Julian Assange being charged under Espionage Act puts a question mark on freedom of the press

ACLU has said this indictment establishes "a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organisations that hold the government accountable."

Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange, 47, who was recently arrested outside the Ecuadorian embassy where he was staying since 2012, has been charged in the United States under the Espionage Act on 17 counts.

The 17 charges basically accuse Assange of receiving and unlawfully publishing the names of classified sources from the secret military and diplomatic documents in 2010. Assange who is currently serving a 50-week jail sentence in the UK, for jumping bail on another case, is facing extradition requests from the US and Sweden. After Assange was arrested in London, the Swedish authorities also sought his extradition in a rape case involving Assange from 2010. UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, will take a call as to which country gets a higher precedence in the extradition.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Britain, May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1A97920CE0

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Britain, May 19, 2017. Reuters

Why is Julian Assange being charged?

In 2010-11, Wikileaks had published a trove of documents online, sourced by then intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning by accessing the Pentagon's secure networks. Assange is being accused of motivating Manning to continue the theft of classified documents and even helping her out with cracking the password hash to a military computer.

On publishing these secret documents, the US Justice Department claims that Assange revealed the names of human sources and put a lot of human lives of officers operating on the field at grave risk. This, despite repeated requests from the US State Department to not publish those leaked documents.

"Assange personally and publicly promoted Wikileaks to encourage those with access to protected information, including classified information, to provide it to Wikileaks for public disclosure," said the indictment report.

John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said that contrary to some people's belief, Assange was not a journalist and therefore not immune from prosecution for his actions.

"No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposefully publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in a war zone, exposing them to the gravest of dangers," said Demers. This is contradictory to the fact that Assange has received over 15 awards for his work, many of them in the capacity of journalistic work.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 and convicted by a court-martial in 2013. Former US President Barack Obama cut down Manning's 35-year sentence to 7-years, but Manning is back in jail now for repeatedly refusing to testify before a grand jury that is investigating Assange.

What does the Espionage Act state?

The Espionage Act was passed in the US in June 1917, shortly after the US entered World War I.

According to the Act, "The Espionage and Sedition Acts made it a crime to interfere with the operations of the military to promote the success of its enemies and prohibited many forms of speech perceived as disloyal to the United States of America."

What happens if Julian Assange is convicted?

According to Wikileaks, if Assange is convicted he is looking at many decades of jail time, as many as 175 years, as each of the charges carries a jail term of 5-10 years.

What does Wikileaks have to say?

Wikileaks has dismissed these charges calling it an attack on national security journalism and the First Amendment which promises free speech.

According to Wikileaks, the charges relate to disclosing war crimes and human rights abuses by the US government, including "Collateral murder video, Iraq War Logs, Afghan War Diaries, Cablegate and the Guantanamo Bay Detainee Manuals" which were published between 2010 and 2011.

Wikileaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson stated, "This is the evil of lawlessness in its purest form. With the indictment, 'the leader of the free world' dismissed the First Amendment — hailed as a model press freedom around the world — and launched a blatant extra-territorial assault outside its borders, attacking the basic principles of democracy in Europe and the rest of the world."

The defence attorney for Julian Assange has stated, "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 endeavour to inform the public about actions that have been taken by the US government."

Why are these charges raising questions on the freedom of the press?

The charges against Assange are raising a lot of questions about how it could set a precedent for any investigative journalist working on stories that could reveal US secrets.

In a strongly worded editorialThe New York Times states, "It is a marked escalation in the effort to prosecute Assange, one that could have a chilling effect on American journalism as it has been practised for generations. It is aimed straight at the heart of the First Amendment."

Assange acquired documents from a government source, Manning, which demonstrated many wrongdoings of the US government. This is being held against him and he is being charged with espionage for this. In American history, there have been many cases such as the Pentagon Papers, which involved doing precisely this kind of public-service journalism. A kind of journalism where the public benefitted from learning what was going on behind closed doors. The First Amendment in the US protects the press from being pulled up for precisely these things.

If Assange is convicted under the Espionage Act for his publishing of secret US documents, it could mean a serious blow to investigative journalism in the US and with data related to the US government. The whole argument regarding Assange not being a journalist also does not make much sense as the work done by Wikileaks is investigative journalism which has been published by reputed news organisations such as The New York Times and The Guardian. 

The Trump administration has given more than enough examples since 2016 of randomly accusing news organisations of being 'fake news'. With a precedent set by convicting Assange under the Espionage Act, the Trump administration could further prevent any kind of investigative reporting which involves disclosing US government secrets.

There is no doubt that Assange's methods were controversial, as in some of the documents some important names were not redacted before publishing. He has also been accused of being a Russian stooge when prior to the 2016 US Presidential elections, Wikileaks published a stash of Democratic emails which had allegedly been stolen and provided to Wikileaks by the Russian government.

But charging him for espionage puts him in the same league as "foreign spies seeking to undermine a nation's security," according to NYT which stated, "Assange is no hero. But this case now represents a threat to freedom of expression and, with it, the resilience of American democracy itself."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has said that this indictment establishes "a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organisations that hold the government accountable."

 What is Twitter saying about the charges against Assange?

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