Assange release welcomed but case 'casts long shadow'

Free speech organisations have welcomed the news of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's release from jail in Britain but say the US case has set a bad precedent for journalism.

Assange is due to plead guilty on Wednesday to one charge of violating US espionage law, in a deal that will allow him to return home to Australia, ending a 14-year legal odyssey that could have landed him in jail in the United States for decades.

US authorities in 2019 charged Assange on 18 criminal counts of conspiring with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain classified information and unlawfully publishing the names of classified sources.

He has been in prison in Britain for the past five years where he has been fighting extradition to the United States.

Several rights groups, leading media organisations and the leaders of countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Australia had urged that the charges against Assange be dropped.

Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of Britain's Guardian newspaper, one of the global titles that worked with WikiLeaks to publish some of the leaked material, said it was "pretty disturbing" that espionage laws were being used to target those who revealed uncomfortable information for states.

"I'm sorry that it's taken a plea on a charge of espionage because I don't think actually anybody thinks that what he was doing was espionage," Rusbridger told Reuters.

"But he's been in jail for long enough. I hope that's the end of his punishment for what he did."

Rusbridger said Assange was the first to pioneer becoming "this new breed of semi-activist, semi-publisher, semi-journalist who use the internet to tremendous effect" and he was sure the intention by the US was to try to deter others from pursuing national security stories.

Assange's supporters say he is a hero who was victimised because he exposed US wrongdoing and alleged war crimes, including in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Washington says the release of documents he helped publish put lives in danger.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the free speech organisation Knight First Amendment Institute, said the deal meant Assange would have served "five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day".

"It will cast a long shadow over the most important kinds of journalism, not just in this country (US) but around the world," Jaffer said in an emailed statement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said the prosecution had grave implications for journalists and press freedom worldwide.

"While we welcome the end of his detention, the US's pursuit of Assange has set a harmful legal precedent by opening the way for journalists to be tried under the Espionage Act if they receive classified material from whistleblowers. This should never have been the case," CPJ CEO Jodie Ginsberg said.