpses were shot in the head and handcuffed”. A month after the publication of that cable the Iraqi government said it would strip US forces of immunity for civilian killings.

The documents that Chelsea Manning leaked to WikiLeaks exposed Guantanamo and the war in Afghanistan, assassinations, torture, arbitrary detention and, arguably most revealingly of all, US interference in the judicial processes of its European allies. To this day these publications remain one of the biggest coups in journalistic history. By bringing charges against a publisher for the first time in The Espionage Act’s 102-year history, the US administration crossed a constitutional Rubicon. Julian is not accused of ‘espionage’ but of receiving, possessing and communicating information that he received from a government insider, Chelsea Manning, to us the public.

But Julian is Australian, not American. He is a publisher working in the UK, not a US source. He is in London, not Washington DC. What WikiLeaks published is of undeniable public interest, but there is no public interest defence under the US ”Espionage” Act. US prosecutors argue that because Julian was publishing from Britain, and is not an American, constitutional free speech protections do not apply to him. They claim US law applies to people in Britain but US rights do not.

Press freedom groups and journalists recognise that the fate of the press is tied up with what happens to Julian. Britain, once a bastion of free speech and a sanctuary for political dissidents, is the only thing standing between Julian and the vindictiveness of an offended state caught in the act.

Liberty requires a robust public space to thrive. We have no free speech without freedom of the press. And there is no freedom of the press as long as Julian remains imprisoned.

Stella Assange is a lawyer and human rights campaigner