Aussie MEAA opposes Assange extradition

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Protest last week at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in defence of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

AUSTRALIA’S MEAA (Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance) union has written to the British and Australian governments to oppose the extradition to the United States of its member, Wikileaks founder and publisher, Julian Assange.

MEAA was formed in 1992 from the merger of three unions – the Australian Journalists Association, Actors Equity of Australia, and the Australian Theatrical & Amusement Employees Association.

The text of the letter, addressed to the UK High Commissioner Vicki Treadell, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and the Opposition Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs Penny Wong, is as follows:

‘Your Excellency,

Re: Julian Assange

We write to convey concerns about the possible extradition to the United States of Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks, and urge the UK and Australian governments to oppose extradition to that country. Mr Assange is an Australian citizen and has been a member of MEAA’s Media Section – the trade union and professional association of Australian media workers – since 2007.

MEAA is concerned that Mr Assange is facing possible extradition to the United States regarding WikiLeaks’ publication of US government files nine years ago.

We believe a prosecution of WikiLeaks’ personnel will have a chilling effect on the public’s right to know what governments do in the name of their citizens. It is a principle of a free press that the media have a duty to scrutinise the powerful and to hold them to account. The media report legitimate news stories that are in the public interest.

WikiLeaks was established in a way to allow whistleblowers seeking to publicly expose wrongdoing to upload material anonymously and with no possibility of being traced.

This is common practice among media organisations around the world – using technology that allows whistleblowers to submit material to a media outlet anonymously and confidentially. On April 5th 2010 WikiLeaks revealed US military gunsight video showing US military helicopters killing two Reuters war correspondents, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen, in Iraq on July 12 2007.

The publication of US diplomatic cables in November-December 2010 was done with the full collaboration of numerous media outlets in several countries including the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Australia, The Guardian in the United Kingdom, The New York Times in the US, El Pais in Spain, Le Monde in France and Der Spiegel in Germany. None of these media outlets have been cited in any US government legal actions as a result of the publishing they have done in collaboration with WikiLeaks.

In 2011 the WikiLeaks organisation was awarded the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism – in recognition of the impact WikiLeaks’ actions had on public interest journalism by assisting whistleblowers to tell their stories.

The judges said WikiLeaks applied new technology to “penetrate the inner workings of government to reveal an avalanche of inconvenient truths in a global publishing coup”.

Extradition of Mr Assange and prosecution by the United States would set a disturbing global precedent for the suppression of press freedom.

We welcome the provision of Australian consular assistance. We urge that he be provided with medical assistance if required. The Australian and UK governments should publicly oppose the extradition of Mr Assange to the United States.

Yours Sincerely,

Marcus Strom, federal president – MEAA Media

Paul Murphy, chief executive – MEAA.’

Meanwhile, Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, has spoken out in defence of her client, telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: ‘The first thing to say is Ecuador has been making some outrageous allegations. It’s a difficult situation. Ecuador has made these allegations to justify the unlawful and extraordinary act of letting police come inside an embassy.’

She went on: ‘This case is and has always been about the risk of extradition to the United States. I think people need to focus on the fact that this indictment which has come from the United States relates to his communications with a source about a major public interest publication. This is about Chelsea Manning’s leak in 2010. This is about US spying on UN and European politicians. This is about human rights abuses and corruption the world over. This is about evidence of US war crimes, killing journalists. These are the publications that he’s now facing extradition and prosecution over.’

Ridge said: ‘The US charge is quite specific isn’t it? It’s about hacking into the computer system.’

Robinson replied: ‘If anybody actually reads beyond the headline of the Department of Justice press release, which is about hacking, if you look at the actual factual allegations, what it boils down to is an allegation that he was communicating with a source, encouraging a source to provide information and allegedly provided information to assist the source to protect their identity. So there’s no suggestion that Mr Assange hacked US government computers.

‘There’s no suggestion that he assisted Chelsea Manning to access material that Chelsea Manning didn’t already have access to. It is simply an allegation of an intention to assist a source to protect their identity while accessing that material. This is something that journalists do all the time. Now, it remains to be seen whether those allegations can be proven. But that is why US free speech groups have been up in arms this week and are very concerned about the chilling impact this will have because it clearly engages news gathering activities and the kinds of communications that journalists have with sources all the time.’

She went on: ‘Now this case is highly politicised. If we look back to 2010, which is what the indictment relates to, we had high profile US politicians calling for him to be killed by drone strike. We’ve seen just this week high profile senators saying he’s now our property and we’ll do with him what we will. These are serious concerns.’

Ridge asked: ‘Do you think the UK government is politicising it as well then?’

Robinson replied: ‘I think this case has been politicised. Now, we will obviously fight the extradition request to the United States in the courts, so it’s a matter for the British courts now. But in terms of the broader context, this was somebody who has published the largest amount of American classified information in history. He has embarrassed the US military industrial complex, he has embarrassed the CIA. We’ve had the Director of the CIA call him a “hostile non-state intelligence agency” and saying that he ought to be prosecuted. “We want to take Wikileaks down” and he ought not benefit from First Amendment protections.

‘These are very serious allegations from the highest level of the US administration and to think that this case is not politicised I think ignores the fact.’

Ridge said: ‘He has had some support from Jeremy Corbyn who tweeted to say that he doesn’t think he should be extradited to the US. Is that welcome?’

Robinson replied: ‘Of course it’s welcome and I think that anyone who believes in public interest journalism and understands the public interest in the publications that Wikileaks made – as I said, spying on UN leaders, spying on European politicians, spying on the French President. Wikileaks publications included material that Amnesty International credited Wikileaks in Tunisia which sparked the Arab Spring and democratic revolutions.

‘It’s changed the way we think about journalism and the right to know. Having someone extradited for any action associated with those publications which have won journalism awards the world over ought to be of concern and it’s right and correct that Jeremy Corbyn said what he said.’