The Prosecution of Julian Assange Is an Assault on the First Amendment
Some establishment journalists in the U.S. consider Julian Assange to be a criminal whose work doesn’t fit into the same category as their own.
In April 2019, police dragged the WikiLeaks founder out of the Ecuadorian embassy where he’d lived for seven years after the U.S. government indicted him for allegedly helping Chelsea Manning access government databases. The New York Times editorial board applauded the move, writing that it “could help draw a sharp line between legitimate journalism and dangerous cybercrime,” and that, “The [Trump] administration has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with an indisputable crime.”
“Julian Assange is not a free-press hero,” The Washington Post editorial board opined, “And he is long overdue for personal accountability.”
Then in May 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed a second set of charges against Assange that, if they were to result in a conviction, could set a dangerous legal precedent that would put all investigative journalists who expose state secrets at risk of going to prison. Whether the media considers Assange one of their own, his fate could have a profound impact on the future of their profession.
The DOJ charged Assange with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by publishing the information leaked by Chelsea Manning. If convicted, he could face up to 175 years in prison.
Edward Snowden, a former government contractor, has also been charged under the Espionage Act for leaking information to the media, which is how it’s more commonly used. What’s different about Assange’s case is that the government is claiming that an individual unaffiliated with the government is guilty of a criminal violation for seeking out and publishing classified information, which is exactly what journalists do on a routine basis.
Even many of his biggest media critics are concerned by the additional charges.
“The Trump administration has just put every journalistic institution in this country on Julian Assange’s side of the ledger, which, I know, is unimaginable,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said on her show after the government revealed the Espionage Act charges. A little more than a month earlier, Maddow had devoted a segment to explaining why Assange’s alleged offer to assist Chelsea Manning in cracking a password violated the rules of journalism.
“Really anybody who is concerned about press freedom should be deeply concerned about the prosecution of Julian Assange by the Trump administration,” says Freedom of the Press Foundation co-founder Trevor Timm, who testified in Assange’s U.K. extradition hearing. He says that Assange’s conviction under the Espionage Act would set a precedent that could endanger any journalist publishing leaked information about the U.S. government.
“Maybe [some] journalists don’t like Julian Assange, or they have criticized…his actions over the years. And that’s all well and good, but what really matters [are] the acts which the Justice Department is trying to criminalize here,” says Timm.
Timm says that a journalist like Bob Woodward, who’s made a career publishing government secrets, would be endangered by such a precedent, pointing to Woodward’s 2011 book Obama’s Wars as an example. “[That book] is page after page of highly classified information…basically the most sensitive information that you could possibly imagine at a far higher classification level than anything WikiLeaks published.”
Even the Watergate stories that Woodward published for the Washington Post with Carl Bernstein might be illegal if the Assange standard were applied, argues Timm, because Woodward and Bernstein sought out secret information from grand jurors during their reporting.
“Richard Nixon may never have had to resign,” says Timm. “And [Woodward and Bernstein] quite possibly could
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