On January 4, UK district judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against the U.S. government’s extradition request. Baraitser’s ruling was not a stunning victory for press freedom — she agreed with most of the U.S. government’s dangerous arguments. But she ruled against extradition because she determined that Assange would be at risk of suicide should he be sent to American prisons. The U.S. has until tomorrow, February 12, to appeal that decision.
But since that ruling, a new president has taken office in the U.S., and that means a new Department of Justice. There are rumblings that the new administration plans to appeal, but the Attorney General, who should break with the politicized nature of the previous administration and make a determination based on the facts, has yet to be confirmed.
President Biden nominated Merrick Garland for that job. Garland is a longtime federal judge, who has taken some solid positions on the First Amendment. Will he take a renewed look at the prosecution and drop the case?
Here’s why he ought to: The Assange case represents the gravest threat to press freedom in a generation. It’s not about Julian Assange as a person. It’s about whether the U.S. government will respect the role journalism plays in democratic life (as a check on powerful institutions), or whether they will take “direct aim at previously sacrosanct protections for the news media.” The indictment “characterizes as a felony many actions that journalists are not just permitted but required to take.”
That’s why the Obama-Biden administration chose not to pursue charges against Assange back in 2013. They called it “the New York Times problem.” They knew that if they went after Assange, it would be a press freedom nightmare.
This did not worry the anti-press folks in the Trump administration. After unsuccessfully trying to force Assange to reveal his sources, they aggressively pursued him — even sending Vice President Mike Pence to pressure the Ecuadorian government to withdraw Assange’s asylum.
President Biden’s Justice Department has an important choice to make. Will the new administration restore sanity and show deference to press freedom and the First Amendment, as President Obama did? Or will it continue President Trump’s dangerous war on journalism?