Assange Appeal Hearing Plagued By Media Access Issues

Journalists trying to cover the biggest world press freedom case of the 21st century have struggled to do their jobs.

Assange Appeal Hearing Plagued By Media Access Issues
Photo from Mohamed Elmaazi

In a high-profile extradition case widely regarded as a threat to global press freedom, administrators of the United Kingdom’s courts have repeatedly shown that they are incapable and unwilling to ensure open justice for journalists. 

All reporters outside of England and Wales (including this reporter) were barred from accessing the audio-visual link for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s hearing, where he urged the British High Court of Justice grant permission to appeal extradition to the United States.

Several journalists who traveled internationally to cover proceedings have been seated in a section of the courtroom that makes doing their job practically impossible.

"It's outrageous that the High Court is trying to silence the press's coverage of a case that threatens to silence the press for good. Courts need to be open to the press and public if they expect their rulings to be respected by the public," Freedom of the Press Foundation advocacy director Seth Stern told The Dissenter. "Instead the High Court appears to be doing everything possible to evade transparency and complicate the jobs of journalists and observers."

On the first day, when defense lawyers presented their grounds for appeal, Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi shared, “We [journalists] are sitting in a Victorian gallery with no tables to take notes or use computers. We cannot hear or watch the hearing properly at all. We don't understand what is going on in the court.”

“You should see our faces,” Maurizi added. “We can't believe it is real.”

Such treatment continued on the second day of proceedings, as the Crown Prosecution Service presented the U.S. government’s response to Assange’s appeal request.

“Even this morning, we journalists cannot cover the case properly. No tables for our computers. No chance to hear properly. Audio is so bad. U.K. is a tech power. Microphones are a well-established technology that I am sure U.K. authorities are familiar with,” Maurizi complained from court.

Chip Gibbons, a policy director for Defending Rights & Dissent who is covering the hearing for Jacobin magazine, was also seated on the first day in the gallery. A television that was a distance away from journalists was setup for following testimony. Sound was inaudible.

“Completely shocking what the press has had to endure to report on the press freedom trial of the century,” Gibbons declared.

The next day was not any better. Again, Gibbons was among other journalists “exiled to the balconies, where it is impossible to see the remote broadcast.” There are also no tables or outlets for reporters’ laptops. 

Mohamed Elmaazi, who is covering the proceedings for The Dissenter, described how he was “forced to leave the courtroom” and go to the basement of the court building to follow proceedings via the video link that was provided to journalists to cover the hearing remotely.

“Despite the fact that I have a press ticket, that I applied early, that I am the only journalist to have covered every single hearing in Julian's extradition case since April 2019, I was asked to leave the ‘press section’ and move to the public gallery, which has no tables or anywhere for me to place my laptop and type,” Elmaazi stated.

“The fact that I have a disability and can't write and therefore require the use of my laptop makes it [worse]," Elmaazi shared. 

According to Elmaazi, “This is because priority is given not to the press who arrive on time, but rather members of the establishment press to ensure that they have a seat.”

Fueling Distrust Against The High Court

Consortium News reported that the judge apologized at the start of the second day. “We are aware there were technical problems yesterday which impeded many journalists from following the proceedings,” and, “Please let us know if they persist today.”

Immediately after the judge mentioned technical problems, the court suspended the hearing because no one could hear the prosecutors or defense attorneys. 

"The way the High Court is conducting itself breeds distrust and conspiracy theories rather than respect and understanding. It assures that those who disagree with the court's eventual ruling, whatever it may be, will not give the judges the benefit of the doubt and will not assume they acted in good faith," Stern contended.

Similar “barriers to open justice” in Assange proceedings in 2020 were previously documented by Rebecca Vincent, who is the international campaigns director for Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“RSF observers could only view a small television screen from across a large room, on which it was often not possible to see who was speaking or even whether the judge was sitting,” Vincent recalled. “It was not possible to clearly see Assange in the glass dock he was held in at the back of the courtroom, or assess his well being, whether he could adequately follow proceedings, or if he could communicate easily with his legal representation.”

For a case of this magnitude, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act passed in 2022 grants the courts more power to livestream or broadcast proceedings. The bill was supposed to enable “more people to observe court proceedings and develop a greater understanding of how the justice system works.”

Yet with such limited capacity for the press and public, apparently the court administrators did not bother to adequately prepare so that open justice would be fostered. 

'Potential To Impact Media Freedom Across the World'

Prior to the hearing, the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA), a union that counts Assange as a member, asked the High Court to "ensure full and open access for journalists and the public."

"There is much at stake, and these proceedings have the potential to impact media freedom across the world," MEAA stated.

The High Court formally considered the “international interest in the proceedings, including in particular from Australia (given that the appellant is a national of Australia) and from the United States of America (given that the respondent is the government of the USA).” It concluded that it would not be in the “interests of justice to permit attendance from outside England Wales.” 

"That is because it is satisfied that the open justice principle has been fully reflected by the access that has been provided, which will include journalists from England and Wales and Australia and the USA (and elsewhere)," the court continued.

If journalists from Australia, the U.S., and elsewhere are unable to hear proceedings due to where the court administrators force them to observe the hearing, then the court cannot say that open justice has been upheld.

But the court also mentioned that it “does not have jurisdiction to enforce its order outside England and Wales,” which reveals a major reason why so many reporters were blocked from covering this unprecedented case unless they traveled thousands of miles to London.

The U.K. courts view journalists as a potential threat to security, even if court administrators verify their identity and have a track record of following the court’s rules. As such, although it may have helped alleviate some of the issues with seating journalists, remote access was only provided to those journalists in England and Wales, who the court could penalize or remove from the hearing if administrators deemed it necessary. 

Mohamed Elmaazi is covering the Assange appeal hearing for The Dissenter. His report on Day 1 is here. Newsletter subscribers will receive Elmaazi's Day 2 report later today after court wraps.