What does Julian Assange’s new indictment mean for journalists?

Posted at 9:44 PM, May 23, 2019

A new batch of charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has alarmed free speech advocates who say it threatens to criminalize legitimate journalistic practices.

Prosecutors on Thursday accused Assange of 17 additional charges, including “unlawfully obtaining” and disclosing classified information in violation of the federal Espionage Act.

This case, potentially more so than the first batch of charges filed against Assange last month, could draw into question the legality of basic newsgathering techniques used everyday by journalists.

Prosecutors say Assange, through WikiLeaks, broke the law when he “conspired” to obtain national security information from former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The indictment says Assange “solicited” the documents by posting a “Military and Intelligence” and “Most Wanted Leaks” category on its website, asking for “CIA detainee interrogation videos,” according to court documents.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said it’s a dangerous question to ask whether a request for tips constitutes solicitation. It could have worrisome implications for the many news outlets that have tip lines or encrypted messaging systems on their websites.

“In traditional legal principals governing the way the press obtains information like this is that, if it’s dropped in your lap, you’re free to publish,” Kirtley told CNN Business. “But lots of websites have tip solicitations. Is that kind of solicitation now going to be deemed [equal] to what Assange did?”

This case must toe the line between illegal espionage activity and protected journalistic practices, Kirtley added, and people should not take for granted that news reporters won’t be affected just because officials have said they do not consider Assange a real journalist.

“That’s a very dangerous line to draw,” she said. “I don’t like government deciding who journalists are or what journalism is.”

Here’s what press freedom groups and other stakeholders had to say about the latest charges:

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists:

“The indictment of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information is an attack on the First Amendment and a threat to all journalists everywhere who publish information that governments would like to keep secret. Press freedom in the United States and around the world is imperiled by this prosecution.”

Bruce Brown, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

“Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department’s assertion that Assange is not a journalist.”

Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy, and technology project:

“For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment. It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets. And it is equally dangerous for U.S. journalists who uncover the secrets of other nations. If the U.S. can prosecute a foreign publisher for violating our secrecy laws, there’s nothing preventing China, or Russia, from doing the same.”

Top Twitter reactions

Steve Vladeck, University of Texas law professor and CNN contributor:

“The issue isn’t whether Assange is a ‘journalist’; this will be a major test case because the text of the _Espionage Act_ doesn’t distinguish between what Assange allegedly did and what mainstream outlets sometimes do, even if the underlying facts/motives are radically different.”