WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson discusses the timing of Julian Assange's arrest and what's at stake for the media.
Six years, nine months, three weeks, two days after taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, the impasse was broken when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was dragged out of the building by British police in response to an extradition request from the United States.
When it comes to media personalities and stories about journalism, there are few that come to mind that are bigger than Assange and WikiLeaks.
Assange stands charged with "a conspiracy to commit computer intrusion" and his extradition could have wider implications for journalists in the digital age, in the US and beyond.
The Listening Post's Richard Gizbert speaks with WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson on the charges and the timing of Julian Assange's arrest.
Al Jazeera: Let's start with the context and the question, why now? Given that Ecuador took Julian Assange in seven years ago, does the decision to expel him from the embassy and probably place him at the mercy of the US justice system simply come down to the fact that the president who initially gave him asylum, Rafael Correa, is no longer in power, having been replaced by the new President, Lenin Moreno?
Kristinn Hrafnsson: That's exactly what happened. I mean, the only change that was in the scenario was that the fact that there was a regime change in Ecuador and the president that came in there was willing to bow to the pressure or willing to curry favours with the Trump administration.
There had been reports in the New York Times in December that he was willing to hand Julian Assange over to the Trump administration in exchange for debt relief or favours from the IMF. So it didn't come as a surprise. And therefore there has been increased pressure inside the Ecuadorian embassy in trying to force him out, and it ended in this manner this week.
Al Jazeera: Edward Snowden was among the people who tweeted on this right away, and he said, "Images of Ecuador's ambassador inviting the UK's secret police into the embassy to drag a publisher of - like it or not - award-winning journalism out of the building are going to end up in the history books. Assange's critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom."
How do you see this precedent?
Hrafnsson: I totally agree with Snowden on this, it is a very dark day and it sets a precedent that is totally … actually very dangerous for journalists, editors, publishers all around the world. If you can extradite a journalist to a third country, the United States, for publishing the truth, no journalist can be secure. So this must be stopped. This must be resisted in all manner. It has to unify journalists around this cause, whatever they may think about Julian Assange.
Al Jazeera: Prosecutors allege that in March of 2010, Julian Assange agreed to assist Chelsea Manning, his source, in cracking a password that will allow Manning to get access to some of these classified US Defense Department documents that would later be released through WikiLeaks. Did that in fact happen? And how problematic will that be for Julian Assange's case?
Hrafnsson: Well this communication, alleged communication between Julian and Chelsea Manning has been held in the open for years. There's a reference here to an alleged communication between a journalist and a source, and what is dragged forth there.
There is a quote there that Julian Assange allegedly said to Chelsea Manning, "Curious eyes never run dry," and that is supposed to be a proof of conspiracy. It's outrageous. Let's not forget the fact that Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, she served seven years of that time. She's now been hauled back in prison for refusing to testify against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
So this has been the escalation now, we have Chelsea Manning in prison, we also have Julian Assange in prison, so it's coming to a finale in the saga where a journalist, a publisher, and editor is going to face prison time for doing what journalists are supposed to be doing.
Al Jazeera: The charges in the US carry maximum jail time of five years. First of all, do you take the US Justice Department at its word on that?
Hrafnsson: No, I mean there are two things to consider here. First, this is … this is a reference to hacking here, it's being reported in media as a conspiracy of hacking, which is a very strange depiction of this.
But secondly, this is only the tip of the iceberg. We are absolutely certain that this is only one of the charges that will be brought on Julian Assange, and they will be added on more charges when he arrives - if he arrives in the United States in chains.
It's specifically presented in this manner, in our opinion, to increase the likelihood that he will be extradited because people will say, "well, it's only five years".
Al Jazeera: So many news outlets published materials furnished to them by WikiLeaks over your busiest period. There were Afghan War Logs, the Iraq War Logs, the US diplomatic cables, it was a feeding frenzy among mainstream media organisations with that material.
The New York Times for instance published WikiLeaks materials, commodified it, turned it into clicks, profited from it and published an editorial yesterday in which it kind of sat on the fence. Whereas the Guardian in the UK said "extraditing Assange is wrong".
The New York Times sat on the fence and wrote a very carefully worded editorial on that. What do you make of the way news outlets have covered this story this week?
Hrafnsson: Well, they have been trying to play it very safe and it seems to me that the New York Times, I read the editorial, seem to be content. Content to fall on that plot to say well this is not charges for publication, not for journalism, but something totally different.
They are falling into buying the narrative of the Trump administration which ... I think it's disgraceful - we all know what this is about - it's about the revelations of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is what it's about.
The Guardian changed its tune - we have been very critical of the Guardian, and we have to take them to court for a libellous and fabricated story they printed on November 27 which was very dangerous on the allegation that Paul Manafort had a secret meeting in the Ecuadorian embassy on three occasions which everybody knows is a total fabrication and will not retract it.
Al Jazeera: Written by Luke Harding.
Hrafnsson: Written by Luke Harding and Dan Collins with the help of a third party from Ecuador actually. So the Guardian changed the tone and came to the right conclusion on this issue.
Al Jazeera: Do you think Julian Assange can get a fair trial in the US? Do you think he can get a fair extradition hearing in the UK? Which is more likely in your view?
Hrafnsson: Well, if I were to take into account the snarky comments by the judge last week about him being "a narcissistic personality" and what have you - which I thought was totally outrageous.
Al Jazeera: So you don't have high hopes…
Hrafnsson: I do not have high hopes in the UK court system. As with trial in the United States - it's totally impossible to have a fair trial in the United States. If you consider the harsh words from high officials throughout the years, and now from members of the Trump administration, there's no chance that he's going to have a fair trial there.
Al Jazeera:Jeremy Corbyn, the British opposition leader has come out and said flat-out that "the extradition of Julian Assange to the US for exposing evidence of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan should be opposed by the British government".
Can UK politicians make a difference, or is it too late for that?
Hrafnsson: Of course, they can make a difference, and we are really thankful of the support of politicians to this cause. They have an effect on public opinion, and they might of course be in office when this comes to the courts here. Of course they can make a difference, just as in the same manner that outrageous comments by politicians in the United States make it totally impossible for a fair trial there.
Al Jazeera: This case is about more than Julian Assange, it's about the precedent and the chill that it may set among other news organisations. I'm wondering how effective WikiLeaks can be with Julian Assange behind bars - even with the - you've been with the organisation for 10 years, you're now an editor. Are you going to continue to publish information at the rate that you have been?
Hrafnsson: We have been of course restrained by this situation that Julian has been in for years, but we have tried to work around it, and we've had ways and means to do that. There have been weeks and months where Julian has been without any ability to communicate with the outside world except through lawyers and a couple of colleagues that go in.
So we are able to work around it, and WikiLeaks will continue this work, absolutely.
Al Jazeera: Thank you for speaking with us at The Listening Post today.