The Prosecution of Julian Assange is a Threat to Journalism


Illustration by Peter Biss

Alex Fisch, Reporter

The United States intelligence community is not necessarily known for its warm hospitality. For decades, our most powerful agencies have employed torture, arbitrary arrest, detention and unconstitutional searches and seizures. Yet, as dubious these agencies have acted, their power has always (to an extent) been kept in check by incredibly brave reporters and whistleblowers who have documented their dirtiest secrets. That type of adversarial journalism is now in serious jeopardy, all due to an Australian activist who dared to publish exposing truths about some of the world’s dominant institutions.

The case of Julian Assange, though severely underreported by most legacy media outlets, is probably the most consequential free speech case of our generation. In order to fully comprehend the ramifications of this case, it’s important to analyze how we got to this point.

In 2006, Assange, previously a skilled hacker and assistant to Australian police, founded WikiLeaks, a non-profit organization dedicated to publishing classified information from anonymous sources. WikiLeaks was a massive undertaking that uncovered crucial stories, many of them implicating the United States, that were previously sealed from the general public. These ranged from an army manual for holding and torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, to state department cables that revealed illegal U.S. drone strikes, to 2016 emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) suggesting that they attempted to give Hilary Clinton an advantage over Bernie Sanders in the primary election, and many others. 

As such, Assange has become public enemy number one in the eyes of many world leaders. In 2010, the Swedish government charged Assange with rape and sexual assault. Assange denied these claims and in 2012, he was granted asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. These charges were later dropped, yet Assange would still spend the next seven years essentially under house arrest in the Ecuadorian embassy. While the Obama administration sought to go after him legally, they carefully considered the ramifications for press freedom and decided otherwise. Things changed drastically, however, during the Trump era. 

Though Donald Trump initially thought positively of Assange (due to the DNC leaks,) those around him at the Department of Justice and broader intelligence community certainly did not. In 2017, then CIA director and future Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, claimed WikiLeaks to be a “hostile intelligence service.” While this claim was as outlandish as they come, as what Assange did was textbook journalism, it was just the beginning of their attempts to silence him. On April 11, 2019, the Ecuadorian embassy gave up Assange after “violating his terms of Asylum.” That same day, the U.S. charged Assange with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. 

The charge revolved around one of WikiLeaks’ biggest stories. In 2010, a classified video showed a U.S. helicopter opening fire on a group of men in Baghdad, with those operating the helicopter laughing about it afterward. It’s estimated that up to 18 people were killed, including two Reuters journalists. The video is absolutely horrific and justifies nearly all skepticism of U.S. military presence in the Middle East. That video was leaked by Chelsea Manning, a former soldier and U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst. When Manning leaked the video to WikiLeaks, Assange had allegedly attempted to help Manning crack a password to get access to military computers. Assange was unsuccessful, yet was still charged, with the U.S. Department of Justice claiming he had violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), despite Manning already having authorized access to the documents listed in the indictment. Even if Assange had been successful, it would not have made much of a difference other than to maybe allow Manning to better remain anonymous.

While these initial hacking charges leveled against Assange were incredibly flimsy, there was widespread speculation that these were only a precursor to a much more significant set of charges. Those speculations turned out to be correct. 

About a month later, Assange was charged by the U.S. with 17 counts under the Espionage Act for publishing secret documents. While the hacking charges may have been sketchy, this was downright authoritarian. This probably shouldn’t need to be said, but publishing confidential information received from a government source is a protected right by the First Amendment. Some of the most important journalistic revelations, such as the Pentagon Papers and recent Afghanistan Papers, came to light due to the leaking of classified government documents. It would be impossible to maintain a functioning democracy if any attempt to publish damning, albeit confidential material, was suppressed by the very government implied in said material. 

The U.S. Justice Department tried to make the case that Assange should not be considered a journalist, making him ineligible to publish classified material. While it can be debated whether or not Assange’s journalistic credentials were legitiamte, it shouldn’t matter. As outlined by the first amendment and reaffirmed in multiple Supreme Court Cases, there is no such standard by which someone can and cannot publish certain information. The same treatment is applied to all writers and publishers, no matter their status or prestige. This is precisely why this case is such a danger to the future of investigative journalism. If the U.S. government is able to use underhanded tactics to prosecute Assange, what is to stop them from prosecuting major news outlets that publish documents similar to, or in many cases, the same as those published by him.

With all of this information in mind, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what went down here. Assange disclosed information that the U.S. government did not want the general public to know about, and as a result, they exhausted every bogus legal avenue possible to throw the book at him. As of now, they have succeeded. 

Even though there has been a change in administration, there has been no change in the approach to Assange. He has been incarcerated for three years in London’s Belmarsh prison and his extradition to the United States, while initially denied, was granted just two months ago. While President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris may constantly make public statements about the “value of democracy,” those words ring hollow if Assange is still in prison for doing what otherwise would be standard journalism. 

Assange was not a perfect human being, far from it. But there’s no denying that the work that he did to expose necessary truths is of vital importance to any democratic nation. Anything short of a pardon or acquittal may put any and all similar journalistic projects in serious jeopardy. As famous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden once proclaimed, “when exposing a crime is treated as committing a crime, you are being ruled by criminals.” Let’s make sure that this statement doesn’t come to fruition.