The Media Today

The legal limbo of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange

May 14, 2019

On March 8, Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who leaked a huge cache of classified US intelligence documents published by WikiLeaks, found herself back in jail. Her incarceration was unexpected: a military court had condemned Manning to 35 years in prison, in 2013, but she was freed, in 2017, after outgoing President Barack Obama commuted her sentence. In March, Manning was put back behind bars after she refused to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. She told a judge in Alexandria, Virginia, that she already revealed everything she knows. The judge held her in contempt. Manning’s jailing mostly passed under the radar. WikiLeaks, it seemed, was old news.

On April 11, that changed. Ecuador kicked Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, out of its embassy in London, where he had stayed under diplomatic immunity for seven years. Assange was arrested by British police. Shortly afterward, American authorities unsealed an indictment charging that Assange had conspired with Manning to hack government computer systems, and confirmed they would seek Assange’s extradition to the US. On May 1, Assange was jailed in the UK for skipping bail when he entered Ecuador’s embassy. The following day, the US formally began its extradition case in British court. Assange was given a chance to consent. “I do not wish to surrender myself for extradition for doing journalism that has won many, many awards and protected many, many people,” he replied.

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As the AP notes, Assange already faced “multinational legal woes.” Yesterday, things got even more complicated. Eva-Marie Persson, a top prosecutor in Sweden, announced that an investigation into a rape allegation against Assange—dating to 2010—would be reopened. The case had been closed in 2017 due to Assange’s seemingly indefinite exile in the embassy, but once he was out, a lawyer for his accuser asked for proceedings to recommence. (A second rape claim against Assange expired in 2015.) Sweden’s decision doesn’t carry the force of an indictment; nonetheless, it does allow the government to request his extradition to face questioning.

Will the US or Sweden get Assange? Will both? Will neither? The decision rests with Britain. Yesterday, separate extradition experts told The New York Times and The Washington Post that Sweden’s request could take priority on the grounds that rape is a more serious allegation than computer hacking. Swedish prosecutors argued yesterday that the rape case is urgent—the statute of limitations on the charge will run out next year. The US, however, might counter with a national-security argument, and the chronology of the extradition requests could also be a factor. In any case, we shouldn’t expect a verdict anytime soon. Assange’s fate will likely be tied up in court for months. Sajid Javid, Britain’s interior minister, could end up having the final say.

In the early 2010s, when Sweden first sought Assange’s arrest, many of his supporters sensed a conspiracy. If rendered to Sweden, they reasoned, Assange would simply be forwarded on to the US. In some quarters, a similar line of thinking persists. Yesterday’s developments, however, seem to work against that theory. Sweden’s request, if granted first, would probably at least delay Assange’s arrival in America, and Swedish prosecutors said any onward extradition would require Britain’s consent.

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The rape claims against Assange have always been extremely serious, and the press should treat them as such. Whatever happens next, we should also clearly separate them from America’s charges against Assange, which press-freedom experts have called a clear threat to journalism. When Assange was first arrested, several commentators said that Assange isn’t a journalist, and that the crime the US has accused him of—conspiracy to hack computers—wouldn’t criminalize journalistic conduct. The indictment against Assange, however, always looked like a slippery slope—an impression reinforced by a separate, recently unsealed affidavit which is broader than the indictment and borrows language, in places, from the Espionage Act. As CJR’s Mathew Ingram put it, “The hacking charge might just be a hook on which the Department of Justice hopes to hang a much broader case criminalizing much of what journalists do with their sources.”

Until the last few days, Manning has been somewhat lost in this conversation, even though the grand jury she resisted seemingly sought to bolster the US government’s case against Assange. Last Thursday, Manning was released from jail after the grand jury’s term expired. A new one, however, will convene this week and will again subpoena Manning; Manning will again resist, and so her freedom could be shortlived. In the meantime, she went on CNN, telling Brian Stelter that investigators want her to divulge details not about her hacking activities, but around how the hacked information got to publication. “This administration clearly wants to go after journalists,” Manning said.

