The US government must drop its prosecution of the WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange because it is undermining press freedom, according to the media organisations that first helped him publish leaked diplomatic cables.
Twelve years ago today, the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País collaborated to release excerpts from 250,000 documents obtained by Assange in the “Cablegate” leak. The material, leaked to WikiLeaks by the then American soldier Chelsea Manning, exposed the inner workings of US diplomacy around the world.
The editors and publishers of the media organisations that first published those revelations have come together to publicly oppose plans to charge Assange under a law designed to prosecute first world war spies.
“Publishing is not a crime,” they said, saying the prosecution is a direct attack on media freedom.
Assange has been held in Belmarsh prison in south London since his arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2019. He had spent the previous seven years living inside the diplomatic premises to avoid arrest after failing to surrender to a UK court on matters relating to a separate case.
The then UK home secretary, Priti Patel, approved Assange’s extradition to the US in June but his lawyers are appealing against this decision.
Under Barack Obama’s leadership, the US government indicated it would not prosecute Assange for the leak in 2010 because of the precedent it would set. The media outlets are now appealing to the administration of President Joe Biden – who was vice-president at that time – to drop the charges.
The full letter sent by the media organisations
Publishing is not a crime: The US government should end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets.
Twelve years ago, on November 28th 2010, our five international media outlets – the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel – published a series of revelations in cooperation with WikiLeaks that made the headlines around the globe.
“Cablegate”, a set of 251,000 confidential cables from the US state department, disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale.
In the words of the New York Times, the documents told “the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money”. Even now in 2022, journalists and historians continue to publish new revelations, using the unique trove of documents.
For Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, the publication of “Cablegate” and several other related leaks had the most severe consequences. On [April 11th] 2019, Assange was arrested in London on a US arrest warrant, and has now been held for three and a half years in a high-security British prison usually used for terrorists and members of organised crime groups. He faces extradition to the US and a sentence of up to 175 years in an American maximum-security prison.
This group of editors and publishers, all of whom had worked with Assange, felt the need to publicly criticise his conduct in 2011 when unredacted copies of the cables were released, and some of us are concerned about the allegations in the indictment that he attempted to aid in computer intrusion of a classified database. But we come together now to express our grave concerns about the continued prosecution of Julian Assange for obtaining and publishing classified materials.
The Obama-Biden administration, in office during the WikiLeaks publication in 2010, refrained from indicting Assange, explaining that they would have had to indict journalists from major news outlets too. Their position placed a premium on press freedom, despite its uncomfortable consequences. Under Donald Trump however, the position changed. The DoJ relied on an old law, the Espionage Act of 1917 (designed to prosecute potential spies during world war one), which has never been used to prosecute a publisher or broadcaster.
This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s first amendment and the freedom of the press.
Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalised, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.
Twelve years after the publication of “Cablegate”, it is time for the US government to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets.
Publishing is not a crime.
The editors and publishers of:
The New York Times
• Footnote added 29 November 2022: Julian Assange was arrested on 11 April 2019, not 12 April 2019 as the letter originally stated.