The announcement that Julian Assange is being charged by the United States government with violating the Espionage Act should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to WikiLeaks over the past decade. As far back as 2010, the Chair of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal entitled, ”Prosecute Assange Under the Espionage Act,” in which it was explicitly argued that WikiLeaks should not be afforded protection under the First Amendment.
Who was the politician in question? California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein.
We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that—at least in terms of WikiLeaks and Assange—what we are seeing in 2019 from the Trump administration is significantly different from what we saw under Obama. It is well worth repeating the fact that, from 2009 to 2013, Obama prosecuted more people as whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former presidents combined. Let’s also remember that Chelsea Manning was tried and convicted under Obama, and spent huge periods of time in solitary confinement (even though her sentence was later commuted).
While Trump’s quasi-authoritarian demonization of the press has been a national disgrace, when it comes to attacks on whistleblowers and chilling free speech and free press, Democrats have absolutely no justification to take the moral high ground.
Yet, despite all arrows pointing toward the U.S. looking for something more serious than conspiracy to hack into a government computer to pin on Assange, the US and European media have often glossed over these issues in favor of reports on the cult of personality surrounding him. That was a serious mistake. It was also largely of Assange’s own making.
"While Trump’s quasi-authoritarian demonization of the press has been a national disgrace, when it comes to attacks on whistleblowers and chilling free speech and free press, Democrats have absolutely no justification to take the moral high ground."
Assange is accused of rape in Sweden. In the years following the accusations, Assange used WikiLeaks social media accounts to smear the accusers, often playing into misogynist rhetoric about men being entrapped by women and Sweden as the “Saudi Arabia of feminism.” The ugliness of the accusations were compounded by the ugliness of these public attacks.
After the rape allegations, Assange and WikiLeaks rapidly began to drift away from the image of the organization generated around the time of the Manning leaks. WikiLeaks released material from Saudi Arabia containing sensitive, private information; it posted links on its social media sites to databases containing information about private citizens in Turkey; and, it directed WikiLeaks followers to a dump of material known as the #MacronLeaks on the eve of the French elections that contained nothing important, but did reveal personal information on private citizens that had nothing to do with politics. Subjecting the powerful to “radical transparency” appeared to have been replaced by desperate attempts to remain relevant, even if that meant violating the privacy of innocent civilians. Add Assange’s fueling of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory into the mix, and the WikiLeaks brand was severely—if not irrevocably—damaged.
With yesterday’s announcement by the US government, WikiLeaks once again becomes relevant. Or, to be more accurate, the WikiLeaks of 2010 once again becomes relevant. Multiple free speech and free press advocates have expressed their outrage over the indictment, suggesting that a conviction could be used as a pretext for the criminalization of the act of publishing material obtained from whistle-blowers, and not just by outlets such as WikiLeaks, but by newspapers that published a great deal of the manning materials, such as the New York Times.
This brings us to a failure on the part of U.S. journalists to cover WikiLeaks that cannot be pinned on Assange’s cult of personality.
Back in 2012, not a single major US media outlet sent a reporter to cover the trial of Chelsea Manning, who was accused of “aiding the enemy” (the only count on which manning was found not guilty). This, despite the fact that so many mainstream outlets had made both professional and financial capital from publishing the material that Manning had leaked, and despite the fact that a guilty verdict on “aiding the enemy” could have had a massive impact on the future of U.S. investigative journalism. Shamed by the hypocrisy and the criticism, the New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a piece admitting that the lack of coverage by her paper was a mistake.
Whatever schadenfreude some people—including some journalists, pundits and politicians—may feel over the idea of Assange spending time behind bars (regardless of the charge), the fact remains that criminalizing the work of journalism is ultimately destructive for any country that wants to call itself a democracy. And, to those who ask the question, “But, is Assange a journalist?” I would respond that this is the wrong question. In relation to the Manning leaks, Assange was a key component in the journalistic process. By criminalizing his participation, you criminalize the process. That is a road we take at our peril.