WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange dodged a bullet Monday when a British judge refused to extradite him to the United States to face charges under an espionage law, but experts say his case remains an ominous threat to press freedom.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser said the US charges were justified against the 49-year-old transparency advocate, who stunned the world in 2010 with the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents.
But Baraitser ruled that his mental health problems raise the risk of suicide in a US jail.
Her decision, and the US Justice Department’s determination to appeal it, left in place the first-ever use of the US Espionage Act to prosecute someone for publishing state secrets, long held as allowed under the US Constitution.
That leaves his case, and the department’s view of his activities, an ongoing threat against journalists who cover national security and defense issues, where leaked classified information is crucial.
Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called Baraitser’s agreement with the US indictment of Assange “deeply troubling,” even if she would not extradite him.
“The mere act of publishing secrets that the US government doesn’t want the public to see is not akin to spying,” he said in an emailed statement.
“The government’s legal theories in this case remain dangerous to core tenets of freedom of the press.”
The British court “endorses the US prosecution even as it rejects the US extradition request,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
“The result is that the indictment of Assange will continue to cast a shadow over investigative journalism,” he said on Twitter.