Press Wakes Up To The Fact That DNC's Lawsuit Against Wikileaks Could Harm Press Freedoms
from the dnc-stomping-on-free-speech dept
Back in April, when lots of anti-Trump folks were cheering on the decision of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to sue various Russians and Wikileaks for hacking and publishing DNC emails, we pointed out that the lawsuit was full of some pretty crazy claims, especially those against Wikileaks. As we said, even if you really hate the role that Julian Assange and Wikileaks played in the 2016 election, the lawsuit itself could have serious ramifications on press freedom, at a time when you would think that those who don’t support the President would want the press to have more freedom to report on him and the various things happening in his administration.
Thankfully, many in the media are recognizing this as well. The Committee to Protect Journalism recently put out a strong article about how this lawsuit could endanger important press freedoms:
Marcy Wheeler, an independent national security reporter who has reviewed the DNC complaint, said the legal theory behind it could be applied to other leaks such as the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers–internal documents that were likely obtained illegally from law firms and financial institutions, and then passed to the press. Similar legal cases have already been brought in Europe. One of the law firms named in the Paradise Papers case sued the BBC and the Guardian, the BBC reported.
The DNC’s argument, Wheeler said, could be replicated by the Department of Justice to target an outlet like The Intercept. “If this precedent is out there, the government would happily describe The Intercept as a co-conspirator,” in the Winners or Albury leaks, she told CPJ, referring to former military contractor Reality Winners, and former FBI agent Terry Albury, whom several news outlets speculated were the sources for major leak investigations revealed by The Intercept.
Or, as I noted in my original piece, if this argument flies, what’s to stop the Trump DOJ from going after any publisher (the NY Times? the Washington Post?) who gets its hands on Trump’s hidden tax returns and publishes them?
This does not mean that Wikileaks is a perfect organization — far from it. Wikileaks has a long history of problematic behavior. But that doesn’t mean we should obliterate press freedoms just because Wikileaks made choices many people disagree with:
This is why CPJ has long maintained that WikiLeaks and Assange should not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for publishing classified documents procured by someone else. WikiLeaks, however, has not always been a responsible steward of its materials. In 2011, the organization released unredacted diplomatic cables that endangered the life of the Ethiopian reporter Argaw Ashine. And in general, WikiLeak’s practice of publicizing large data dumps without probing the context or motivations of leakers can render it vulnerable to manipulation, as CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon has written. Still, as CPJ wrote in a letter to the Obama administration in 2010, arresting Assange would set dangerous precedent for publishers everywhere.
Despite the challenges in dealing with large scale leaks from state hackers, it has become an increasingly routine practice. In the most recent, attorneys for Republican fundraiser Elliot Broidy filed a subpoena May 16 for documents from The Associated Press as part of a civil suit against the Qatar government, which he accuses of hacking his emails and leaking them to journalists at the AP and other news organizations. The AP told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that it intends to fight the subpoena. And the Qataris denied any role in the hack, The New York Times reported.
And, of course, all of this by the DNC plays right into the administration’s hands:
The U.S. government already uses vague terminology, which is potentially damaging to publishers, to describe WikiLeaks. Last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo–then CIA Director–labeled WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service.” The language was also inserted into a Senate appropriations bill. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who accused WikiLeaks of participating in an “attack” on American democracy, nonetheless raised alarms about the terminology. In a statement issued by his office last August, he said, “The use of the novel phrase ‘non-state hostile intelligence service’ may have legal, constitutional, and policy implications, particularly should it be applied to journalists inquiring about secrets.”
The notion that journalistic activity such as cultivating sources and receiving illegally obtained documents could be construed as part of a criminal conspiracy is, according to Goodale, the “greatest threat to press freedom today.” “It will inhibit reporters’ ability to get whistleblower information, because as soon as you talk to them in any aggressive fashion you could be guilty of a crime,” Goodale said.
There’s a lot more in the article, and the end result highlights just how problematic the lawsuit is. The DNC appears so focused on the many failures of 2016, that it has no problem taking a shotgun to the very freedoms that the press relies on to (hopefully) continue to investigate and reveal illegal activities on the part of this administration (and future administrations). It seems both incredibly short sighted and… par for the course.