As whistleblowers in Europe celebrate winning greater legal protection this week, France is being urged to intervene in the case of detained WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – the controversial new recipient of an EU award created in honour of a slain journalist.
Debate is raging as to whether Assange can be truly be considered a journalist, with critics arguing that his unfiltered methods – the mass dumping of sensitive, classified data online – are reckless and irresponsible.
Assange’s proponents, meanwhile, hail him as a pioneer of free speech, warning that his arrest sets a dangerous precedent for media organisations and journalists around the world.
Following seven years confined to the tiny Ecuadorian Embassy in London, the 48-year-old now finds himself in a high-security British prison, accused of breaching his bail conditions. He also faces extradition to the United States for conspiring with the former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack a government computer.
Assange’s lawyer in France, Juan Branco, appealed to President Emmanuel Macron to “give Assange French protection” and allow him to avoid extradition to the US, pointing out that Assange’s youngest child is a French national and lives in the country with his mother.
“Officially, he faces a maximum of five years in prison for digital piracy, but I doubt it would end there,” Branco told the weekly Paris-based French news magazine Marianne. “The US are making out his rights will be respected as a way of securing his extradition, but once he’s on US soil there will be other lawsuits … he’ll risk life in prison.”
Less than an hour after Ecuador terminated Assange’s refugee status, the leader of the leftist France Unbowed party, Jean-Luc Melenchon, urged authorities to grant asylum to Assange saying the country owes him a debt. It was a question of honour, Melenchon said.
Although Macron himself has not commented on the matter, France’s Minister for Europe, Amelie de Montchalin, told French radio that Paris would consider offering Assange political asylum if he were to ask for it.
Any country that takes in Assange would find itself in a “completely untenable legal and diplomatic situation”, says Jérôme Hourdeaux, a journalist with the French online investigative site, Mediapart, who nonetheless says France should offer him sanctuary.
"Assange uncovered documents that revealed Britain spied on France during the 2012 presidential elections, with phone taps on the main candidates, leaders and business leaders too, so in that sense we can say that he did France a favour. However I don't think the granting of asylum should be given to journalists as a 'thank you' for doing their job; we should be protecting journalists as a matter of principle.”
Thief or journalist?
US officials don’t view Assange as a journalist or a whistleblower, but as a political actor who uses stolen information. If he’s merely a publisher or hacker, then freedom of speech wouldn’t apply, but if he’s a journalist, then he’d enjoy the protections provided by the US First Amendment.
It’s legally very complex for the US to sue Assange without violating the First Amendment, says Branco. “This could pave the way for all the journalists who worked on WikiLeaks to be prosecuted and this is why the United States has found a pretty convoluted pretext for extradition.”
EU ramps up protection for whistleblowers
Under new landmark legislation passed on Tuesday, the EU is seeking to encourage reports of wrongdoing by creating "safe channels" that allow whistleblowers to report breaches of European law. For Herveaux, it’s a small step in the right direction.
"A lot of NGOs would have liked to see them go even further regardless of the vote on the trade secrets directive. The freedom of the press is still limited in France and in Europe,” he says.
“Even with this protection law, the situation for whistleblowers in Europe and around the world is catastrophic – especially when you see the intensity of the efforts to go after Julian Assange, and the fact Edward Snowden is still stuck in Russia. Authorities want to send the message that if you leak, you will pay, and in most cases they succeed in making people pay.”
Back in 2015, Assange wrote an open letter to then-president Francois Hollande, published in Le Monde, warning his life was in danger and asking for help.
“My youngest child and his mother are French. I have not been able to see them for five years now … by welcoming me, France would be carrying out a humanitarian and symbolic gesture, sending encouragement to every journalist and whistleblower."
Later, his lawyers said he had not been seeking French asylum.
In a story on Assange's plight, the French weekly news magazine Le Point on Wednesday said no one could be both a hero and a martyr. The first serves a cause for which one is ready to die; the second is the victim of a conspiracy.
“It’s impossible to revolt with impunity and, in publishing the first lot of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange became a dissident. His arrest was the capture of a fighter, not of a victim.”