Investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi has been with WikiLeaks for more than 12 years.
She has worked for several leading Italian publications and currently works for the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.
Years ago, she helped expose Rome’s role in the United States and the so-called “war on terror” led by NATO, sifting through thousands of classified US government documents denounced by the organization. Leaked from 2010 onwards.
Today, the group’s 51-year-old Australian founder, Julian Assange, is being held in a maximum security prison in the UK, as his lawyers continue their battle to avoid extradited to the USwhere he could face 175 years in prison.
Assange and WikiLeaks have been accused by the US government of hacking websites and leaking classified documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as US diplomatic cables.
Maurizi’s new book, Secret power: WikiLeaks and its enemiespublished by Pluto Press, looks at the legal cases against Assange, the state of the press, and the need for official transparency.
Al Jazeera: If Assange is extradited to the US, what does this mean for journalists?
Maurizi: If Julian Assange is extradited to the US, it will have a serious impact on press freedom, not just press freedom. This is not just the case with journalists. It’s a case of people’s right to know what our government is doing in dark corners with no witnesses.
If you can’t reveal the state’s crime at the highest level, you can’t say you’re living in a democracy. You’re living in a state that may not be completely authoritarian, like dictatorships, but still so dictatorial that you can’t tell what they’re doing.
What can we do? I truly believe we have a duty to expose how serious this terrible injustice is. We have a duty to inform the public. We have a duty to expose his cruelty [Assange] treatment. They are killing him slowly.
His father [John Shipton] was in Italy recently. He received an honor card from the Italian Association of Professional Journalists in Rome on behalf of Assange… I spoke to him and he was very disappointed. He told me Julian was dangerously thin.
Al Jazeera: Have you met Assange since his detention?
Maurizi: I do not have any access to him, and so far, visits have only been allowed to the legal team, to members of his family, and not to me and other journalists.
The last time I saw him was November 2018, five months before his arrest. I found him in a very serious condition. He was very heavy… he lost 15 kg (33lb). But he is still sane. He told me he would be arrested and extradited.
Al Jazeera: At one point in your book, you recall feeling nervous traveling from Berlin to Rome after working with WikiLeaks. You’ve got with you a small part of the Afghanistan war diary. Have you ever felt apprehensive about your participation?
Maurizi: I have never feared for my life. If you take my country of Italy as an example, we have dozens of journalists living under protection due to Mafia threats. They kill journalists because they have no tools other than violence.
In my case, I don’t believe there is a risk because [government officials] There are several tools. They don’t just see violence as a tool. They use things like political pressure and diplomacy. Many journalists have stopped working on WikiLeaks because they think it harms their careers. They may lose access to public officials. Their careers can be damaged.
But yes… I was being watched closely, and it was not a pleasant experience to experience, especially when you are abroad and alone. I was physically attacked (Editor’s note: Maurizi writes in her book that she was once robbed in Rome) and there were very important documents stolen that never showed up again.
I can assure you that this job does not bring me any good friends or allies. It put me on a collision course with my old newspaper, la Repubblica, from which I resigned after 14 years so I could continue my investigative work on WikiLeaks. I have resigned, and my income has decreased, but I will do it again. Compared to the hardships Assange has gone through, my troubles are nothing.
Al Jazeera: Do you think WikiLeaks has “completely transformed journalism”? How to do so?
Maurizi: First of all, they make these documents accessible and provide a reasonably secure platform for whistleblowers who want to leak, because one of the problems is that in traditional media, people people still use old technologies like cell phones and email, which are completely vulnerable. .
In addition, they provide these materials to billions of people.
Surname [WikiLeaks] Not only do they publish disclosures, like national security journalists, they make factual material available to all, so that anyone can decide for themselves.
Anyone can check to see if a journalist has misrepresented or censored anything. This is the democratization of information, the democratization of access to information. It is about making the relationship between readers and journalists less asymmetrical.
This is not just a revolution in journalism, but a revolution in access for [everyday citizens] Important Information. You must be able to access this information in order to participate appropriately democratically in public life.
Al Jazeera: Assange’s critics are speaking out. They called him a “hacktivist” and said WikiLeaks’ work was far from journalism. What do you do about these characteristics?
Maurizi: It’s completely wrong. He is clearly a journalist, and we cannot allow the state to decide who is and who is not.
Of course, the US government tried to weaken these press protections, because they knew that as long as he had press protection, it would be difficult for them to charge him. And that is why the US government is emphasizing the argument that he is not a journalist, but possibly a hacker or an activist.
We have seen in the last three years that all major news organizations consider him a journalist, even the International Federation of Journalists.
So what the US is doing is using a scare tactic. They are just trying to get around the protection of the press. This is really what [Benito] Mussolini did in Italy. Mussolini created a system in which the state decides who is a journalist and who is not to control the press.
Al Jazeera: The US government and some observers accused Assange of being reckless and suggested that the leak could lead to attacks.
Maurizi: These documents were published in 2010. Twelve years later, U.S. authorities could not name a single person who was killed, who was injured, or who was sent to prison.
Right after Julian Assange started and WikiLeaks started publishing the Afghanistan war diaries, the state department, the Pentagon, the CIA, set up this huge task force to check if anyone was injured, check the names that have been published and after 12 years. , they could not provide an example.
Imagine if they found a single example, they would spread it all over the world.
Al Jazeera: Accuser Chelsea Manning, who leaked Iraq and Afghanistan war diaries, faces jail time. What does this mean for the future of whistleblowing?
Maurizi: The aggressive arrest and prosecution of the likes of Assange and Manning sends a message to whistleblowers and journalists that you must be very careful because if you continue with this… your life will be ruined. .
So we still have people who follow their conscience and go ahead, so I’m still optimistic. That’s why I absolutely want Assange to win the case. I believe that if he does, this will be a huge step forward for a society where you can expose state crimes to the highest degree and be free and safe.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.