Below, more on Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and press freedom:

  • The war on leaks: Last week, the US government indicted Daniel Hale, a former National Security Agency analyst, on charges that he leaked classified information, seemingly to The Intercept. For CJR, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes that such prosecutions are the “real threat” to press freedom. Assange, Simon adds, “is almost certainly being prosecuted for what he published. There is also a scenario in which Assange could still face eventual prosecution under the Espionage Act.”
  • Intimate secrets: The New York Times reported yesterday that Manning is writing a memoir, to be published in the winter of 2020. “I’m really opening myself up to some really intimate things in this book,” Manning told the Times’s Charlie Savage. “You’re probably going to learn more about my love life than about the disclosures.”
  • A prison visit: Last week, Pamela Anderson, a long-time associate and supporter of Assange, visited Assange in prison in the UK, and spoke to reporters afterward. “He does not deserve to be in a supermax prison. He has never committed a violent act,” she said. “He’s really cut off from everybody. He hasn’t been able to speak to his children.” Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of WikiLeaks, previously called the conditions of Assange’s detention “appalling.”

Other notable stories:

  • WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging platform owned by Facebook, discovered a vulnerability in its app that appears to have been exploited by a tool linked to the NSO Group, an Israeli firm that stands accused of supplying spyware used against journalists and human-rights activists. The Financial Times was first to the story on Monday. Yesterday, WhatsApp released a patch and encouraged users to update the app.
  • Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that iPhone owners may proceed with a class-action lawsuit alleging monopolistic practices by Apple, which forces users to buy certain software through its App Store and takes a cut of the profit. (Brett Kavanaugh, the controversial Trump appointee, ruled alongside the court’s four liberal justices.) While the ruling did not address the antitrust substance of the complaint against Apple, it spooked other big tech companies, whose market share has become a top target for politicians of late. Yesterday, Joe Biden became the latest Democratic presidential candidate to say he would take a “really hard look” at breaking up tech monopolies.
  • Facebook is giving most of its US-based contract workers a raise. Bloomberg’s Kurt Wagner reports that the company’s $15-an-hour minimum wage will increase to $20 in the Bay Area, New York, and Washington, and $18 in Seattle. Content moderators—whose job it is to sift through and flag disturbing content—will earn slightly more than these figures.
  • For CJR, Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, rounds up research his team undertook into media polarization in France. Unlike in the US—where a similar study found clear ideological polarization—the break in French media is between elite and non-elite outlets. The dominance of legacy publications like Le Monde and LibĂ©ration has served as a bulwark against misinformation. But these outlets “are so used to setting the agenda that they miss important stories that are emerging far from traditional centers of power,” like the emergence of the recent Gilets Jaunes movement.
  • Nieman Lab’s Christine Schmidt spoke with Matt Pearce, a reporter at the LA Times who invited members of the public to tell him, via a Google questionnaire, how they think he should cover the 2020 race. Pearce describes respondents as a “focus group” who will guide his reporting. “They can also be sources,” Pearce adds. “Ultimately, also, this process hopefully will allow me to build a relationship with them which ideally would lead to them reading more of my stories and maybe subscribing.”
  • Nieman Lab’s Schmidt also looks inside Quartz, a news website that grew through social sharing but is now putting its content behind a paywall. Once readers hit a limit of free articles they’ll be invited to become a member, with costs running to $15 for a month or $100 for a year. Quartz initially pushed a successful, high-end advertising platform, but, as Schmidt notes, “it’s come to believe reader revenue will need to play a larger part.”
  • For Reuters, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Rupam Jain look at the slick media operation of the Taliban, whose fighters across Afghanistan “double as reporters” documenting conflict with US and Afghan forces. The Taliban compiles a daily news briefing and press releases in several languages, and makes its spokespeople available to journalists. But critics say they spread misinformation—commonly exaggerating casualties, for example.
  • The Times’s Amy Qin profiles Gushi FM, a Chinese podcast inspired by This American Life and Snap Judgment that centers the first-person stories of ordinary Chinese people. While Kou Aizhe, Gushi FM’s creator, is cautious around politically sensitive topics, “what emerges is a collection of unusual stories told with an authenticity rarely heard in the country’s tightly scripted, propaganda-heavy state-run media,” Qin writes.
  • And Columbia Journalism School’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights named its 2019 Lipman fellows yesterday. Adam Serwer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, will focus on free speech limitations in marginalized groups, while Alice Speri, who reports on criminal justice for The Intercept, will examine the FBI’s policing of black activists. Special grants were made to Daniel Vock, of Governing magazine, and Maura Walz, of Southern California Public Radio, who will focus on school segregation.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.