Free Press

The Case Against Julian Assange Is Also a Case Against a Free Press

Contrary to what the judge who blocked his extradition implied, the Espionage Act does not include an exception for "responsible" journalism.


The British judge who blocked Julian Assange's extradition to the United States on Monday was persuaded by psychiatric testimony indicating a "substantial risk" that the WikiLeaks founder would kill himself in response to the harsh conditions he is apt to face in U.S. custody. Although she was much less impressed by the argument that Assange's prosecution for violating the Espionage Act threatens freedom of the press, that danger is just as real.

Westminster Magistrates' Court Judge Vanessa Baraitser accepted the Justice Department's assurance that imprisoning someone for publishing information the government does not want the public to see is consistent with freedom of expression. She emphasized that Assange is accused of posting unexpurgated documents without regard to the danger that could pose to U.S. informants in Afghanistan.

According to the Justice Department, Baraitser noted, "the prosecution case is expressly brought on the basis that Mr. Assange disclosed materials that no responsible journalist or publisher would have disclosed." But the Espionage Act charges against Assange require no such "basis," and any journalist who obtains or publishes classified information related to national security could face the same charges.

The 18-count Assange indictment, which the Justice Department unveiled in May 2019, is based on his disclosure of Defense Department files and State Department cables that indisputably touched upon matters of legitimate public interest, including the treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees, secret missile attacks in Yemen, and potential war crimes in Iraq. The revelations in these documents generated massive press coverage by leading news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Baraitser, following the Justice Department's lead, wants to distinguish between "responsible" journalism like that and the less careful and professional kind practiced by Assange. But the Espionage Act draws no such distinction.

Counts 9 through 17 of the Assange indictment involve "disclosure of national defense information," a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. That penalty applies to anyone who "willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated" such information to "any person not entitled to receive it."

This felony is the bread and butter of any journalist who covers national security issues and publishes information that the government would prefer to keep secret. So is the conduct described in Count 1, which alleges that Assange conspired to receive national defense information, and Counts 2 through 8, which allege that he obtained it.

Anyone who violates those provisions also faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for each count. So even leaving aside the charge that Assange violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by helping his source, former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, crack a password, Assange faces up to 170 years in prison for doing things that respectable news organizations routinely do.

"The New York Times, among many other news organizations, obtained precisely the same archives of documents from WikiLeaks, without authorization from the government—the act that most of the charges addressed," Times national security reporter Charlie Savage noted in 2019. "While The Times did take steps to withhold the names of informants in the subset of the files it published, it is not clear how that is legally different from publishing other classified information."

Responding to Baraitser's decision, Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, warned that "the U.S. indictment of Assange will continue to cast a dark shadow over investigative journalism." In particular, he said, the nine counts focused on "pure publication" represent "an unprecedented attack on press freedom, one calculated to deter journalists and publishers from exercising rights that the First Amendment should be understood to protect."

Assange is not popular with professional journalists, especially since his involvement in publishing the emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election. But by now they should realize that the case against him is also a case against them, and they cannot count on their press passes to save them.

© Copyright 2021 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Assange and Snowden must be pardoned, it’s the morally right thing to do. Manning however should rot in jail.

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  2. “Assange is not popular with professional journalists, especially since his involvement in publishing the emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.”

    Which demonstrates that American journalism is now completely corrupt, and outside of a few notable outliers like Taibbi and Greenwald, has become the propaganda arm of a single US political party.
    There is no difference between the NYT, WaPo and NPR and Pravda and Izvestia save that the latter two were compelled.

    Like with Walter Duranty and Stalin, they run cover for the DNC and China rather than reporting the news.

    Reason’s relative silence and/or dismissal on libertarian issues like the Uighurs, the Taliban peace deal, the Abraham accords, Hunter’s laptop, Obama’s spy scandal, the Abraham Accords, the USMCA, the Executive Order on school choice, etcetera, etcetera… are indicative of the problem.

    1. “But by now they should realize that the case against him is also a case against them, and they cannot count on their press passes to save them.”

      I feel like there might be a lesson here outside of this story, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Something about the Obama administration.

