Justice Department Hint at Charges Against Wikileaks’ Assange Threatens Freedom of the Press

Posted on April 22, 2017

UPDATE: Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his intention to pursue charges against Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, President Donald Trump has publicly endorsed Sessions’s proposed Justice Department move. Not only does this recent explicit approval by Trump only heighten fears of an attack on the press, but it also represents a complete reversal of his prior, emphatic support for Wikileaks during the 2016 presidential campaign.

According to Al Jazeera English, at a press conference on Thursday, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions hinted at forthcoming charges by the Justice Department against Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange for his role in releasing government documents to the public. Sessions cited the need for swift action against Assange to further the Trump administration’s aggressive crackdown on government leaks, but such steps to combat unauthorized disclosure of classified materials would constitute an unprecedented attack on constitutionally protected free press activities.

While unconventional in its methods, Wikileaks has demonstrated that it is explicitly dedicated to informing the public. Like traditional media outlets, Wikileaks evaluates, publishes, and (occasionally) supplies commentary on authentic materials it receives from sources and, also like traditional media, does not itself engage in the direct theft or acquisition of documents. The only meaningful, yet slight, way in which it differs from the practices of mainstream journalism its belief in emphasizing primary source documents by generally publishing them without accompanying commentary, rather than expecting readers to rely on the subjective analysis of a commentary piece’s author.

Should prosecution go forward against Asssange and Wikileaks’ staff for publishing classified documents which are in the public’s interest to know, the Justice Department will have secured a foothold for pursuing espionage charges against any and all journalists reporting on leaked government materials of any kind, no matter how pertinent to public discourse. This would be nothing less than an assault on a First Amendment-protected free press, as it would grant the government the authority to effectively suppress any reporting on sensitive material, even that which exposes serious wrongdoing or illegality, by charging or threatening to charge journalists with serious crimes for doing so.

In a recent statement, celebrated Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg voiced exactly these fears, warning that if journalists and the media industry at large neglect to close ranks around Assange, they would pave the way for the Trump administration, and those to follow, to curtail a free press through politically motivated, punitive prosecution. Particularly, Ellsberg noted that the crimes the Justice Department is likely to level against Assange are the same ones which he and many other whistleblowers have faced, illustrating the fundamental danger it is to free press activities to equate the role of sources of classified material with the publishers of it.

You can find the full story from Al Jazeera here.