WikiLeaks recognised as a ‘media organisation’ by UK tribunal

A British tribunal has recognised Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks as a “media organisation”, a point of contention with the United States, which is seeking to prosecute him and disputes his journalistic credentials.

The issue of whether Assange is a journalist and publisher would almost certainly be one of the main battlegrounds in the event of the US seeking his extradition from the UK.

The definition of WikiLeaks by the information tribunal, which is roughly equivalent to a court, could help Assange’s defence against extradition on press freedom grounds.

The US has been considering prosecution of Assange since 2010 when WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of confidential US defence and diplomatic documents. US attorney general Jeff Sessions said in April this year that the arrest of Assange is a priority for the US.

The director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, after leaks of emails from the US Democratic party and from Hillary Clinton, described WikiLeaks as “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia”. He added Assange is not covered by the US constitution, which protects journalists.

But the UK’s information tribunal, headed by judge Andrew Bartlett QC, in a summary and ruling published on Thursday on a freedom of information case, says explicitly: “WikiLeaks is a media organisation which publishes and comments upon censored or restricted official materials involving war, surveillance or corruption, which are leaked to it in a variety of different circumstances.”

The comment is made under a heading that says simply: “Facts”.

Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he has been granted diplomatic asylum.

The tribunal’s definition of WikiLeaks comes in the 21-page summary into a freedom of information case heard in London in November. An Italian journalist, Stefania Maurizi, is seeking the release of documents relating to Assange, mainly in regard to extradition, and had lodged an appeal with the tribunal.

While the tribunal dismissed her appeal, it acknowledged there issues weighing in favour of public disclosure in relation to Assange. But it added these were outweighed by a need for confidentiality on the matter of extradition.

The UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the US justice department have refused to confirm or deny whether they have discussed extradition of Assange.

Maurizi, likely to take her appeal to a higher tribunal, welcomed Bartlett’s acceptance of WikiLeaks as a media organisation but argued the tribunal should have gone a step further by pushing the CPS to confirm whether the US has lodged an extradition request.

“If such a request were made, the UK would not be assisting the US to extradite a narco, a mafia boss, or a drug kingpin. It would being assisting the US to extradite a media publisher to prosecute him and his media organisation for their publications,” she said.

The tribunal also looked at the destruction by the CPS of emails relating to Assange. It said the deletion took place when a CPS lawyer retired and it had been believed all significant case papers were collated separately from his email account.

The tribunal said: “We conclude that there was nothing untoward in the deletion of the email account.”

Maurizi had put in FOI requests for information relating to communications between the UK and Sweden, where prosecutors were investigating sexual assault allegations against Assange which have since been dropped. Supporters of Assange feared that if he want to Sweden, the US would seek to extradite him from there.

Maurizi also pressed for disclosure of any communications by the CPS and the US to extradite Assange directly from the UK.

Estelle Dehon, who specialises in freedom of information and who represented Maurizi at the tribunal, said that while disappointed with the overall ruling, she welcomed some of the findings.

“Progress has been made because the tribunal accepted that the circumstances of the case raise issues of human rights and press freedom and also agreed that there is a significant public interest in disclosing the information, in particular to increase understanding of how the CPS handled the extradition process and its relationship with a foreign prosecuting authority, “ Dehon said.

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