Media unions, independent journalists, and civil libertarians have for three years argued that Julian Assange must not be prosecuted by the US Department of Justice for obtaining and publishing classified materials that revealed the extent of US wrongdoing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, as the WikiLeaks founder fights extradition from the United Kingdom to the United States, they’ve gotten some powerful allies.
In a letter dispatched Monday to Attorney General Merrick Garland, The New York Times joined four major European publications—The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País—to argue that the attempt to go after Assange using the Espionage Act “sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press.” The concern is that, by prosecuting Assange under the draconian law that was written in 1917 to prohibit interference with military operations or recruitment during World War I, the Justice Department could create a new tool for intimidating investigative reporters who simply seek to inform the American people about what is being done in their name but without their informed consent.
This is not the first time that major media outlets have decried the targeting of Assange for prosecution. Nor is the new letter as bold as the statements that have come from groups such as the International Federation of Journalists and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). But the letter does represent a major thrust by some of the most powerful names in international journalism to get Garland and the Justice Department to rethink what has come to be seen as an attempt to criminalize common practices by investigative journalists.
The letter recalls that the five publications worked with Assange when the so-called “Cable gate” documents were uncovered, revealing “the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money.” It notes that “journalists and historians continue to publish new revelations, using the unique trove of documents.”
Yet the letter also acknowledges that, for Assange, the publication of the 251,000 confidential cables “had the most severe consequences. On April 12, 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 organized crime groups.” Assange now faces extradition to the United States and a 175-year sentence.
The prospect that such a sentence could have a chilling effect on journalists is the overarching concern of the joint letter.
“Holding governments accountable is part of the core mission of a free press in a democracy,” it explains. “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 criminalized, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.
Twelve years after the publication of “Cable gate,” it is time for the U.S. government “to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets.”
Bravo! It’s about time that the publications that worked with Assange weigh in with a clear defense of the WikiLeaks founder—and of journalism.
The one frustration I have with the letter is that it does not specifically call for dropping a narrowly drawn charge that targets Assange for assisting Chelsea Manning, who was a US Army intelligence analyst at the time of the leak, in what the Trump administration’s Justice Department described as “a computer-hacking conspiracy.” The narrower charge, based on the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, was developed in an effort to expand options for prosecuting Assange.
The new letter from the editors and publishers of the five publications simply says that “some of us are concerned about the allegations in the indictment that he attempted to aid in computer intrusion of a classified database.”
The problem with that soft language is that the conspiracy charge also poses a threat to press freedom, as Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange, warned in 2019. “While the indictment against Julian Assange…charges a conspiracy to commit computer crimes, the factual allegations against Mr. Assange boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source,” explained Pollack.
The International Federation of Journalists has been clearer, and blunter, in its statements on efforts to prosecute Assange:
The sentence of Chelsea Manning, who collaborated with Assange to release the contentious material, was commuted by President Barack Obama. None of WikiLeaks’ media partners have been charged in any US government legal proceeding because of their collaboration with Assange. Aside from the dire implications for press freedom, there is also no legal criterion for Assange’s extradition and charges.
The IFJ is calling on the United States government to drop all charges against Julian Assange and allow him to return home to be with his wife and children. The IFJ is also calling on all media unions, press freedom organizations and journalists to urge governments to actively work to secure Assange’s release.
The letter from the Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País answers that call in large measure.
But at this critical juncture there should be no lack of clarity regarding the extradition charges against Assange. That’s why it is important that the message of the IFJ’s “Journalism is Not a Crime” campaign be amplified—not just by media outlets and journalists but also by civil rights and civil liberties groups. Last year, the ACLU, Amnesty International USA, and Human Rights Watch warned the Justice Department that “a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be used against publishers and journalists alike, chilling their work and undermining freedom of the press.”
Their letter specifically expressed concerns about “criminal and extradition proceedings relating to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.” It also acknowledged that while “the signatories to this letter have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization,” they were, and are, united in their view “that the criminal case against him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad.”