Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi, who writes for newspaper La Repubblica, took her Freedom of Information (FOI) request to be allowed access files concerning the extradition case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the United Kingdom’s Upper Tribunal.
Stefania Maurizi said she wanted to defend the right of the press to access the documents on the Assange case in a message on Twitter ahead of the hearing on July 1, with a ruling expected by the end of the week, according to the Press Gazette, a London-based media journal.
Maurizi has been trying to access the files since 2015 when she first filed a freedom of information request with the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Maurizi asking for all CPS correspondence with the Swedish Prosecution Authority, which sought to extradite Assange over a rape allegation in 2012.
The CPS agreed to reveal some of the information requested by Maurizi after the Swedish Prosecution Authority released some information of its own, but much remains outstanding, as well as the correspondence between the CPS and the US State Department, US Department of Justice, and the Ecuadorian Embassy that was also part of Maurizi’s original request. Assange was granted asylum by Ecuador and lived in the country’s London embassy for almost seven years before that was revoked this year and he was arrested.
The US has charged Assange with 17 counts under the Espionage Act and is seeking is extradition from the UK, setting off fury among journalist groups and others who see an attempt to muzzle the media and create a chilling effect to keep reporters from digging for information about any alleged wrongdoing.
The ICO upheld the CPS’ original decision for both parts of the Maurizi’s FOI request and the First-Tier Tribunal in London dismissed Maurizi’s subsequent appeal in December 2017 but she has battled on, this time in a more glaring atmosphere where worldwide attention is focused on the Assange extradition fight.
Her lawyers presented arguments to the Upper Tribunal in London on 1 July, in a packed courtroom full of observers and Assange supporters.
Philip Coppel QC of Cornerstone Barristers, representing Maurizi, said the appeal should be allowed because the “facts, matters and circumstances” around the case had changed by the time the First-Tier Tribunal (FTT) had made its decision.
By the time of the FTT decision, Sweden had dropped its investigation into a rape allegation against Assange after finding that “all possibilities to conduct the investigation are exhausted.” The investigation has since been reopened and Sweden’s prosecutorial authority has said that it is reexamining the evidence.
Maurizi’s lawyers added in a briefing note that the case has wider implications beyond the Assange case because it would mean journalists can “rely on any factual changes” when the appeal to the FTT.
“This would make the FOIA regime much more user-friendly for journalists and other requesters.”
Other issues raised in the tribunal focus on whether public authorities can rely on using “neither confirm nor deny” responses to hide activities that fall outside of their usual functions. Also at issue is whether an individual’s personal interest in particular information means that there cannot also be a public interest in that information.
Robin Hopkins, for the ICO, told the tribunal Maurizi’s team made this argument too late and that it would have made “no difference” to the FTT decision that it was “unable to see” how knowing whether the CPS had received inquiries about extradition or a request for extradition from a country other than Sweden “would be of more than marginal benefit to the public”.
If Maurizi wins the appeal, the case will be heard again by the FTT.