Gathering threats to democracy are front and centre as the United States marks the first anniversary of the January 6th Capitol insurrection, when President Donald Trump incited thousands of supporters to violently storm Congress, attempting to overturn the 2020 election. While the Republican Party descends into the cult of Trump, progressive activists across the country are fighting to expand voting rights and protect free and fair elections. One of democracy’s principle bulwarks is a free press. Sadly, with its ongoing prosecution of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the Biden administration is leading the attack on journalism, strengthening the hand of would-be autocrats everywhere.
Julian Assange is the founding editor and publisher of Wikileaks, the pioneering transparency website. Wikileaks exposed U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture at Guantanamo and other abuses of power, releasing thousands of secret U.S. government and military documents that major news organizations worldwide, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian then used as the basis for award-winning reporting. Assange is currently locked up in England’s maximum-security Belmarsh Prison, which has been described as the “British version of Guantanamo Bay,” as he fights the U.S. government’s attempt to extradite him on espionage and hacking charges. If extradited, he faces up to 175 years in prison if found guilty.
On Wednesday, activists marked Assange’s 1,000th day of incarceration at Belmarsh with a rally demanding his release. Prior to Belmarsh, he spent almost seven years inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, under political asylum.
Among those protesting was Stella Moris, Assange’s financée and the mother of his two youngest children. “It’s really taking a toll on him,” Stella Moris said on the Democracy Now! news hour in November, speaking from outside the UN climate summit in Glasgow. “There’s no end in sight. This can go on for years, potentially.”
Stella Moris announced the 1000th-day vigil in a tweet that included an audio recording reportedly made inside Assange’s Belmarsh cell. Men screaming, guard dogs barking, and the incessant clang of metal doors slamming open and closed echo through the recording, painting a stark picture of the harsh conditions inside Belmarsh.
“The U.N. special rapporteur on torture has said that he is being psychologically tortured,” Moris continued. “His physical health has seriously deteriorated. They are killing him. If he dies, it’s because they are killing him. They are torturing him to death.”
Moris recently revealed that Assange had suffered a mini-stroke in prison on October 27th, the first day of his High Court appeal hearing. That court ultimately sided with the U.S. government, ordering that his extradition could proceed. Assange is currently seeking permission from that same High Court to appeal the ruling to the UK’s Supreme Court.
Threats to journalists and media workers worldwide have been on the rise. The Committee to Protect Journalists stated that, as of December 8th, 24 journalists had been killed in the line of duty in 2021, with eight more whose deaths may have been linked to their work. A record-breaking 293 journalists were imprisoned last year.
President Joe Biden opened his “Summit for Democracy” on December 9th, saying, “Free and independent media. It’s the bedrock of democracy. It’s how the public stay informed and how governments are held accountable. Around the world, press freedom is under threat.”
Biden’s words are true, but ring hollow as his Justice Department seeks to imprison Julian Assange for life, simply for performing those very functions of a free press that Biden praised.
“On the same day the Nobel Peace Prize honors journalists, a UK court ruled that the United States can extradite Julian Assange, a move that seriously damages journalism,” CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney said on December 10th, referring to Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia for their courageous reporting while under threat from their governments. “The U.S. Justice Department’s dogged pursuit of the WikiLeaks founder has set a harmful legal precedent for prosecuting reporters…The Biden administration pledged at its Summit for Democracy this week to support journalism. It could start by removing the threat of prosecution under the Espionage Act now hanging over the heads of investigative journalists everywhere.”
A coalition of 24 groups, including Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, PEN America and Reporters Without Borders called on the Biden administration to halt its Assange prosecution, saying it “threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do.”
Democracy is under assault. President Biden must live up to his promise to support a free press, needed now more than ever, and drop the prosecution of Julian Assange.
This column was originally published on Democracy Now!