Assange’s embassy stay looks set to end with an extradition flight in the wrong direction

And that could have worrying implications for the free press.

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The end of Julian Assange’s lengthy stay in the Ecuadorian embassy on Thursday morning looks set to end in an extradition flight headed the wrong way.

When he was pictured being carried out of the embassy by police officers, most speculation focussed on whether Assange would be on his way to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault that, while not active, could be reopened. It was these charges that had pushed Assange to seek asylum from Ecuador after losing appeals against extradition in 2012.

However, it quickly emerged that Swedish prosecutors had no knowledge of the arrest, and the Metropolitan Police confirmed they were acting on behalf of US authorities.

The US Department of Justice later released a statement saying that they were pursuing Assange “in connection with a federal charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion for agreeing to break a password to a classified US government computer”.

The indictment alleges that, as head of Wikileaks, Assange conspired with Chelsea Manning to leak information about the activities of the US and its allies that were regularly unethical, if not downright illegal.

Those leaks shone a light on the actions of the US across the world, exposing the true civilian death toll in Iraq, the existence of secret death squads in Afghanistan, widespread corruption among America’s allies and much more besides.

The stories were reported carefully though newspapers and journalistic organisations across the world including the Guardian and the New York Times.

Manning was jailed for 35 years, and only released after seven years in 2017 as a result of a pardon from President Barack Obama. She is currently back in jail for refusing to testify at the Grand Jury hearing seeking Assange’s prosecution.

Now, rather than facing the serious allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, Assange is set to be prosecuted for exposing some of the US’s grubbiest secrets.

Of course he has done his public image no favours by not only hiding from the sexual assault allegations, but also getting involved in disseminating the emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee that dealt a blow to Hilary Clinton’s 2016 run for president.

Which brings us round to Donald Trump.

The greatest fear is that this isn’t about Assange at all, but instead a way of opening up a new front in Trump’s war on the media. The indictment appears to be narrowly focused on hacking, which has led some to conclude that it is not a direct attack on the free press. But it is now inevitable that most leaks will involve access to information held on a computer, and hacking legislation in the US (and the UK) is so broadly drawn that it is not difficult to see a case brought against Assange being used to open up avenues to go after leakers and those they leak to, most often the press Trump so hates.

Perhaps the most vicious irony in all this is by launching a prosecution over the actions of Wikileaks a decade ago, the US is helping to cast Assange in the martyr role he so craves. That might be a small consolation to him if he does end up in a US jail, but it won’t be much comfort to the free press. 

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.