President Biden opened his speech at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents Dinner with an urgent appeal for the release of imprisoned journalists—and for increased global recognition of the vital importance of robust protections for a free press.
“Tonight, our message is this: Journalism is not a crime!” declared Biden, as he put aside the evening’s punch lines for a serious show of solidarity with jailed and persecuted journalists around the world, including Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who has been falsely accused of espionage by the Russians, and Austin Tice, a kidnapped American journalist who is believed to be held by the Syrian government.
“The free press is a pillar—maybe the pillar—of a free society, not the enemy,” Biden told the assembled reporters, editors, TV anchors, and radio hosts. “You make it possible for ordinary citizens to question authority—and, yes, even to laugh at authority—without fear or intimidation. That’s what makes this nation strong. So, tonight, let us show ourselves and the world our strength, not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
The statement was a welcome departure from the attacks on journalism that characterized the administration of Donald Trump, who claimed in 2019 that “the press…is the enemy of the people.”And it anticipated the participation of high-profile Biden administration members, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in events scheduled for Wednesday that will honor World Press Freedom Day.
Unfortunately, while Biden’s rhetoric is better than that of his predecessor, his approach to one of the highest-profile cases involving an imprisoned journalist maintains Trump’s line of attack. The Biden administration continues to seek to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on espionage charges stemming from the 2010 publication of evidence of “Collateral Murder” atrocities committed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2019, Trump’s Department of Justice indicted Assange on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. DOJ lawyers then engineered Assange’s arrest in London on a US warrant and proceeded to push for his extradition to the United States for a trial on charges that carry a potential life sentence.
Biden’s administration had the chance to end the government’s targeting of Assange. Instead, his Department of Justice has pursued the extradition effort just as zealously as did Trump’s.
Assange is, to be sure, a controversial figure. He has upset both Republicans and Democrats, initially by his uncovering secrets regarding US military wrongdoing and his successful publication of that information—on the platforms of some of the world’s most prominent news outlets—and later by revelations regarding the Democratic National Committee that WikiLeaks circulated during the 2016 election campaign. Assange retains more than his share of critics in the United States and abroad, and they do not hesitate to recall allegations of personal misconduct—including those associated with a Swedish sexual-assault investigation that was eventually dropped.
But crusading journalists throughout history have invariably stirred controversy, and known disdain. President John Adams decried Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, an essential document of the American Revolutionary moment, as “a poor, ignorant, Malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass.” A century after Paine’s death, another president, Theodore Roosevelt, dismissed Paine as “a filthy little atheist.” It has never been necessary to approve of a particular writer’s views or personal behaviors, or a particular publisher’s tactics, to recognize that, when the First Amendment rights of individual practitioners of the craft are threatened, the future of journalism is imperiled.
That’s what needs to be understood with regard to the US government’s targeting of Assange. He was indicted because he publicly exposed details of troublesome activities that the government wanted to keep secret—which is another way of saying that he engaged in the practice of journalism. And because he did so, he now faces the potential for prosecution by the administration of a president who proudly proclaims that “journalism is not a crime.”
The fact is that prosecuting Assange on the charges that have been brought against him would criminalize journalism. As Ben Wizner, the director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, has explained:
The prosecution of Julian Assange poses a grave threat to press freedom. Bringing criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets. Any prosecution by the United States of Mr. Assange would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations. The government needs to immediately drop its charges against him.
That is not an isolated view. Amnesty International, Pen International, Reporters Without Borders, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and other groups have decried efforts to extradite Assange and called for dropping the charges against him. So, too, have editors and publishers of The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País, who argue that the targeting of Assange for prosecution under the Espionage Act “sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press.”
That’s long been the position of the International Federation of Journalists, the global organization that represents working reporters and editors. IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger says, “President Joe Biden must end the years of politically motivated prosecution of Julian Assange by finally dropping the charges against him. The criminalization of whistleblowers and investigative journalists has no place in a democracy.”
Biden is right when he declares that “journalism is not a crime.” Now, he must link words and deeds. The president and his attorney general need to end efforts to extradite Assange and take the steps that are necessary to drop the charges against the WikiLeaks publisher. These steps should have been taken as soon as Biden assumed the presidency in 2021. But, since that did not happen, Biden can and should set things right on World Press Freedom Day 2023.