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Whatever you think of Assange, whistleblowers depend on press freedom

Julian Assange is back in the limelight, after seven years holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Most media and public attention has been focused on the man, while the war atrocities that Wikileaks revealed have not been addressed.

Is Assange a hero? A criminal? Someone to be proud of and to defend, or someone who has brought disgrace, and created instability? Society and the justice system demand answers…

Allegations about Assange the man have obscured an important question about how the powerful are not keen to discuss the very real wrongdoing that Assange helped to bring to light. WikiLeaks, Assange’s outlet, published evidence from whistleblower Chelsea Manning which indicated the most severe kind of wrong doing: war crimes, extreme abuses of power, lying in public office, deliberately misleading the public and the press, and destroying the lives and livelihoods of innocent civilians. What action is being taken to make it easier for those like Manning to raise concerns safely in future?

The key question no one seems to be asking is why Manning felt forced to use Wikileaks to expose clear and appalling wrongdoing in the first place. Both Manning and Assange risked being heavily criminalised for revealing secret information. You may disagree with their approach, Protect view the mass dumping of national security documents to be reckless and is not how good, responsible journalists approach such issues, but without these leaks, how would these atrocities have come to light?

Anyone who comes across wrongdoing at work needs to have appropriate channels to raise their concerns. Our advice, and the structure of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, steers workers to raise concerns internally, with an appropriate regulator or MP, and only with the press in limited circumstances if other routes will not be effective. There is no public interest defence for those who commit a crime by their whistleblowing to the press. This places whistleblowers in often impossible situations where silence or anonymous disclosure become the only options.

In the UK, many laws – including the Official Secrets Act – make it a crime to disclose unauthorised information. For the recipient there is also a risk. The Assange case is controversial – If Assange is prosecuted, will this have a chilling effect on other journalists who may be on the brink of revealing similar outrages? There are many views on whether Assange should be extradited or not, and if so to Sweden or the US. But whatever happens to him, the freedom of the press must be protected so this crucial safety valve for whistleblowers remains open.

By Protect adviser Laura Fatah

NEWSLETTER

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