There is a growing consensus in journalistic circles that the efforts by the US Department of Justice to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for obtaining and revealing information regarding alleged atrocities committed during the US occupation of Iraq pose a serious threat to the freedom of the press.
The International Federation of Journalists warns that the proposed prosecution “sets a dangerous precedent that members of the media, in any country, can now be targeted by governments, anywhere in the world, to answer for publishing information in the public interest.” The international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders complains that “Julian Assange has been targeted for having greatly contributed to the defense of journalism.”
Former Washington Post editor Marty Baron explains that, with the Assange indictment, “the government is advancing a legal argument that places such important work in jeopardy and undermines the very purpose of the First Amendment.” Five of the world’s leading media organizations—The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País—have called for the US government to drop the indictment against Assange because it “sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s first amendment and the freedom of the press.”
Yet the Biden administration continues to seek the extradition of Assange from Britain, where he is currently imprisoned.
So, with the executive branch refusing to budge, it falls to Congress to defend the First Amendment. And this week, a number of progressive House members did just that.
In an open letter organized by US Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a group of lawmakers—Tlaib and US Representatives Cori Bush (D-Miss.), Greg Casar (D-Tex.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)—are urging Attorney General Merrick Garland to stop going after Assange. The letter calls on Garland to “uphold the First Amendment’s protections for the freedom of the press by dropping the criminal charges against Australian publisher Julian Assange and withdrawing the American extradition request currently pending with the British government.”
The House members go on to explain that
Julian Assange faces 17 charges under the Espionage Act and one charge for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. The Espionage Act charges stem from Mr. Assange’s role in publishing information about the U.S. State Department, Guantanamo Bay, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of this information was published by mainstream newspapers, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, who often worked with Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks directly in doing so. Based on the legal logic of this indictment, any of those newspapers could be prosecuted for engaging in these reporting activities. In fact, because what Mr. Assange is accused of doing is legally indistinguishable from what papers like the New York Times do, the Obama administration rightfully declined to bring these charges. The Trump Administration, which brought these charges against Assange, was notably less concerned with press freedom.
The prosecution of Mr. Assange marks the first time in U.S. history that a publisher of truthful information has been indicted under the Espionage Act. The prosecution of Mr. Assange, if successful, not only sets a legal precedent whereby journalists or publishers can be prosecuted, but a political one as well. In the future the New York Times or Washington Post could be prosecuted when they publish important stories based on classified information. Or, just as dangerous for democracy, they may refrain from publishing such stories for fear of prosecution.
That’s a compelling argument. Unfortunately, Garland has resisted a number of compelling arguments for dropping the charges against Assange, including a January 2023 appeal from the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Knight First Amendment Institute, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and other advocates for Assange, which explained, “While our organizations have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization, we share the view that the government’s indictment of him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad.”
Garland and President Biden would, undoubtedly, be more attentive to a message from Capitol Hill if a significant number of members of Congress sign on. So Tlaib, a human rights lawyer with a long record of fearless advocacy for freedom of expression and the right to dissent, is urging colleagues to join her in calling on Garland “to uphold the freedom of the press by dropping these Trump-era charges and withdrawing the extradition request.” She’s reminding them that “Julian Assange was arrested for publishing the truth.”
That’s the reality Tlaib and her fellow lawmakers have recognized.
The question now is whether more members of Congress will have the courage to join them in what should be understood as an essential defense of the freedom of the press.