Why Julian Assange’s arrest is a dangerous precendent for journalism

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Julian Assange’s arrest has ominous implications for journalists who expose government secrets in the future. Some may debate whether or not Assange is a journalist, but that is aside the point. In fact, the undecided nature of whether Assange is or isn’t a journalist can actually be used to argue the idea that his arrest would indeed set a dangerous precedent.

Based on factors 19, 20, and 21 of the indictment against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the point is that if anyone, regardless of the fact that they’re a journalist or not, could potentially get indicted and charged for:

  • Taking measures to conceal a source of information
  • Encouraging a source to provide information
  • Using a 3rd party service to transmit and/or receive sensitive information

Then this would set a precedent where the United States government could take any person performing those activities to court in the future. Those activities are known to the general public as good journalism, and are usually performed by–but not limited to–journalists during the course of their information gathering process.

Dangerous historical trends

One should take into consideration the historical context of this situation when assessing the potential impact on journalism as an industry.

Chelsea Manning, who is the source involved in Assange’s indictment, was convicted by court-martial in 2013 in violation of the US Espionage Act during president Barack Obama’s administration.

The Espionage Act was created to go after spies for most of the time since 1917, until 1971, when it was first used to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker behind the Pentagon Papers, involving the New York Times and the Washington Post for publishing the classified documents.

Under the Obama administration’s direction, Attorney General Eric H. Holder used the Act to aggressively pursue a number of government leakers, including Manning. The Obama administration persecuted a total of eight people for leaking national security secrets to the media according to a report by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, compared to the combination of all previous presidents: three.

“Since I’ve been in office, my attitude has been zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation,” said Obama at a news conference covered by the Times in 2012.

As such, the precedent of aggressive action against the publication of government secrets has been well developed by by the time Donald Trump got into office–he is now able to freely go after people who leaked to the press, and actively persecute a journalist or publisher under the Espionage Act. 

Moreover, Trump is well known for calling the press the “enemy of the people,” so there is reason to believe that Trump or future administrations could use this precedent to go after more publications in the future if Assange is successfully charged.

Taking all these factors into consideration, one can observe a real threat to the freedom of the press in the US.

Pursuing other organizations?

Some may argue that Assange is being persecuted because Wikileaks did not redact sensitive information from its releases, and therefore did not achieve a level of editorial rigor one would expect from reputable news organizations.

However, we should uphold the ideals of freedom of speech whenever threatened as a fundamental right, and not on a case by case basis depending on the individual or organization. Why is it that the New York Times or Washington Post should be defended and not Assange? Who makes the official decision that the former are actual journalists and should be defended as such? Do we want to let the government decide who is a journalist? These are questions every journalist should be asking themselves.

Daniel Ellsberg, who later founded the Freedom of the Press Foundation in 2012, had this to say about Assange on The Real News Network: “This is the first indictment of a journalist and editor or publisher…and if it’s successful it will not be the last, this is clearly is a part of President Trump’s war on the press, what he calls the enemy of the state. And if he succeeds in putting Julian Assange in prison, where I think he’ll be for life…that’s probably just the first of many.”

Furthermore, take into account this statement from Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project where he says that any prosecution of Assange for Wikileaks’ publishing would be “unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations. Moreover, prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating U.S. secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for U.S. journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest.”

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden compared the Assange case to the Muller investigation and asked why there is a double standard; “why is it that journalists are being held to a higher standard of behavior than the President of the United States?”

In conclusion, it is highly unlikely that leaks of secret information will ever stop occurring regardless of the consequences. So from the government’s perspective, would the next logical step to prevent leaks be to intimidate journalists? There is a saying in China, “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.” This indictment is a message to conventional journalists not to dig too deep by, as Alan Rusbridger, chair of the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism says “criminalizing the process of news-gathering.”

If Assange is successfully extradited and charged, it is only a matter of time before other journalists become affected. It serves the Trump administration well to portray Assange as not being a journalist and unnecessary to protect as such, so what benefit is there to taking that stance if you are a journalist? Would journalists stand up the next time the US government goes after someone for exposing their secrets, or would they once again perform the mental gymnastics required assure themselves that they would not be affected as long as they dislike the person or organization in question?

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