When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was forced out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London last week, the debates that appeared on the airwaves, online and in print went to the core of what constitutes journalism.
Assange’s supporters denounced his arrest as an assault on freedom of information; a potential threat for journalists around the world who expose secrets in the public interest.
“I’m less interested in the debate about who is a journalist and who isn’t than I am in the question of: was this an act of journalism that is constitutionally protected?” says Dan Froomkin, journalist, WhiteHouseWatch.com
“There’s no question in my mind that Assange was engaged in a very valuable act of journalism. Some of it is a bit strange. Some of it is arguably bad journalism. But what he is being indicted for is an act of journalism that was protected by the constitution.”
Others maintain that WikiLeaks traffics in raw data, not news stories, and that Assange does not deserve the legal protection that real journalists get.
For those following the WikiLeaks story, there was an assumption any case against Assange would fall under the Espionage Act which criminalises the acquisition and publication of classified documents. By that standard, all the other media outlets that published the leaked material could face the same legal consequences as Assange.
But by basing its case on the hacking allegation, rather than the dissemination of the documents, and by filing the charges under a different law, the prosecution can argue the charges against Assange carry no implications for other news outlets.
“That is absolutely what the DOJ is attempting to do, which is to distinguish between what Julian Assange is alleged to have done in terms of his communication with Chelsea Manning and his publishing activities which cannot be distinguished in any way, shape or form from what the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais – all of these media organisations did,” explains Jennifer Robinson, Julian Assange’s lawyer.
“But again, if you look at the factual allegations of what they’ve actually accused him of, those acts are the same acts that journalists engage in all the time.”
Julian Assange’s time in the public eye has been tumultuous.
Back in 2010, when WikiLeaks made its trove of classified documents public, it came under attack from the United States government and from the American right. Since then, opposition to WikiLeaks has grown to include voices on the left, especially since it leaked emails from inside the Hillary Clinton team that damaged her campaign to the apparent benefit of Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
There is also the shadow of the sexual assault allegations from Assange’s time in Sweden a decade ago, and while those charges were dropped two years ago, it remains a key argument for those who wanted Assange out and in court.
However, none of that is material to the DOJ’s legal case. It was always built around the Manning leaks and the question of whether what Julian Assange did was an illegal form of political activism, or in fact journalism that served the public interest.
“I have complete personal disgust for Julian Assange,” says national security lawyer Bradley P Moss, “but if they had charged him under the Espionage Act for the mere receipt and publication of materials and nothing else, I would have had to have stood behind him, if only because I don’t want the government ever being the one to decide you are a journalist who’s entitled to First Amendment protection and you are not.”
Jennifer Robinson – lawyer for Julian Assange
Evgeny Morozov – author, The Net Delusion
Dan Froomkin – journalist, WhiteHouseWatch.com
Bradley P Moss – National security lawyer
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