Let’s help the Biden administration celebrate this week’s World Press Freedom Day by asking it about the one case officials don’t want to talk about: the US justice department’s dangerous prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Now, I know Assange is a polarizing individual who millions of Americans, especially liberals, have incredibly strong and negative feelings about. I’m not here to change your mind about Assange the person, but if you care about press freedom, it’s important you change your mind about Assange the legal case.
There are several facts that are critical to understand about the justice department’s charges against Assange – whether you love or hate him. First, the charges have nothing to do with Trump v Clinton, Russia, or the 2016 election. Zero. Those phrases aren’t even mentioned in the indictment. The crux of the case stems from the state department cables and Iraq and Afghanistan war logs that whistleblower Chelsea Manning gave to WikiLeaks in 2010 and were subsequently shared with news outlets around the world, including the Guardian.
Second, the justice department likes to pretend this case is only about hacking and not journalism. They are lying. Seventeen of the 18 charges against Julian Assange are under the Espionage Act, and have nothing to do with hacking. Then again, they have nothing to do with “espionage” either. The US government doesn’t allege Assange sold any secrets to foreign governments, only that he received classified documents from a source inside the US military, spoke with that source, held on to the documents and eventually published some of them.
In other words, things national security reporters at the nation’s most mainstream outlets do every day.
Third, you don’t consider Julian Assange a journalist? Doesn’t matter. Whether or not Assange fits your – or anyone’s – definition of “journalist” is irrelevant when we are talking about the first amendment’s guarantee of press freedom. It’s a right that’s afforded to everyone. All that matters in this case is that Assange was engaging in acts of journalism indistinguishable from the acts carried out every day in the New York Times, the Guardian and elsewhere. If he can be prosecuted for those acts, so can they.
It’s why virtually every single civil liberties, press freedom and human rights organization in the world has repeatedly urged the justice department to drop these dangerous charges.
Now, all newspapers know this. It’s why when the charges first came out every editor condemned them. Since then, the New York Times and the Guardian have signed a letter calling the charges “dangerous” and for them to be dropped. But that’s not sufficient. There’s not been consistent pressure on the justice department, there’s no campaigning by the newspapers, there’s no constant reminders on social media – nothing.
We know the Biden administration is amenable to pressure from news outlets, too. At the beginning of the administration, the public learned that the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN had been secretly spied on by Trump’s justice department, and journalists were rightly outraged. It was not only countless social media posts, but repeated and pointed questioning at White House and justice department press conferences that forced the administration’s hand. President Biden quickly responded, condemning what had happened and within a few days had ordered the justice department to cease spying on journalists under his administration.
Just last month, when the respected Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia on sham “espionage” charges, the Journal marshaled its resources to help its colleague, thousands of journalists expressed outrage on social media, and protests had sprung up everywhere. The White House and state department felt the pressure, and they were soon out in front, promising to do whatever they possibly could to bring Evan home.
And even if you trust Biden not to go after journalists, think about who might follow him. Donald Trump is on the campaign trail right now literally musing about throwing journalists in jail. Who would love to use Assange as precedent more than him?
This isn’t some hypothetical, far-flung, slippery-slope argument. We already know officials in previous administrations – from Nixon to Ford to George W Bush – have wanted to use the Espionage Act to directly prosecute journalists. Each time, they were thwarted because it was assumed such a prosecution would violate the constitution.
Right now, Assange sits where he has for the last several years, behind bars at Belmarsh prison in the United Kingdom, waiting to see if he will be extradited to the United States. Assange’s legal team currently has an appeal out to Britain’s highest court. Many observers were expecting the court to rule more than five months ago, but there’s been no word since 2022. While Assange can still appeal to the European Court of Human Rights if he loses, his chances may be running out.
If Assange is extradited, his case will go from being ignored in the United States to an absolute circus. The justice department will dig its heels in even further to avoid the embarrassment of dropping the charges during a media firestorm. By then it may be too late anyway. A new president may be in office, who would not only ignore pleas from journalists but may revel in them.
Ask yourself: do you trust Donald Trump not to turn around and use this precedent on the reporters he considers the “enemies of the people” and has previously wanted thrown in jail? If not, then now is the time to make your voice heard about the dangerous case against Julian Assange.
If you wait until next World Press Freedom Day, it may be too late.