Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
The images were shocking but not unexpected – a bedraggled Julian Assange removed from the Ecuadorean embassy in London Thursday by British police after nearly seven years of confinement. The Wikileaks founder had finally reached the end of his long and contentious asylum. And his much-delayed encounter with justice has arrived.
Assange, Wikileaks and their supporters maintain that Britain, by arresting Assange on a US extradition warrant, is an accomplice to an assault against press freedom, arguing that their work, obtaining and releasing massive amounts of secret data, is not a crime.
But Assange’s claim that he is a journalist is false, as he has proven time and again. That he is not a journalist, however, will not preclude authoritarian governments from using his case to thwart the legitimate media.
Assange should face justice, but the process will be a perilous one for the free press. If handled correctly by the courts, it should result in the development of a functioning definition of what a journalist is, depriving propaganda outlets and government agents of using the label to take cover – and providing the press with the protection it needs to inquire, investigate and report.
Assange entered Ecuador’s embassy in 2012, fleeing potential extradition to Sweden, where he faced sexual assault charges. Sweden dropped the case on a technicality, but prosecutors say they may reopen that case.
In the embassy, Assange, who suffers no shortage of self-regard, became a nightmare for his hosts. Then-President Rafael Correa, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, granted him asylum and citizenship, which has now been suspended. But his successor, President Lenín Moreno, had little patience for his troublesome guest. Assange interfered in other countries’ politics and created foreign relations problems for Ecuador.
On Thursday, Moreno announced a deal with the UK. Assange, he said, had “repeatedly violated asylum conventions,” breaking into embassy archives and mistreating guards. The British, Moreno said, gave written assurances that they would not extradite him to a country where he could face the death penalty, a point sure to receive scrutiny.
Much of what will come next centers on whether Assange is a journalist. Edward Snowden, under asylum in Russia after he released secret US government documents, called the arrest “a dark moment for press freedom.” Wikileaks maintained the United States wants to “prosecute a publisher for publishing truthful information.” But history undercuts their claim.
Assange and Wikileaks captured headlines and rocked government in 2010, when they released a trove of Pentagon and State Department documents stolen by Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst. Assange reveled in his fame and declared himself a champion of “radical transparency.” Over time it became evident that his quest for transparency was not universal. Instead, Assange and his group have shown their agenda is anything but that. They are curiously selective in their targets, and their work has hewed closely to Putin’s agenda.
Wikileaks figures prominently in the Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The July 2018 indictment of 12 Russian agents describes how GRU, Russian military intelligence, worked closely with “Organization 1,” Wikileaks, in its conspiracy against the United States.
Assange worked diligently to advance Putin’s goals. The Russian President wanted Hillary Clinton to lose, and Assange went out of his way to help. There is ample evidence from Wikileaks and from Guccifer 2.0 – a persona created by GRU to cover its tracks – that the Russians stole Clinton’s campaign emails and gave them to Wikileaks to reveal at the most harmful possible moment.
Assange also made extra efforts to smear the Clinton campaign, adva