Journalism on trial: an eyewitness account of Julian Assange’s extradition hearing

Outside Old Bailey
John McEvoy

Throughout September, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been the subject of a major extradition hearing in the Old Bailey Criminal Court, London.

Assange is accused of violating the US Espionage Act on 17 counts and of one count of conspiracy to commit a computer crime. This would be the first time that a US or extraterritorial publisher is indicted under the Espionage Act for the publication of official secrets. If extradited, and later convicted, Assange could serve up to 175 years in prison.

The Canary was in the Old Bailey for the final days of the most important press freedom case in recent history.

The most closed open court imaginable

After two days in the public gallery of the Old Bailey, it was possible to compile a full page of concerns regarding access to the court. It was, without exaggeration, perhaps the most closed open court imaginable.

The public gallery was in a courtroom adjacent to where the hearing was taking place. Only five people were permitted access, meaning the public was effectively removed from observing the proceedings.

The five-person limit was apparently due to coronavirus (Covid-19) restrictions. For the most part, however, social distancing was not enforced once inside. In any case, the public gallery had 33 seats, making the limit of five seem needlessly restrictive and arbitrary. No phone, no laptop, no water permitted inside, and nowhere inside the building to leave them.

This, however, was a drastic improvement on the first week of the hearing, during which only two people could access the public gallery. The remaining seats were for ‘VIPs’, whose identities were at the time unknown, and who never turned up. The seats were thus left vacant.

The public gallery itself was farcical. The proceedings were shown on a small television screen mounted to a wall some 20 feet away. It was often difficult to tell who was speaking. The camera didn’t capture the entire court, so a large part of the room was out of shot. This included the thick glass box inside which Assange was sitting. For independent court monitors, this was particularly concerning given they were unable to tell whether Assange could adequately follow the proceedings. In a preliminary hearing in February, Assange had complained:

I am as much a participant in these proceedings as I am watching Wimbledon. I cannot meaningfully communicate with my lawyers.

When Assange did appear on screen, he looked tired and dejected. For the past month, he has been woken up at 5am in his cell at Belmarsh maximum security prison. He’s then strip-searched and transported to the Old Bailey in a van, which his partner Stella Morris has described as an “upended coffin”.

A television on wheels sat under the mounted television in the public gallery, but it was inexplicably never used to accommodate public viewing. Meanwhile, the audio was at times so poor or muffled that it was impossible to make out what was being said.

This, again, was an improvement on weeks prior. Those who spent time in the public gallery during the first weeks of the hearing faced numerous obstacles to monitoring the case. These included bitter temperatures, a loud buzzing noise coming from an overhead light, and consistent technical difficulties. At times, the court’s security staff failed to inform those waiting outside that proceedings had begun, so the public gallery remained empty.

This, of course, begs the question: if a limited selection of the public could watch the hearing via video link from inside the court, why couldn’t the wider public do so from outside?

“The interests of justice”

Magistrate judge Vanessa Baraitser objected to remote viewing “in the interests of justice” since, unlike in a court, she could not control the behaviour of outside observers. This has no basis in reality: the behaviour of those remote to the court would have precisely zero impact on events inside the court.

Just as the public was arbitrarily shut out, Baraitser also revoked remote access for some 40 legal observers including representatives from Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders. Remote access, claimed Baraitser on the first day of the hearing, would compromise “the integrity of the court”; it had been granted “in error”.

Reflecting on these conditions, Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders declared:

I am not exaggerating when I say I have felt more welcome, respected, and able to do my job as an NGO observer in more professional conditions at a prison campus in Turkey than I have at Woolwich Crown Court or the Old Bailey Court in London. I am embarrassed for my country.

Vincent later told The Canary:

This case has been by far the most difficult to monitor of any case that I’ve ever monitored in any country… Ultimately it started with the judge refusing to recognise or accommodate the role of professional NGO observers as any different from the public. From the start, we were left to compete for extremely few places in the public gallery.

If democracy has to be seen to be demonstrated, we are in a very sorry, worrying place indeed. In the words of John Pilger, what happened in the Old Bailey over the past month was not an example of due process – it was “due revenge”.

Poisoning Assange

On the morning of 30 September, the court heard that US officials considered “kidnapping or even poisoning” Assange while he was stationed in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. It also heard that privileged conversations between Assange and his lawyers were spied on by UC Global. UC Global is a private Spanish security firm which collaborated with US intelligence services.

In any normal hearing, this could have sufficed to have the case thrown out. When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, CIA agents broke into his psychiatrist’s office and stole privileged files. They did this in the hope of finding information they could use against Ellsberg. Once this was known, Ellsberg’s case was thrown out of court.

However, evidence of individuals plotting to poison or kidnap Assange was read into the hearing as if the case revolved around a parking ticket. There was no cross-examination of witnesses nor testing of the evidence. It simply dissolved into thin air.

