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Press freedom and civil liberties at stake

We must all oppose the extradition of Julian Assange – the case is not just about silencing one man, argues John McDonnell

21 February, 2020 — By John McDonnell

Julian Assange

THE attempt to extradite Julian Assange to the United States on charges of espionage is about more than just one man, it is about a threat to press freedoms here in the United Kingdom and all over the world.

This case comes down to whether a whistle-blower and journalist should be sent to face trial in a foreign court for exposing the war crimes committed by that government.

A decision to extradite Julian Assange in these circumstances should shame and worry us all. If he is sent to the US Assange will face charges focused on helping a source protect themselves.

To quote the former editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, this is something that “any honourable journalist would do”.

It is vital to the basic functioning of our democracy that journalists and whistle-blowers hold the powerful to account and expose the powerful when they abuse that power.

When journalists and their sources are silenced in this way we all have a duty to protect them.

The chilling effect that the Assange case is having on our press freedoms is real. Who would blame a whistle-blower or journalist for seeing what is happening to Assange and thinking twice before revealing vital information that will expose governments?

At home and abroad there is real concern over this case.

MPs on the Council of Europe have warned that his extradition “would set a dangerous precedent”.

We risk shaming the UK on the world stage and exposing a worrying subservience to the Donald Trump administration.

 

John McDonnell

There are real questions to be asked not just about how this case has been treated in the UK but why this case was allowed to come to court at all.

Espionage, the charge on which Assange will be tried if he is sent to the US, is the classic political offence.

We don’t extradite for political offences in the UK and no country in the world should.

It’s not just the first article in the UK-US extradition treaty, it’s a matter of customary international law.

In reality, what Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have done is expose the true nature of the US prosecution of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The files published by WikiLeaks have been reported all over the world, they’ve won journalistic awards, including from Amnesty International, and its publications have been deemed as admissible evidence by the UK Supreme Court.

Among the leaks were documents exposing large-scale corruption, the murder of civilians and international war crimes.

Most famous was the “collateral murder” video which showed the horrific scenes as a US helicopter crew shot 18 people in Baghdad in 2007.

That footage not only seared our collective conscience but exposed crimes being committed abroad in the name of coalition forces.

Among the innocent deaths that day were two international journalists.

The case against Assange is not just aimed at silencing one man who has exposed the dark secrets of US governments, it is an attempt to silence whistle-blowers and intimidate journalists everywhere.

In doing so the rights of all of us are being eroded.

In defending our basic press freedoms and civil liberties we must oppose his extradition.

I opposed the extradition process agreed with the US because I feared it would introduced a subservient element into our relationship with the United States.

I hope that my fears are not proved to be well founded by extradition of Julian Assange.

John McDonnell MP is Labour shadow chancellor.

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