      1. The press will be fine as long as they report as directed.

    2. Replace “professional journalists” with “professional propagandists” and it will make more sense.

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  4. But the Canadian Supreme Court has already ruled that telling the truth can be a crime and the cancel culture everywhere persecuted people for telling the truth.

    How can anyone rationally address anything if telling the truth about it is illegal?

    Censoring truth is a crime against humanity.

    Every living thing on earth evolves by recognizing reality and modifying their behaviour to work with it.

    Truth is reality. Any censorship of it, even inadvertently, inhibits our ability to evolve.

    Are you just going to continue to abdicate your personal responsibility to recognize reality?

    This documentary demonstrates how your abdication of responsibility is exploited.

    At 7:50 in the video Dan Rather clearly admits that by abdicating their journalistic responsibility, to ask tough questions to get to the truth, the mainstream media led us into an unwarranted war.

  5. The Case Against Julian Assange Is Also a Case Against a Free Press

    I care about press freedom in a free and liberal society. But the so-called “Free Press” in the US is a few dozen corporate media giants, largely in bed with one party and/or owned by billionaires. The question about press freedom for those media companies is about as meaningful as the question of press freedom for Pravda.

    1. Well, Assange is certainly not part of those media companies.

      Actually, since Britain has its Official Secrets Act, it was not reasonable to expect that a British court would reject the charges against Assange on free press grounds. So he used what he could. This was not the first time that someone in Britain facing outrageously severe charges in the United States has avoided extradition on the grounds of being suicidal and having Asperger’s. Gary McKinnon’s case was. He was the guy who, as a teenager, downloaded a photograph and a list of so-called “extraterrestrial officers” from a U.S. government computer, over a dial-up modem. He was hit with charges that would have put him away for decades if extradited to the U.S., but eventually the extradition was denied, and he is now free.

      The incentives provided by these cases (act suicidal and you may go free) are certainly not the best. Then again, if Assange was actually facing the possibility of life in Supermax, then suicide would have been reasonable, and not evidence of mental deterioration, since most people would agree that that is genuinely a fate worse than death.

      1. Oh, I agree that Assange should go free. But that’s not going to happen. And you can bet that governments are going to continue to go after anybody like Assange with a vengeance.

        The article is simply bemoaning the possibility that Assange’s troubles could spill over onto the NYT, WaPo, and Reason, you know, reputable billionaire financed institutions, and I’m just saying that I couldn’t care less.

        1. I do care. If publishing the Pentagon Papers, or some of the things Snowdon has revealed, could have sent people from the papers that published them to jail, then they wouldn’t have been published. And we would be the poorer for it.

  6. Still trying to figure out the idea that US law applies world-wide and that the US has world-wide jurisdiction. On what basis do we have the right to publish stuff the government of China has decreed illegal? Why doesn’t Chinese law have this same world-wide applicability? Come to think of it, China has decreed that Xi is Supreme Ruler – why doesn’t he arrest Joe Biden for claiming he’s the President?

    1. Did you miss the documentary “Team America: World Police”?

  7. Don’t worry Sullum, pussy bitch bootlicking authoritarian worms like you will fare just fine as official regurgitators of the party line.

  8. Baraitser, following the Justice Department’s lead, wants to distinguish between “responsible” journalism like that and the less careful and professional kind practiced by Assange. But the Espionage Act draws no such distinction.

    What’s the difference? Apparently if you publish what the state doesn’t want published, you’re irresponsible, no matter who you are.

    1. The swine who ignored Snowden deserve what’s coming.

  9. When did we last have a free press here, Sullum?

    This year was more blatant than usual, but the press has been in the back pocket of the DNC for as long as I’ve lived.

    Give the GOP the press coverage the DNC gets and there’d never be a close election again.

  10. Both private citizens and the government have secrets and lies and their reasons can also be secrets and lies.

    But neither has the right to force the rest of us to be part of their conspiracies.

    If they are so stupid that their secrets and lies are discovered and exposed, too fucking bad.

  11. Are there two authors with the same name on Reason? This article is actually really good and pro-1A.

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