New documentary on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange highlights big stakes for all journalists

It has been four years this week since Julian Assange was imprisoned in London’s Belmarsh Prison, held in a legal battle over his extradition to the US on espionage charges for publishing classified military information.

Although the Trump Administration brought the charges against the Australian-born Assange, the Biden Administration has indicated it plans to pursue them. The case has profound implications on national security journalism and what First Amendment protections journalists and publishers have.

The case –and Assange’s family’s fight to free him, is at the center of a 2021 documentary film, “Ithaka,” which is primarily told through his father’s perspective.

Gabriel Shipton, Niels Ladefoged and John Shipton discuss the documentary film about Julian Assange at a recent screening at Columbia College Chicago. Gabriel Shipton is Assange’s step-brother and was a producer. Ladefoged was the director of photography. The film, “Ithaka,” tells the story of Assange’s imprisonment through the perspective of John Shipton, his father. Photo by Irvin Ibarra

John Shipton, Assange’s father, has been touring the US with the film, most recently appearing with Assange’s step-brother at two screenings in Chicago, one at Columbia College Chicago and one at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.

The film follows the dynamic perspectives of Shipton and Stella Morris-Assange, Assange’s wife and mother of their two children, as they embark on the fight to prevent his extradition to the U.S., where he faces 175 years in prison for the reporting and publishing of classified documents to WikiLeaks.

Press advocates have expressed concern that if the US government successfully prosecutes Assange, it could impede future investigative journalism, particularly when it involves whistleblowers exposing potential crimes or wrongdoing by a government. 

“The underlying strength of what we’re able to bring to people … after the film is the ruination of journalism,” the soft-spoken John Shipton said at the Columbia College screening. “When we realize that there’s a symbiosis between a free press and democracy – and each cannot exist without the other – then the concerns deepen, and become practical, and allowing people to apply this strengthen unity and organization to ensuring that the persecution of Julian is suspended, and that their rights to a free press and buoyant democracy continues.”

Throughout the film, one of the principal perspectives followed is that of Shipton, who positions himself as a father doing whatever he can to support his son. Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s step-brother who also produced the film, said the main focus of the film is to encourage viewers to contact their representatives and the Biden Administration as leverage against Assange’s prosecution.

The Department of Justice “is pushing the prosecution,” said Grabriel Shipton, noting Attorney General Merrick Garland’s influential role. “The decision ultimately is said to be made by Merrick Garland, but obviously it’s not a one-way street. There would be feedback between the [Biden] administration and the Garland DOJ.”

On Tuesday, a group of House Democrats sent a letter to Garland urging him to drop the charges. The congressional effort was first reported by the Intercept last week.

In addition to a number of prominent journalism organizations, the Assange family has received the support of world leaders from Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Chile, Argentina, and Assange’s home country Australia, John Shipton said.

Julian now has a state representing him in relationship to the prosecution under the Espionage Act,” John Shipton said, “This is a profound matter, the using of the Espionage Act to blight the First Amendment, and as a consequence the Bill of Rights … is a profound concern for the people of the United States.”

Ultimately, the film revolves around the story of Assange’s alleged mistreatment. During the editing process, Gabrielle described the production as leaving it up to the rest of the production team, including Director of Photography Niels Ladefoged, to pick the parts most compelling and moving while giving hints of the story happening behind the scenes.

“Both Stella and John are in the middle in a campaign to, in the end, save a family member’s life,” Ladefoged said about the filming process, “From my perspective, it was just about being there – whatever would happen would be a piece of significant history and there was no way to tell what was important.”

The “Ithaka” production team will continue to travel throughout the U.S. in an effort to raise awareness and support for Assange. John Shipton hopes that the concerns for Assange can manifest into practical action, allowing them to organize and fight for, not just his release, but protections for the right to a free press.

“We’re not great philosophers, magnificent writers, just a family attempting to save a member of the family from malice and distraction by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden,” John Shipton said. “The support of the supporters is our energy … we are simply a catalyst among people for the support and for the yearning to see justice done and revulsion [of] that injustice that is already there.”

For more information about the film and future screenings, visit the “Ithaka” documentary’s official website for details.

Irvin Ibarra is a Chicago-based freelancer. 

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