The arrest of Julian Assange has sparked debates about the implications of journalists who expose government secrets. The arrest charges have left many wondering whether his actions can be construed as crime and what his prosecution would mean to journalists press freedom (Savage). Assange posted America’s military secret and sensitive documents that were leaked by an American army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010. Mr. Assange was charged with conspiring to hack a government computer and obtaining information concerning national security (Savage). The debate, however, has brought forth concerns of press freedom and what the precedence set by this case could mean for the right and the future of investigative journalism (Savage). In recent years, prosecutors have become regular in charging officials with leaking information to reporters. The prosecution of Mr. Assange will raise the possibility of the rights being violated by trying to establish that publishing government secrets could be a crime (Savage). If Assange is prosecuted for leaking classified documents, then all media outlets will be at risk of being sued for the same. It will be difficult to differentiate traditional media outlets from organizations such as Wikileaks without the involving the courts and government while formulating the legal definitions of what qualifies as part of the press (Soave). The charge against Assange will silence the media.
Taking Assange’s case in the context of Hong Kong (HK) laws, the HK Bill of Rights Ordinance under article 16 and Art 19 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) accords every person the right to express themselves freely. The rights involve receiving, seeking, and imparting information and all kinds of ideas regardless of frontiers (Hong Kong Bill Of Rights Ordinance 12-13; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 178). The basic law of HK provides its residents with the freedom of press, speech, and application under article 27. The region’s courts uphold the rights. In HK, the freedom of information (FOI) law does not exist, but the country’s Code of Access to Information law provides for open access to information to government records (Freedom House). However, self-censorship of the media threatens freedom of expression in the territory. In HK, Assange would be free to express his findings, but exposing government secrets without permission would have led to his arrest (Freedom House). In the case of Gao Yu (1995), the journalist was sentenced to a six-year jail term for providing China’s state secrets outside its borders. The secrets related to policy decisions by senior officials of China’s Communist Party. Assange’s prosecution will diminish press freedom and journalist who expose government secrets will face prosecution and jail time if found guilty.
The arrest of Julian Assange puts press freedom and journalists at risk. If the American government extradites, prosecutes, and incarcerates Assange, it will legitimize their right to go after any person, anyhow, anytime, and anywhere. Assange is an Australian citizen, and Wikileaks is not a US-based media organization (Zees and Flowers). Assange’s lawyer, Barry Pollack, described the indictment as factual allegations, encouraging his contact to give him information and protecting the source’s identity (Zees and Flowers). Jen Robinson, Assange’s lawyer, avers that his extradition will set a dangerous precedent for journalists and media organizations around the world. That is, any journalist can be extradited for prosecution in the US for publishing truthful information about the US (Zees and Flowers). First Amendment lawyer, James Goodale suggest that if Assange’s prosecution succeeds, investigating reporting based on classified information, will be given a near-death blow. The trial will open doors to criminal investigations of other news outlets (Hayase). Assange’s indictment will stifle the freedom of expression of anyone in the world. In the case of Waa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (2018/2841(RSP)), the defendants were convicted to seven years imprisonment for charges of obtaining and collecting confidential government documents. The reporters were investigating the deaths of the Rohingya men and boys and other atrocities committed in the Rakhine state by the police. In the case of Gao Yu (2015), the Chinese journalist had been detained on the charge of leaking a confidential document of the communist party to editors of a foreign website. The journalist was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 2015. The sentence was later reduced to five years, and Gao is currently serving her jail term under house arrest after she was released on medical parole.
What Mr. Assange does is not traditional journalism, but it is difficult to distinguish in a legal way from what new organizations like the New York Times do every day. This involves seeking and publishing information that government officials would like to remain secret, such as classified matters of national security, and taking steps to prevent the confidentiality of their sources (Savage). Wikileaks claims to publish materials that they have confirmed to be true irrespective of whether their source comes across that information legally or has the right to disclose it (Assange). The executive editor of the NYT defended their publication of the same material stating that they have the obligation of reporting what it can about important people and events (Assange). The Washington bureau chief of the Los Angelos times, in making similar arguments, stated that democracy works best when voters have as much information as possible, which could come from enemies and rival campaigns among others (Assange). The motives of Wikileaks are identical to those that are newsworthy content.
In Hong Kong, the HK official secret orinance1997 prohibits the unlawful and damaging disclosure of protected information. The law under section 18 provides that individuals who are not public servants, government contractors, or in the security force will be deemed to have committed an offense by releasing information without lawful authorization knowing that information is protected, comes into their hands through authorized disclosure, and the disclosure will be damaging (Official Secrets Ordinance). The HK Code on Access to Information (1995) requires government agencies to publish a list of the records that they have, for an access to information officers who respond to requests for information to be designated by every department (Civil Service Bureau). However, information may not be disclosed if their release will prejudice or harm Hong Kong’s defense and security, the operational effectiveness of its armed forces, and put service members and their civilian support staff at risk (Coliver, Hoffman, and Bowen 318). In this case, Assange can be prosecuted for publishing stolen information because he participated in stealing them. The information that was leaked can harm the country’s defense and security. Therefore, it is right to pursue Julian Assange because he passed the documents to other news outlets that published them after illegally obtaining them.
Coliver, Sandra, Paul Hoffman, and Stephen Bowen. “Secrecy and Liberty: National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information.” Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1999. 8 May 2019
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