New charges against Julian Assange raise concerns about ripple effects on press freedom

Assange is accused of violating the Espionage Act.

May 24, 2019, 10:45 AM

Julian Assange has always been a lightning-rod for controversy, but the latest charges against him have journalism watchdog groups crying foul.

Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, was charged by U.S. authorities Thursday of violating the Espionage Act. Now there's a debate whether prosecutors can claim the same about journalists who publish stories on state secrets.

The Department of Justice is defending he charges against Assange. According to Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers, "Julian Assange is no journalist" and "the Department takes seriously the role of journalists and our democracy and we support it."

Journalism groups don't seem to agree, however. Bruce Brown, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, released a statement, arguing the charges could also be applied to journalists.

"Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department’s assertion that Assange is not a journalist," Brown said in a statement.

Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of non-profit PEN America, which describes itself as a group that defends and protects free expression, called the indictment "unprecedented" and has "grave implications for a free press."

PHOTO: In this May 1, 2019, file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange puts his fist up as he is taken from court in London.
In this May 1, 2019, file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange puts his fist up as he is taken from court in London.
Matt Dunham/AP, FILE

"Whether Assange is a journalist or WikiLeaks qualifies as a press outlet is immaterial to the counts set out here," Nossel said in a statement.

"The indictment encompasses a series of activities--including encouraging sources verbally and in writing to leak information and receiving and publishing such information--that media outlets routinely undertake as part of their role to hold government to account," she said.

Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union said the charges were "extraordinary."

"For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information," Wizner, director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a statement.

"This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration's attacks on journalism and a direct assault on the First Amendment," Wizner said. "It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets. And it is equally dangerous for U.S. journalists who uncover the secrets of other nations. If the US can prosecute a foreign publisher for violating our secrecy laws, there’s nothing preventing China, or Russia, from doing the same."

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked classified information and also faces charges under the Espionage Act, weighed in on Twitter, suggesting the charges against Assange were a declaration of war.

"The Department of Justice just declared war––not on WikiLeaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media," Snowden said in a tweet.

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