Fighting for freedom of information on Julian Assange is a long battle for Italian journalist

By Jane Whyatt

An Italian journalist faces financial hardship after her Freedom of Information requests for correspondence about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are being subjected to long legal battles.

Fighting for freedom of infomraiton on Julian Assange is a loing battle for Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi's lawyers at the UK FOIA authority: Philip Coppel and Estelle Dehon of Cornerstone Barristers and Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers. Photo: Emilia Butlin

Stefania Maurizi is an investigative reporter working for the Italian daily La Republicca and is based in Rome. Using the Freedom of Information laws, she filed a multi-jurisdictional request in Sweden, Britain, Australia and the United States to access the official messages about Assange, who lived in asylum at London’s Ecuadorean embassy for seven years before the new Ecuador government handed him over to the British police.

The most complex FOIA battle is currently going on in Britain, where Maurizi has been fighting for the last four years, after the UK authorities at the Crown Prosecution Service denied her any documents on the Assange case. Britain’s Freedom of Information Act permits citizens and journalists to obtain official documents on request, unless it is vital to national security that they remain secret until they are published in the official archives by the government, usually after 30 years.

Assange is now in the hospital wing of the high-security Belmarsh prison in England, awaiting extradition to the United States. The US has indicted him under the Espionage Act 1917 which carries a maximum death penalty or life imprisonment. It follows the massive leak of military secrets to WikiLeaks by Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, who is in jail in the United States awaiting trial. Their detention has attracted international support from human rights defenders, who see it as an assault on whistleblowers and those who help them. WikiLeaks based its documentary Collateral Murder on information leaked by Manning.

Maurizi’s FOI quest to uncover details of the case started with Sweden.

Julian Assange faced two allegations of minor rape and sexual molestation laid by two women in Sweden. While the sexual molestation allegations expired due to the statute of limitation back in 2015, the minor rape allegations are still under investigation after the case was reopened by the Swedish prosecutors in May 2019, after Assange was arrested by the UK authorities. 

Swedish authorities granted access to documents

Back in 2010,  the Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny applied for his extradition.

The Italian reporter told ECPMF “Sweden released to me the most important documents I have obtained so far. Two hundred and twenty-six pages of emails and messages. Why did the prosecutor not travel to London to interview Assange about the sex charges whilst he was in the Ecuadorean embassy?“ queried Maurizi, “It was only thanks to my Swedish FOIA that it was possible to discover why: the Swedish prosecutors refused to travel to London to question Assange because the UK authorities at the Crown Prosecution Service had advised them against this possibility. Let's not forget that this possibility was the only investigative strategy that could have led to a quick solution of the Swedish case. So why did the UK authorities advise the Swedish prosecutors against it ?”.

To find the answers, Maurizi filed Freedom of Information requests in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. 

The UK finally released heavily-redacted files during the week before the Freedom of Information Tribunal considered the case on 13-14. November 2017.

These UK official files shocked Stefania Maurizi. “I realised that in the correspondence released to me by the Uk authorities there were gaps about crucial times, for example, some crucial weeks in June 2012”,“. That month was exactly the time in 2012 when Julian Assange skipped bail in order to avoid being extradited to Sweden and took refuge in the London Embassy of Ecuador. “It’s just not possible that there would have been no emails exchanged during that whole period between the British and Swedish authorities“, she notes.

When Maurizi and her lawyers asked the UK authorities at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for an official explanation about those crucial gaps, the CPS notified Maurizi that they had destroyed the correspondence, as the Guardian newspaper reported

Stefania Maurizi’s case was brought to court by barristers Philip Coppel and Estelle Dehon from Cornerstone Barristers, supported by Jennifer Robinson of London’s Doughty Street Chambers.

Watchdog role of investigative journalism

After the 2017 hearing, Estelle Dehon praised Maurizi for bringing the case: “Delighted to have defended you Stefania over the past two days. You were an excellent witness and spoke powerfully about the important watchdog role played by investigative journalism. Thanks also to all who supported the hearing #foia“ she tweeted.

The second hearing, held in July 2019, has yet to produce a ruling. If the appeal succeeds, the result would be that the case would be sent back to the first tier tribunal, so it can decide with the correct approach to the public interest whether the documents should be released.

Dehon told ECPMF: “If it’s rejected, Stefania could appeal but then she would be at risk of having to pay full costs at the Court of Appeal if she was not successful. Such costs regularly amount to ten or fifteen thousand pounds. But I would advise her to take it to the higher court if the judge had made the type of legal error that would affect Freedom of Information law.“

This long-running and expensive case shows that Freedom of Information laws do not necessarily produce access to information without a fight. Julian Assange has become a cult hero for some sections of the libertarian media freedom community. For example, in the German capital Berlin, journalists from the taz newspaper and their supporters hold a weekly protest every Wednesday evening in support of Assange outside the American embassy, next to the world- famous Brandenburg Gate.

In the absence of hard facts, many conspiracy theories continue to circulate online about Julian Assange and his connections to Chelsea Manning. But hard facts are hard to come by.

Maurizi told ECPMF: “The case has already cost me 6,000 euros. It is exhausting and time-consuming and I have to work on it  with my other journalistic work. There is still no response from the United States to my FOIA request. But I wish to remain independent. I am not fighting this case as a supporter of Julian Assange, I am fighting as a journalist looking for factual information. I just want to find out the truth about the case. So I will not accept funding from any organisation that would compromise my independence.“

The latest judgement in the UK Freedom of Information case is expected to be issued between August and September 2019. Watch this space for updates!