27/1/21 at The FOIA Tribunal in support of Stefania Maurizi’s efforts to unlock US/UK communications on WikiLeaks staff

Report by Maxine Walker

On 27 January a significant victory for transparency was achieved in the unlikely venue of the First-Tier Tribunal on Information Rights. Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi has been successfully using Freedom of Information laws both here and in other countries to extract information about the Julian Assange case. In one notable success she gained access to emails between the CPS and Sweden Prosecutors which proved that the British authorities had repeatedly encouraged Swedish prosecutors not to move the investigation forward thus prolonging Julian Assange’s arbitrary detention in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

In the recent case Stefania had been refused access to information about the role of the Metropolitan police in handing over the emails from journalists at Wikileaks to the US Justice Department. The Metropolitan Police refused this request on ‘national security’ grounds. When Maurizi appealed this, a First-Tier Tribunal raised the issue of peoples’ eligibility to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) when they are non-UK citizens or UK citizens/non-UK citizens living outside the country. The issue at stake at yesterday’s Tribunal was whether FOIA applicants had to demonstrate a connection to the UK. This issue meant that Stefania’s and several other FOIA requests and appeals were put on hold including those from journalists outside Britain.

And so it was that the Tribunal met to make this important decision. JADC supporters attended remotely as did some journalists. (And the ease of access to this hearing contrasted starkly with the many administrative, technical and judicial obstacles encountered in Julian Assange hearings both at the Old Bailey and at Westminster Magistrates Courts). Remarkably there was unanimity of opposition on the issue, embracing the Information Commissioner, the Home Office and Stefania’s lawyers. In lengthy submissions they made the point that the FOIA should not impose territorial limitations on those making the inquiry. It is not the applicants who are the issue but the transparency of the UK’s public authorities. The Act allows ‘any persons’ to make a request and this includes any persons whatever their nationality, domicile or substantial connection to the UK. This has never created any issues over the past 15 years. Estelle Dehon, barrister for Maurizi made the additional points of the harm to investigative reporting if such conditions were applied and that none of the other FOIA regimes – in Sweden, Australia and the US – had raised the territoriality of the inquirer issue.

After a 20-minute recess the Upper Tribunal Judge O’Connor and Tribunal Judge Macmillan announced their decision on the limits of FOIA: no territorial limitation should be read into FOIA. The Judges’ reasons will be given in writing at a later date. A victory for transparency and journalism. However, it begs the question of why the earlier Tribunal should have raised this issue for the first time in the case of Stafania Maurizi and her tireless struggle to get information about how British institutions have operated in the case of Julian Assange and other WikiLeaks staff.

It is particularly important that overseas journalists should have this right as, for example, it is Stefania Maurizi, an Italian journalist, rather than journalists in Britain, the US or Sweden, who has done a huge amount for the Julian Assange case by using FOIA. As she says in an interview with Exberliner in 2020:

“When you consider that not a single journalist has tried to get the documents for the Julian Assange and WikiLeaks case, it tells you a lot about the level of journalism. They reported on the case without ever asking for factual information or asking for the documents. They were reporting whatever the prosecutors and lawyers were telling them…. I have tried to access these documents..I started filing my freedom of information request in Sweden, the UK, US and Australia. This case has been going on for 10 years and I have spent the last five years trying to get the documents using the FOIA and litigating my FOIA in four jurisdictions: my lawyers and I are still fighting to get the documents, which shows you the unbearable secrecy around this case. I have seven lawyers, four jurisdictions. I’m telling you this to make you realise how superficial the reporting is even though hundreds of journalists were reporting on it. This is an unbelievable failure of journalism.”

Further reading:

1. Cornerstone Barristers Press Release:https://cornerstonebarristers.com/news/tribunal-confirms-no-territorial-limitation-foia/
2. Doughty Street Press Release:https://www.doughtystreet.co.uk/news/tribunal-confirms-no-territorial-limitation-foia
3. Article by Stefania Maurizi on this FOIA win (in Italian):https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/in-edicola/articoli/2021/01/29/accesso-agli-atti-ha-vinto-la-stampa/6082425/

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