The world’s most prominent freedom-of-the-press case remains the legal pressure on WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, still in Ecuador’s London embassy amid signs of U.K. prosecutorial misconduct, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
A British court proceeding on a freedom of information request regarding how the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) dealt with the case of WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange has revealed that CPS deleted relevant emails from the account of a now-retired CPS lawyer, Paul Close.
However, one email that wasn’t destroyed shows the CPS lawyer advising Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny not to interview Assange in London, a decision that has helped keep Assange stuck for more than five years in Ecuador’s London embassy where he had been granted asylum. Finally, in late 2016, after Swedish prosecutors did question Assange at the embassy, they dropped sex abuse allegations against him, but he still faces possible arrest in the U.K. as well as potential extradition to the U.S., where officials have denounced him for releasing classified material.
Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi, who has worked on WikiLeaks disclosures as a media partner since 2009, has made freedom of information requests in several countries regarding the Assange case. On Monday, I spoke with Estelle Dehon, a lawyer for Maurizi.
Dennis Bernstein: You represented Stefania Maurizi in court today. Give us the background, what got you into court today?
Estelle Dehon: It has to do with access to information. In the United States there is legislation which can allow individuals to have access to official information held by public authorities. We have the same type of system in the United Kingdom.
My client, the extraordinary Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, made a freedom of information request to the Crown Prosecution Service for information about Julian Assange. In particular, she was asking for copies of correspondence between the Crown Prosecution Service and the Swedish prosecution authorities and any correspondence with the US State Department, the Department of Justice, or the state of Ecuador. Obviously, this all relates to the situation that has occurred with Mr. Assange being arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Dennis Bernstein: There were revelations just a week or two ago that some of the key information you are seeking has been destroyed.
Estelle Dehon: Information has been coming out piecemeal. Initially, the Crown Prosecution Service refused to provide anything. As the appeal has been going forward before the tribunal, they started to release information. Just last week we were informed that the email account of the main lawyer in the case who was corresponding with the Swedish Prosecution Authority was deleted when he retired from the Crown Prosecution Service in 2014. One of the things we were asking today was how that could possibly have taken place. We had been told that the extradition matter had come to an end when the Supreme Court in 2012 upheld the arrest warrant for Mr. Assange.
So on the one hand the Crown Prosecution Service is saying that at that point the extradition matter we were dealing with came to an end. But on the other hand, they are saying, as a way of resisting full disclosure, that the extradition matter is ongoing. So which is it? If this is a case that is closed, in which case emails can be deleted then in the public interest, as much information as possible should be released. And if this is a case that is ongoing, then what could the justification possibly be for deleting the email account of one of the key people involved?
Dennis Bernstein: Could you talk a little about the documents that have already been released and what it is you are still looking for?
Estelle Dehon: A number of pieces of correspondence between the Crown Prosecution Service and the Swedish Prosecution Authority have been released, some of them with only slight redaction and some of them very heavily redacted. One of the things they are arguing today at the tribunal is that these redactions should be removed. That correspondence really looks at the flow of information from Sweden to the Crown Prosecution Service and back again. This information revealed that the Crown Prosecution Service had advised the Swedish prosecutor not to travel to the United Kingdom to interview Mr. Assange, despite the fact that that offer had been made. That advice was provided very early on, in January 2011. One of the things we seek through the information request is to understand why that advice was given at that time and why that advice seemed to remain the same, despite the situation arising with the Ecuadorian embassy.
I must explain that we rely quite heavily on the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, who made a determination in December 2015, as the result of a complaint made by Mr. Assange, that they considered Mr. Assange was being arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorian embassy.
We don’t explicitly say as part of our case that the tribunal has to come to the same determination. What we way is that, because this very respected United Nations body came to that conclusion, that is highly relevant to the correspondence and the advice between the Crown Prosecution Service and the Swedish authorities. We still haven’t seen any indication that that UN decision changed the way the authorities were dealing with Mr. Assange, with the way they were refusing to come and question him.
One of the revelations from the court case today was that the Crown Prosecution Service certainly did not consider that the determination by the UN panel made any difference to the way in which they were treating Mr. Assange’s case. But we are still persisting with the request, to see if any of the information that has been provided can be unredacted.
