And WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said the action could embolden governments to commit more “aggressive acts against journalists” and hide more information unless regimes, including the Australian government, were held to account.
Mr Hrafnsson’s warnings in an address to the National Press Club come weeks after the launch of the Your Right to Know campaign, unveiled by a coalition of Australian media organisations to protect the Australian public’s access to information.
The campaign calls for six legal reforms to combat creeping government secrecy, including protection for public sector whistleblowers, limitations on what documents could be stamped secret, and the ability for media organisations to contest search warrants.
Mr Hrafnsson said questions were already being asked on the world stage about the Australian Government’s apparent failure to support Mr Assange, and his forcible removal from the Ecuadorean embassy and incarceration told governments it was possible to take bold action against journalists without repercussions.
“I have a feeling — of course I can’t say that for certain — that the raids in Australia in June would not have happened if he hadn’t been dragged out of the embassy in April,” Mr Hrafnsson said.
“It seems that the incidents of these aggressive acts against journalists have escalated in the last few months so it seems that the precedent that I talked about … has had an effect on other actions. It enables governments to take bolder steps.”
Australian Federal Police raided the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC’s Sydney newsroom in June and seized information related to news stories on government powers to spy on citizens and defence documents detailing the operations of Australian special forces.
But Mr Hrafnsson said journalists should not be punished for exposing important issues, and dismissed the Morrison Government’s line that there needed to be a “balance” between national security and journalism.
“Governments should not hide all their actions behind official secrecy while seeking to know more and more about every one of us,” he said.
“To speak about balance between government secrecy and the public’s right to know is to not acknowledge how seriously out of balance these things have become.”
Mr Hrafnsson also called on Australians to support Mr Assange’s bid to avoid extradition to the US, and revealed the journalist had lost weight, wore earplugs constantly to dampen prison noise, and was kept “in isolation for 20 hours a day or even more”.
“This is no place for a journalist, no place for an Australian citizen who has done nothing wrong but exposed the truth,” he said.
Mr Assange faces 18 espionage charges in the US, and a possible 170-year prison sentence for receiving and publishing classified information. A hearing will be held in February.