In response to the news on May 24 that the United States government is seeking to lay multiple espionage charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the organisation accused US President Donald Trump’s administration of launching “an unprecedented attack on the global free press”.
The unsealed Espionage Act charges carry combined sentences of 175 years in prison and relate to disclosures of war crimes and human rights abuses by the US government, including the groundbreaking Collateral Murder video, Iraq War Logs, Afghan War Diaries, Cablegate, and the Guantanamo Bay Detainee Manuals, published in 2010 and 2011.
According to WikiLeaks, the US Department of Justice indictment states that “Assange, Manning, and others shared the objective to further the mission of WikiLeaks, as an ‘intelligence agency of the people’ … in order to disclose that information to the public and inspire others with access to do the same.”
The Trump administration’s real agenda, however, is “to cripple the free press and send a message that no journalist deserving of the description is safe from reprisal,” WikiLeaks said.
WikiLeaks also expressed concern that the US Department of Justice is going after Assange for crimes allegedly committed outside the US: “This extraterritorial application of US law is explicit throughout the indictment … thereby classifying any territory in the world as subject to US law.”
US Assistant Attorney General John Demers statement that “Julian Assange is no journalist”, revealed Demers’ “unfamiliarity with the First Amendment, whilst also disregarding dozens of journalism prizes awarded to [Assange], including two in the past month,” said WikiLeaks.
Even British court rulings and US intelligence reports have recognised Assange as a journalist, according to WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said: “This is the evil of lawlessness in its purest form. With the indictment, the 'leader of the free world' dismisses the First Amendment — hailed as a model of press freedom around the world — and launches a blatant extraterritorial assault outside its borders, attacking basic principles of democracy in Europe and the rest of the world.”
Assange’s defence attorney Barry Pollack emphasised the threat these charges pose for journalists seeking to expose wrongdoing: “The fig leaf that this is merely about alleged computer hacking has been removed. These unprecedented charges demonstrate the gravity of the threat the criminal prosecution of Julian Assange poses to all journalists in their endeavor to inform the public about actions that have been taken by the US government.”
These sentiments were shared by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the Assange indictment “establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organisations that hold the government accountable.”
Investigative journalist, Glenn Greenwald wrote in the Washington Post on May 28 that the Trump administration was “aggressively and explicitly seeking to obliterate the last reliable buffer protecting journalism in the United States from being criminalised, a step that no previous administration, no matter how hostile to journalistic freedom, was willing to take.”
Greenwald’s publication, The Intercept is now at risk, as are all other news organisations, within and outside the US. As he wrote in an appeal for support:
“Journalism isn’t espionage. Being a journalistic source isn’t engaging in spying. And publishing information that lays bare government misconduct or war crimes is not espionage. When journalism is treated as a crime, we are all in danger. The Assange indictment is not the end of the WikiLeaks saga. It is the beginning of a major assault on freedom of the press.”
According to WikiLeaks, the indictment carries serious implications for more than 100 publishing partners across the globe, including the New York Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian, which collaborated with the website on publications and may now face co-defendant charges.
Former National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted on May 23: “The Department of Justice just declared war —not on Wikileaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media.”
The final decisions on Assange's extradition requests by both the US and Sweden rests with British Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
Advocates for press freedom “have unanimously argued that Assange's prosecution under the Espionage Act is incompatible with basic democratic principles,” said WikiLeaks.
“This is the gravest attack on press freedom of the century.”