Former consul to the Ecuadorian embassy in London Fidel Narvaez spoke with The Canary about the evidence of spying:

This invalidates any judicial case, because there is no way that a person who was being spied on in his private conversations with his lawyers – talking about his legal strategies, documentation from the lawyers were stolen, their electronic devices were spied on – there’s no way that Julian Assange is going to have a just case in the United States. So that should be enough reason not to extradite him.

A chillingly casual conclusion

Over the final days of the hearing, the defence also noted the public importance of WikiLeaks revelations of torture in Guantanamo Bay and extrajudicial drone strike killings in Pakistan. In the face of overwhelming documentation of official crimes and wrongdoing, the judge plainly looked bored.

Other witness testimonies, which might have taken a day of examination, were rushed through in less than half an hour. Noam Chomsky’s historic testimony was delivered, without discussion, in just four minutes.

“Is there anything else I need to receive or hear about?”, Baraitser asked on the afternoon of Thursday 1 October. She appeared eager to wrap the whole thing up.

The defence requested time before issuing closing statements, partly because it remained unclear – after four weeks of proceedings – what the full nature of the charges against Assange were. At the eleventh hour before the hearing began, the prosecution had issued a second superseding indictment, for which the defence was given no time to prepare.

Court adjourned at 4:25pm, less than two hours after opening. It was a chillingly casual conclusion to a case of such magnitude.

The corporate media

It is ironic that the court seemed to go to such lengths to prevent public access, given the corporate media barely seemed to care about the case anyway. The lack of media presence both outside and inside the Old Bailey was remarkable. The press annex was not at capacity – at times, it was half-empty.

The Guardian requires particular scrutiny given the prosecution has relied on past statements of former and current Guardian employees as evidence for extradition.

Throughout September, the Guardian published just 11 articles on the Assange extradition hearing. During July, the Guardian published 33 articles on Johnny Depp’s libel case – more than one per day. Showbiz, it seems, is three times more important than the fate of journalism itself.

Alan MacLeod, writing for FAIR, said the Times, Le Monde, CNN, CBS, AP, AFP, and MSNBC also offered meagre coverage of Assange’s hearing. Journalist Glenn Greenwald concurred that:

media outlets, including by the way the Intercept, have completely ignored these proceedings… Basically, we’re relying on kind of independent bloggers to do it.

The BBC

Meanwhile, Daniel Sandford, the BBC’s home affairs correspondent, suggested on Twitter that he found the hearing tedious. On 29 September, he claimed that “I have been in a few hearings, and it is slightly repetitive at the moment”:

It’s a pity this BBC correspondent grew tired of observing a foreign power persecute a UK-based journalist for revealing war crimes.

Indeed, the BBC News Twitter account has not bothered to mention Assange since 7 September – the first day of the hearing. Vincent responded frankly to Sandford:

I find this disappointing, Daniel. Repetitive or not, the public needs to know what is happening in these proceedings.

Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, concluded that:

The plan of the US Government throughout has been to limit the information available to the public and limit the effective access to a wider public of what information is available. Thus we have seen the extreme restrictions on both physical and video access. A complicit mainstream media has ensured those of us who know what is happening are very few in the wider population.

The process is the punishment

Whether Assange is extradited or not (and it’s crucial to the future of journalism that he isn’t), his treatment over the past decade – at the hands of the UK, US, Swedish, and Ecuadorian governments – will have a chilling effect on journalism.

Assange has suffered solitary confinement, degrading treatment and, according to UN expert on torture Nils Melzer, psychological torture. All without being convicted of any crime. Journalists in possession of US classified documents may look to Assange and worry that their lives will be destroyed should they reveal information that is clearly in the public interest.

The process, in other words, is the punishment. Even if Assange wins his battle against extradition, he has already lost many years of his life to arbitrary, cynical punishment. As clinical psychologist Lissa Johnson told The Canary:

Julian Assange’s extradition hearing has served as a vehicle through which to extend and exacerbate his psychological torture, through abuse of his fundamental human rights. That abuse has been so significant that the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute has issued a statement saying that Julian Assange’s treatment has been reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

The fight must continue

The judge will make her decision on 4 January 2021. It’s a verdict which will have tremendous and historic ramifications for the future of journalism. As WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson announced outside the Old Bailey:

we cannot change the past, but we need the truth about the past. And we can also change the fate of Julian Assange.

The fight must continue – first for Assange’s freedom, and then for prosecuting the criminals that he exposed.

Featured image via the author

We need your help ...

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our world, fast. And we will do all we can to keep bringing you news and analysis throughout. But we are worried about maintaining enough income to pay our staff and minimal overheads.

Now, more than ever, we need a vibrant, independent media that holds the government to account and calls it out when it puts vested economic interests above human lives. We need a media that shows solidarity with the people most affected by the crisis – and one that can help to build a world based on collaboration and compassion.

We have been fighting against an establishment that is trying to shut us down. And like most independent media, we don’t have the deep pockets of investors to call on to bail us out.

Can you help by chipping in a few pounds each month?

The Canary Support us