Dennis Bernstein: In terms of the destroyed documents, the Crown Prosecution Service is saying they don’t have the slightest idea what documents were destroyed or the implications of those documents. Do you believe that?
Estelle Dehon: I think I do believe that. As I understand it, the email account has been completely destroyed. There is no way of getting it back. At a very high level we know that whatever was in the email account of that lawyer having to do with Assange’s case is now gone. All that remains is the correspondence that was printed out. And we are told that we have been provided with all the emails that exist in hard copy, albeit heavily redacted. Today, however, it was revealed that, despite assurances from the Crown Prosecution Service that they had released all the relevant documents, it turns out they may have uncovered some further emails.
Dennis Bernstein: Britain has worked very closely with the United States in intelligence matters. Is there any indication that the big hand of the United States has been dictating the course of events here, for example, by preventing the Swedish ambassador from conducting the interview with Assange and possibly finding out that there wasn’t any substance to the charges against him?
Estelle Dehon: There is certainly no evidence of that in the information that has been disclosed to us or in what has been presented in court. What we don’t know is what the documents that have not been disclosed might show in that regard. We don’t know if there has been any influence exerted by the United States.
A key part of my client, Ms. Maurizio’s, request was for correspondence between the Crown Prosecution Service and the US State Department and the US Department of Justice. The response we had today was essentially a blanket “no.” The Crown Prosecution Service will neither confirm nor deny whether such correspondence exists.
One of the things we will be asking the tribunal to rule on is that that is not a lawful approach for them to take. Our freedom of information law does not deal in blanket bans, it doesn’t countenance that kind of secrecy. Our freedom of information law looks at the public interest and makes an objective determination about whether information should be confirmed or denied.
Dennis Bernstein: What is at the core of this case for you? What do you think this is really all about?
Estelle Dehon: First of all, I should explain that we were not before a high court today, we were before a body called an information tribunal. We may end up in the court system if we don’t get the type of decision we think we should get in the tribunal system. But right now we are still at the very early stages.
In terms of what I think is at the heart of this case, I believe it is the clash between free speech and freedom of the press versus an official culture of secrecy. One of the great hopes of the information access regime which was put in place in 2000 in the United Kingdom was that it would foster a culture of openness. There wouldn’t be any area where the stock response was to shut down and not to engage with the media.
Unfortunately, in certain areas such as extradition matters, it hasn’t had that effect. The ethos of the freedom of information act, the important watchdog role that journalists play, simply hasn’t featured on their radar.
And then, of course, Julian Assange’s case is a very particular one. It is clear from the limited material we have been provided that the Crown Prosecution Service believed from the start that this was not just another extradition request. That is clearly because of the personality involved and because of the work Assange has undertaken with WikiLeaks. At the heart of this case is the clash between a very open, non-state organization taking state documents and publishing outside of what a lot of countries are familiar with, between that and a culture of secrecy.
My hope is that in some small way this information tribunal will confront the public authorities who still look to be secret first and say to them, that is not the right approach. You have to consider properly and carefully the public interest in disclosure. Our own information commissioner has acknowledged that there was a significant public interest in the information requested by Ms. Maurizi. If that is the case, you cannot just close up and refuse to provide information. That cannot be your stock response.
Dennis Bernstein: Would you refer to Julian Assange as a journalist?
Estelle Dehon: We consider that he is an editor. Ms. Maurizi explained this to the tribunal today. As traditional journalists do, Assange speaks to sources and obtains information. And then he and WikiLeaks seek to validate that information. That is the editorial role. Then he works with media partners to release the information. That process, while it doesn’t conform to the traditional media process, is in our view a type of journalism. We have characterized him as an editor and WikiLeaks as a journalistic organization.
Certainly Ms. Maurizi, in her role as an investigative journalist working with WikiLeaks, is a very clear example of a defender of democracy, a watchdog within the media looking to oppose corruption and shine light where it has not been shone before.
Dennis Bernstein: The courageous Israeli journalist Amira Hass once described the role of the journalist as “to monitor centers of power and report back to the people.”
Estelle Dehon: Especially in an era where states exercise very significant power, and media organizations, however independent they try to be, can be influenced by that, a non-state, non-traditional actor such as WikiLeaks, which releases information not just to journalists but to the public at large is an important element of a democratic watchdog.