Italian journalist in court to appeal against the MPS decision to block access to information about WikiLeaks journalists

Stefania Maurizi, an Italian investigative journalist currently working for the major Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, will be before the First Tier Information Tribunal this week in her long-running battle for access to information from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS).  

Ms Maurizi is seeking information held by the MPS in correspondence with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) about three named WikiLeaks journalists (current and former), Kristinn Hrafnsson, Sarah Harrison and Joseph Farrell. The MPS is refusing to release the information, citing national security and international relations exemptions, claiming the release of the information will harm counter-terrorism initiatives and UK relations with the US. Her appeal is considered so significant and concerning for journalists and media workers in the UK that the National Union of Journalists has intervened to make submissions about the application of these exemptions.

In her appeal, Ms Maurizi argues that the national security and counter-terrorism related exemptions should not apply and that there is significant public interest in understanding whether the MPS, in its correspondence and in any cooperation with the US DOJ, has contributed to the criminal investigation of journalists living and working in the UK. The US criminal investigation into WikiLeaks has been widely condemned by media organisations and free speech organisations. Ms Maurizi further argues that there is public interest in understanding whether, in any correspondence and cooperation with the US investigation, has complied with freedom of expression protections in the UK and the standards expected of British law enforcement agencies.

Jennifer Robinson of Doughty Street Chambers acts for Ms Maurizi, along with Estelle Dehon of Cornerstone Barristers. The hearing will take place on 8 and 9 July 2021.

Stefania Maurizi said:

Nothing is normal in this case. Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks journalists have been under continuous intimidation and investigation for over a decade for revealing war crimes and torture. They were spied in the Ecuadorean embassy, there were discussions to poison Assange, and now Scotland Yard is using national security and anti-terrorism exemptions against these journalists, while Julian Assange risks spending his life in prison. What my lawyers and I have unearthed so far provide indisputable evidence of extremely suspicious behaviour by the authorities involved in this case. It is crucial to keep fighting to obtain the documents. We will leave no stone unturned.

Concern has been raised by the NUJ and other press freedom groups, including The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) about the MPS’ reliance on vague national security arguments to refuse disclosure.

Background to the appeal

Ms Maurizi made her request back in 2017, following the revelation that Google had been served with a secret search warrant served by the US DOJ, which had required Google to hand over all of the emails of Mr Farrell, Ms Harrison and Mr Hrafnsson. Google had handed over that information but did not inform them that they had done so until two years later. When the subpoena became public, concern was raised by WikiLeaks’ US defence counsel and counsel for the American Council for Civil Liberties (ACLU) about the First Amendment concerns raised by handing over information from the accounts of WikiLeaks’ journalists and employees.

Ms Maurizi made the request to the MPS to better understand what role, if any, the UK authorities played in cooperating with the investigation. The case has already involved a number of significant rulings, which were made after Ms Maurizi was forced to challenge various decisions of the MPS and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

First, Ms Maurizi had to appeal against the ICO and MPS decision which refused the information the grounds that the request involved the personal data of the three journalists. Ms Maurizi succeeded in that appeal, heard in November 2018, with the Tribunal finding that the MPS could not refuse to confirm or deny whether it held information about the three named WikiLeaks journalists on data protection grounds because Ms Maurizi had the journalists’ consent to pursue her request. The decision settled a general question of law of importance for all journalists: a data subject can give consent to the disclosure of personal information to another person under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (judgment available here and further information is available here).

On 30 January 2019 the Metropolitan Police confirmed the journalistic status of Kristinn Hrafnsson, Sarah Harrison and Joseph Farrell and that it holds information about the in correspondence with the US Department of Justice, but refused to disclose that information, citing national security and terrorism-based FOIA exemptions. Ms Maurizi complained to the ICO and subsequently appealed to the Tribunal.

Then, in August 2020, Ms Maurizi’s appeal was stayed by the Tribunal, pending a determination on a question of the Tribunal’s jurisdiction: that was, whether individuals or organisations outside of the United Kingdom can make requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). This was despite the fact that Ms Maurizi had previously made FOIA requests and litigated before the Tribunal (in 2018, against the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for information related to the Assange extradition case). Ms Maurizi made written submissions challenging the decision to stay her case and was then included in the lead cases to make submissions on jurisdiction. Ms Maurizi was the only individual requester to be represented by barristers at the hearing, which considered complex case law concerning extraterritorial jurisdiction.

On 27 January 2021, the Tribunal found that no territorial limitation should be read into FOIA, confirming the approach that had been taken by UK public authorities. This allowed Ms Maurizi’s appeal to progress to hearing.

In addition to this FOIA appeal in relation to information about the three current and former WikiLeaks journalists, Ms Maurizi earlier fought another FOIA case on Julian Assange against the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) since 2015. In total, she has spent the last 6 years trying to obtain documentation related to Mr Assange’s case. Her appeal against the CPS revealed significant information, including:

  • the destruction of key emails by the CPS - the agency in charge of the current US extradition case against Assange and previously in charge of the Swedish extradition case – at a time when the case was still ongoing and highly controversial.

  • how the CPS contributed to the continuing judicial and diplomatic quagmire which kept Julian Assange in London, and resulted in the UN arbitrary detention ruling in 2016.