Release sought of correspondence between MPS & DOJ on WikiLeaks Journalists

24 Feb 2020

Information Law

As Julian Assange returns to court for a further hearing in his extradition case, investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi has filed yet another appeal in her long-running FOIA battle to obtain information held by UK law enforcement about WikiLeaks journalists and Assange.

In April 2019, the Metropolitan Police (MPS) confirmed that it holds information about three WikiLeaks journalists in correspondence between it and US Department of Justice (DOJ).

However, the MPS refused to disclose the information, partly on grounds of safeguarding national security and preventing terrorism. The Information Commissioner upheld this decision and Maurizi has today, 24 February 2020, lodged her appeal with the First-tier Tribunal.

La Repubblica journalist Maurizi, who has worked as a media partner on all the WikiLeaks releases, has been investigating the 2015 handover by Google to the US DOJ of all emails and digital data of Mr Kristinn Hrafnsson, then WikiLeaks’ spokesperson, now its editor; Sarah Harrison, then WikiLeaks’ investigative editor and Joseph Farrell, then WikiLeaks’ section editor. All three journalists were based in the UK and two are UK citizens.

In June 2017, Maurizi made a Freedom of Information request to the MPS, with the three journalists’ consent, for any information it held about them in correspondence with the DOJ to be disclosed to her. The MPS initially refused to confirm whether it held any information, but Stefania’s lawyers successfully appealed to the First-tier Tribunal in 2018.

The MPS was required to respond to the substance of the request. It confirmed the journalistic status of the three journalists and that it holds such documents, but refused to disclose them, citing national security and terrorism-based FOIA exemptions.

This raised very significant concerns, as the fact the MPS relied on terrorism-based exemptions suggested it was claiming use of methods or legislation designed to combat terrorism in relation to UK-based journalists. As a result, the National Union of Journalists released a statement emphasising that journalism is not a crime and that it is crucial that journalists can report on national security, rather than have these laws used against them.

Maurizi complained to the Information Commissioner, who upheld the refusal in a terse decision which failed to explain why the MPS was justified in relying on national security and terrorism-based exemptions, or how the strong public interest in disclosure was overcome. Maurizi has therefore appealed to the Tribunal and a hearing will take place later in the year.

Estelle Dehon who is representing Maurizi alongside Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers, said: “There is no evidence that the correspondence engages a UK security body or that disclosure of information relating to UK-based journalists would have a ‘real possibility’ of harming national security. The complete lack of transparency around this case, including in the ICO’s decision, is wholly contrary to the requirements of FOIA.”

This appeal to the Tribunal is the third made by Maurizi since 2017. In November 2017, as a result of two freedom of information requests made by Maurizi, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) released emails between it and the Swedish Prosecution Authority (SPA) concerning Julian Assange. Those e-mails showed that, early in the extradition process, the CPS advised the SPA against interviewing Assange in London, despite the potential for this to progress matters.

Once Assange had entered the Ecuadorian Embassy, the CPS urged the SPA not to withdraw the European Arrest Warrant, despite the SPA’s concern about mounting costs and Swedish laws requiring consideration of intrusion and detriment to the suspect. This information formed part of arguments made on behalf of Assange in 2018 that the arrest warrant against for breaching his bail in 2012 should not be upheld.

Maurizi said in evidence before the Tribunal in 2017 that she hoped, through her FOIA litigation, to establish facts, through obtaining primary documents to shed light on why the impasse was created that kept Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy. Her latest appeal aims to establish the facts about the UK’s involvement with the DOJ in investigating UK-based journalists.