Julian Assange: Australian government urged to intervene

Michael McGowan

The Australian film-maker who spent 15-months in a Cambodian jail on spying charges says he fears Julian Assange is being used as an “example” to other journalists as part of what he described as “a fundamental attack on the fourth estate”.

James Ricketson spent more than a year inside the overcrowded Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh on spying charges before his release last September after a public outcry and lobbying by the Australian government.

On Friday he told Guardian Australia he hoped the Morrison government would make “a forthright public statement” in support of Assange and the principle of press freedom.

Related: New US charges against Julian Assange could spell decades behind bars

“I would like to think the Australian government is woking in the background to forge some kind of resolution that is fair and equitable in the Julian Assange case,” he said.

“Although it was not clear to me at the time, it’s now clear that from at least January last year there were fairly high-level representations being made to the Cambodian government on my behalf.

“The government had its own reasons for why it needed to keep that secret [but] it would certainly be nice if it were to make a public statement to the effect that we’re concerned about the fate of Julian Assange and the impact of this extradition attempt on investigative journalism in Australia and worldwide.”

Australian documentary film-maker James Ricketson arrives in Sydney in September 2018 after being freed from a Cambodian jail.

Australian documentary film-maker James Ricketson arrives in Sydney in September 2018 after being freed from a Cambodian jail. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

It comes after prosectors in the US on Thursday announced 17 additional charges against the WikiLeaks founder for publishing hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Assange faces a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison in the US if convicted of all the charges against him.

Officials in the US have sought to argue that Assange is not a journalist, and the US assistant attorney general for national security John Demers said on Thursday that Assange had engaged in “explicit solicitation of classified information”.

But the additional charges have been slammed by press freedom groups who warn of the potential impacts of the first amendment in the US and on national security reporting worldwide.

On Friday the former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr said the severity of the potential sentence faced by Assange made the extradition request almost as significant as if he were facing the death penalty.

Ricketson was sentenced to six years in a Cambodian prison last year for “espionage and collecting harmful information that could affect national defence” but received a royal pardon from the Cambodian king.

While he points out the situations were not identical because “it was clear to everybody including the Australian government that the charges of spying had no foundation”, he said Assange’s case had profound press freedom implications.

“The concern that I have, besides my concern for Julian himself, is that he is being used as an example,” Ricketson told Guardian Australia.

Related: Family of James Ricketson 'hesitant' about film-maker returning to Cambodia

“In much the same way I was in a very small way in Cambodia, he’s being used as a warning to other journalists to be careful what you write and what you report because you too could wind up in jail.”

Assange is serving a 50-week sentence in a UK jail for skipping bail when he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012. He is also facing a possible extradition request from Sweden to face rape charges dating back to 2010.

Ricketson said he was concerned that Assange’s “polarising” position among journalists as well as the public at large would mean he is “forgotten”.

“A lot of well-informed people I know hate Julian Assange for reasons of character, and what I think is that I have no idea about his character and nor do I think it is important,” he said.

“If you went through the upper echelons of society in business and politics and journalism you’d find a lot of arseholes and narcissists but I don’t think that should matter. We are all members of the fourth estate and I think it’s an attack on everybody in the fourth estate to prosecute Julian as is happening.

“My feeling is that unless there’s a huge concerted effort, a public outcry, that Julian Assange will spend 10 months in jail and then be extradited it’ll be one of those news items that will pop up every now and again but that Julian will be forgotten, and I don’t think he should be forgotten.”