Civil Rights Groups Argue That Biden Should Drop Assange Prosecution; Noting That It Is An Attack On Journalism

from the do-it dept

It's easy to dislike and distrust Julian Assange. He's done many things to inspire both reactions. Still, it's important to separate out personal feelings towards the guy with the question of whether or not he broke US law with publishing the things he did via Wikileaks. For years, the Obama DOJ refused to indict him, in part due to the recognition that nearly all of Assange's activities were similar to the kinds of things that journalists do all the time. The Trump DOJ had no such restraint (even as some prosecutors warned of problems with the idea), and as we and others have pointed out the indictment is a huge threat to investigative journalism and things like source protection.

Now that Biden is President, a whole bunch of civil rights groups have sent a letter to Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson, asking him to drop the case against Assange. The letter notes that many of the signatories do not agree with Assange or Wikileaks, but that doesn't mean the case is a good one:

While our organizations have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization, we share the view that the government’s indictment of him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad. We urge you to drop the appeal of the decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court to reject the Trump administration’s extradition request. We also urge you to dismiss the underlying indictment.

The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices.

In addition, some of the charges included in the indictment turn entirely on Mr. Assange’s decision to publish classified information. News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance. We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy.

Jameel Jaffer, who heads the Knight First Amendment Institute, which was on of the signatories on the letter, has written an article also detailing why the Biden DOJ should drop the case that is worth reading:

Of Trump’s many attacks on press freedom, however, it’s his Justice Department’s indictment of Julian Assange that could have the most significant implications over the long term. As I explained here and here, the Justice Department’s indictment of Assange focuses principally on activity that national security journalists engage in “routinely and as a necessary part of their work”—cultivating sources, communicating with them confidentially, soliciting information from them, protecting their identities from disclosure, and publishing classified information. As a result, a successful prosecution of Assange would have far-reaching implications both for national security journalists and for the news organizations that publish their work. This isn’t an accident. It’s likely why the Trump administration filed the indictment, as Jack Goldsmith observed here.

President Joe Biden plainly does not share Trump’s attitude toward the press. But the Assange case will present the Biden administration with an early test. One of the first questions Biden’s new attorney general will confront is whether to authorize prosecutors to continue to contest the decision of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, issued earlier this year, denying the United States’ request for Assange’s extradition. In an interview with NPR, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Zachary Terwilliger, wondered whether the new administration would abandon the appeal. “Some of this does come down to resources and where you’re going to focus your energies,” Terwilliger noted.

Again, whether you agree with Assange's view of the world, or how you feel about Wikileaks' apparent decision to cozy up with Russians is a separate issue from whether the indictment itself is a threat to journalism. It is. And the new DOJ should drop the case. It would be unfortunately if Biden continued along the same path the Obama administration did in pretending that journalism is a form of espionage. Dumping the Assange suit would send a clear signal that Biden actually recognizes the value and importance of adversarial investigative journalism, even if it might embarrass him.

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Filed Under: doj, espionage act, free speech, joe biden, journalism, julian assange

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  1. icon
    Upstream (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 5:39pm


    While Trump frequently called the press "the enemy of the people," Obama (aka Bush the Third) headed up what was probably the most opaque administration ever. Nixon would have been envious. Here are just a few of the links on the first page of a web search for "Obama versus journalists."

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