The Espionage Act charges levied against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange yesterday are attracting scrutiny from free press advocates who believe the United States is violating the First Amendment by charging a person they consider a publisher.
“Put simply, these unprecedented charges against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are the most significant and terrifying threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century,” Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director Trevor Timm said in a statement. “The Trump administration is moving to explicitly criminalize national security journalism, and if this prosecution proceeds, dozens of reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere would also be in danger.”
The Freedom of the Press Foundation, The Committee to Protect Journalists, and famed Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg were among many groups and individuals expressing concerns about what the charges could mean for press freedom.
Assange, who was expelled from his longtime residence at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, has been held in custody by British officials since April, fighting extradition charges from the United States and Sweden. In the Department of Justice’s 18-count indictment released Thursday, Assange was accused of conspiring and aiding and abetting former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in the release of classified information that was published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and shared with major news organizations, including The New York Times and The Guardian. The indictment states he helped Manning leak the information.
Prosecutions under the Espionage Act for leaking information to journalists have been rare. The Committee to Protect Journalists placed the number at 12 in 2017, and eight had come during the Obama Administration. No journalist or publisher has ever been charged under the Espionage Act. But the Justice Department doesn’t believe Assange fits either of those categories.
“The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy, and we thank you for it,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers told reporters. “It is not and never has been the department’s policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist.”
WikiLeaks proclaimed on Twitter, “This is madness. It is the end of national security journalism and the First Amendment.”
Ellsberg, who faced charges under the Espionage Act in 1973, called the charges unprecedented and unconstitutional in an interview with The Real News Network. He warned that the actions of Assange were not much different than the work of any other reporter.
“Let me tell you, I can’t count the number of times I have been asked and urged to give classified information to the responsible press,” Ellsberg said. “The Times, the Post, AP. Anything you can name.”
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