GENEVA: An international coalition of journalists, editors and publishers demanded Wednesday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange be immediately released from a UK jail and that all charges against him be dropped.
Fifteen representatives of international journalist and publishers’ unions and organizations gathered in Geneva for the “call to free Julian Assange in the name of press freedom.”
“We are demanding that Julian Assange be freed, returned to his family, and finally permitted to live a normal life,” said Dominique Pradalie, head of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which counts some 600,000 members across 140 countries.
“If Julian Assange is freed today, they will still have stolen 10 years of his life,” she told the event.
The call came after the British government last week approved Assange’s extradition to the United States, to the dismay of his supporters and free press campaigners.
Assange, 50, has said he will appeal against the decision.
Assange’s long-running legal saga began in 2010 after WikiLeaks published more than 500,000 classified US documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is wanted to face trial for violating the US Espionage Act, and could face up to 175 years in jail if found guilty.
The Assange case has become a cause celebre for media freedom and his supporters accuse Washington of trying to muzzle reporting of legitimate security concerns.
Wednesday’s event condemned the British decision as a “flagrant violation of human rights and a showing of total contempt for freedom of the press.”
Pierre Ruetschi, the head of the Swiss Press Club hosting the event, warned that “democracy is being taken hostage.”
“This attempt at criminalizing journalism is a serious threat.”
Tim Dawson, of the National Union of Journalists of Britain and Ireland, agreed.
“If Julian Assange can be threatened with prosecution as a spy, what might that mean for other journalists?” he said.
Assange’s self-proclaimed status as a journalist has been questioned by US authorities and others.
But several of Wednesday’s speakers stressed that regardless of whether he can be considered a traditional journalist, he is being targeted for typical journalistic activities, setting a “dangerous precedent.”
“Assange revealed war crimes, human rights violations, and all the information revealed is of course of public interest,” said Edgar Block, the co-president of Swiss journalist association Impressum.
“If he is extradited and condemned today, other journalists will be condemned as well.”
A number of the petitioners also called on Swiss authorities to facilitate his release by offering him a safe haven from further prosecution in Switzerland.
Assange has been held on remand at a top-security jail in southeast London since 2019 for jumping bail in a previous case accusing him of sexual assault in Sweden.
Before that he spent seven years at Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid being removed to Sweden.
The Australian was arrested when the government changed in Quito and his diplomatic protection was removed.