The U.S. Government's Indictment of Julian Assange Poses Grave Threats to Press Freedom

Thursday's arrest of Assange is clearly the culmination of a two-year effort by the U.S. government to coerce Ecuador--under its new and submissive president, Lenin Moreno. (Photo: Reuters)

The U.S. Government's Indictment of Julian Assange Poses Grave Threats to Press Freedom

"Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges."

The indictment of Julian Assange unsealed today by the Trump Justice Department poses grave threats to press freedoms, not only in the U.S. but around the world. The charging document and accompanying extradition request from the U.S. government, used by the U.K. police to arrest Assange once Ecuador officially withdrew its asylum protection, seeks to criminalize numerous activities at the core of investigative journalism.

So much of what has been reported today about this indictment has been false. Two facts in particular have been utterly distorted by the DOJ and then misreported by numerous media organizations.

The first crucial fact about the indictment is that its key allegation -- that Assange did not merely receive classified documents from Chelsea Manning but tried to help her crack a password in order to cover her tracks -- is not new. It was long known by the Obama DOJ and was explicitly part of Manning's trial, yet the Obama DOJ -- not exactly renowned for being stalwart guardians of press freedoms -- concluded that it could not and should not prosecute Assange because indicting him would pose serious threats to press freedom. In sum, today's indictment contains no new evidence or facts about Assange's actions; all of it has been known for years.

The Obama DOJ tried for years to find evidence to justify a claim that Assange did more than act as a journalist -- that he, for instance, illegally worked with Manning to steal the documents -- but found nothing to justify that accusation and thus, never indicted Assange.

The other key fact being widely misreported is that the indictment accuses Assange of trying to help Manning obtain access to document databases to which she had no valid access: i.e., hacking rather than journalism. But the indictment alleges no such thing. Rather, it simply accuses Assange of trying to help Manning log into the Defense Department's computers using a different username so that she could maintain her anonymity while downloading documents in the public interest and then furnish them to WikiLeaks to publish.

In other words, the indictment seeks to criminalize what journalists are not only permitted but ethically required to do: take steps to help their sources maintain their anonymity. As longtime Assange lawyer Barry Pollack put it: "The factual allegations ... boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source. Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges."

That's why the indictment poses such a grave threat to press freedom. It characterizes as a felony many actions that journalists are not just permitted but required to take in order to conduct sensitive reporting in the digital age.

Read the full article, with possible updates, at The Intercept.

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