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With changes of presidential administrations, radical departures in policy are always exaggerated. Continuity remains, for the most part, a standard feature. It is precisely that continuity being challenged by groups fearful of the continuing prosecution of Julian Assange.
The effort by the US Justice Department to extradite Assange from the UK on eighteen charges based on the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act met a stumbling block in the courts on January 4 this year. The decision by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser proved exceedingly unsympathetic to the press and to Assange in general, but found his “the mental condition … such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”
Undeterred, the Justice Department promised to appeal (the February 12 deadline looms), while President Donald Trump showed little interest in dropping the case or using his pardoning powers. With the Biden administration still finding its feet, advocacy groups have gathered to press for the dropping of the case against the founder of WikiLeaks. On February 9, the Freedom of the Press Foundation sent a letter to President Joe Biden making the case. Signatories included Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, the Knight First Amendment Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.
“While our organizations have different perspectives on Mr Assange and his organization,” states the letter, “we share the view that the government’s indictment of him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad.” The letter distils the implications of the continued prosecution to model simplicity. The indictment is a threat to press freedom given that it covers the sort of conduct “journalists engage in routinely – and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do.” Journalism entails speaking with sources, seeking clarification or further documentation and receiving and publishing “documents the government considers secret.”
Biden is weakly kitted out in the garb of a press defender, having positioned himself against Trump’s designation of the fourth estate as “the Enemy of the People”.