The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act. Many believe this to be a direct attack on press freedom.
Danger to press freedom
Founded in 2006, WikiLeaks has released several documents that raised ethical questions about the American military’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the documents put the U.S. administration in a negative light, thereby making Assange a hated figure among bureaucrats. This has been a huge factor in U.S. charges against Assange. “The superseding indictment alleges that Assange was complicit with Chelsea Manning, a former intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, in unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defense,” the Department of Justice said in a statement (RT).
DOJ argues that Assange has violated the Espionage Act passed in 1917. Historically, the act has only been used against people who leak classified documents, never someone who is a recipient of the leak. The department’s position that Assange is a criminal under the Espionage Act is basically criminalizing journalistic activity. After all, a journalist’s job is to publish the truth. And in a democracy, this freedom is well protected. It is only because of this journalistic freedom that corruption and government scandals are routinely exposed by the press.
“The ability of the press to publish facts the government would prefer remain secret is both critical to an informed public and a fundamental right,” Trevor Timm, Executive Director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement (Freedom of the Press Foundation). If a journalist is to be punished for publishing certain documents that the government believes are against the state, one is dangerously slipping into authoritarianism. In the case of Assange, the government has every right to punish Chelsea Manning since she leaked the documents while being an employee of the government. But under no condition can Assange be punished for doing his job.
“The people leaking it are obviously violating their secrecy agreement and breaking the law, but as long as the journalist doesn’t pay the leaker, or help them hack passwords, this is what investigative journalists in the national security community do on a day-to-day basis… If they can bring this charge and convict Assange on it, they can bring it against anyone,” Bradley Moss, an attorney at Mark Zaid PC, who focuses on national security and intelligence issues, said to Wired.
Swedish rape case
A Swedish court has denied a request for extraditing Assange to the country to face a rape case dating back to 2010. Currently, Assange is serving a 50-week prison term in the UK. He was accused of four sexual assault cases in 2010. Some say that these charges might be fabricated given that Assange was already a target of government and corporate elites. The ruling by the Swedish court comes as a setback for prosecutors who had hoped to bring Assange to Sweden.
“As Julian Assange is currently serving a prison sentence, the investigation can proceed with the help of a European investigation order, which does not require Julian Assange’s detention [in Sweden]. The court therefore does not find it proportional to detain Julian Assange,” the judgment stated (The Guardian).
Three of the four sexual assault charges lapsed in 2015 under Sweden’s statute of limitations. The fourth allegation is due to lapse by August 2020. After Assange’s expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy and subsequent arrest in Britain, Sweden has ramped up its investigation into the matter.