The case against Julian Assange is a clear threat to journalism

April 18, 2019
As the imminent release of the (no doubt heavily redacted) Mueller report continues to suck all the oxygen out of the US media industry, other important news events are at risk of being overlooked, and the Julian Assange case is arguably one of them, despite Assange’s infamy. The WikiLeaks founder was taken into custody last week—at the request of US officials—at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had spent the past seven years. Some of the fears about his capture representing a threat to freedom of the press seem to have subsided, since the indictment filed by the Department of Justice focuses primarily on Assange’s alleged offer to help crack a password, a breach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The fact that Assange wasn’t charged under the Espionage Act for receiving or publishing classified documents, some argue, means the indictment isn’t as much of a threat to journalism. But is this perception accurate? Kevin Gosztola doesn’t think so. Gosztola, a journalist who has covered the Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks story for outlets like The Nation, argues that a recently unsealed affidavit filed against Assange provides more than enough cause to be concerned about the potential threat the WikiLeaks case poses to journalism. Just to recap, the affidavit is one the Department of Justice filed against the WikiLeaks founder in 2017, and it is far more comprehensive than the more recent indictment unsealed last week. ICYMI: Journalism in Rwanda, 25 years after the genocide The affidavit goes into significant detail about the core of the government’s case, and much of it, Gosztola argues, appears to be an attempt to criminalize a wide range of standard practices engaged in by investigative journalists. The document, written by FBI agent Megan Brown, describes at length the steps that Assange took to help cover his tracks so his relationship with Manning wouldn’t be discovered, including their use of an encrypted messaging app known as Jabber, as well as the use of software called Tor, which anonymizes web traffic. The affidavit also says Assange collaborated with Manning on “the public release of the information”—in other words, publishing. It goes on to allege that Assange broke the law in part by receiving classified documents without a security clearance, something investigative journalists often do. While the indictment doesn’t mention the Espionage Act, the affidavit says part of the government’s case revolves around whether Assange should have known that publication of the information “would cause injury to the United States,” which is a phrase taken from the Espionage Act. As Gosztola notes, the affidavit also dredges up accusations from the government’s case against Manning, in which the Department of Justice argues that because information published by WikiLeaks was found in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, Assange “aided the enemy,” a charge that is also part of the Espionage Act. This argument failed to persuade a judge in the Manning case, perhaps in part because finding Wikileaks info in bin Laden’s camp isn’t that different from finding a copy of The New York Times there. While the indictment gives the impression that all the government cares about is the password-hacking allegation, the affidavit suggests there is much more to the case than just that, and that the hacking charge might just be a hook on which the Department of Justice hopes to hang a much broader case criminalizing much of what journalists do with their sources. There’s no question Julian Assange is a reprehensible person in a number of ways, which makes holding him up as a defender of press freedom more than a little problematic. And he’s pretty clearly not someone journalists would like to think of as a colleague, for a variety of good reasons. He is, as one observer has described him, a “chaos monster.” But we don’t get to choose the individuals who provide an opportunity for us to defend free speech and journalism, and it’s hard to argue that Assange is any worse than Larry Flynt or any of the other reprobates who have helped shape First Amendment law. The risk is not that Assange is ultimately found guilty of offering to crack a password for Chelsea Manning, it’s that the case establishes ground rules related to the behavior of investigative journalists that could be used to go after reporters who receive or publish classified documents. That is a very real threat to journalism, one we should take seriously. Here’s more on Assange and his case:
  • A pretext: The Committee to Protect Journalists says the charges against Assange are “troubling” for press freedom, because there is a chance that the indictment and its accusations about password cracking are “a pretext on the part of the US government to punish Assange for the publication of classified information.” Officials have said they expect to bring further charges against the WikiLeaks founder.
  • To punish: The Electronic Frontier Foundation says the Assange case is about more than just a password. “This case seems to be a clear attempt to punish Assange for publishing information that the government did not want published,” the group said. “We think that neither journalists nor the rest of us should be breathing a sigh of relief.”
  • The press: The Freedom of the Press Foundation said the charges against Assange threaten core press freedom rights, and that the Trump administration has “manufactured a flimsy and pretextual indictment involving a ‘conspiracy’ to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—based entirely on alleged conversations between a journalist and source.”
  • And freedom: The Knight First Amendment Institute said the indictment “treats everyday journalistic practices as part of a criminal conspiracy,” and pulls in activities that are not just lawful but essential to press freedom, including “cultivating sources, protecting sources’ identities, and communicating with sources securely.”
  Other notable stories:
  • CJR will be blogging the coverage of the Mueller report live. It’s an enormous media story, even for Donald Trump’s administration, which sees itself as much as a media operation as a national government. We’ll be looking for who reports first and who does it right, for misinformation surrounding the report, and at how media outlets in a polarized world report the same news very differently. And we’ll be teasing out the themes worthy of more attention. Follow our coverage here.
  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said during an interview at the TED conference that the company is considering introducing a “mute” button that would hide all replies to a tweet, so users wouldn’t have to be confronted by trolls in their mentions. He also said that Twitter might allow users to follow topics as well as individuals. While he spoke, tweets scrolled by on a screen behind him questioning why the company hasn’t done more to stop trolls and Nazis.
  • Mike Masnick of Techdirt takes on an argument by Guardian tech editor Alex Hern, who said that YouTube could afford to hire human beings to moderate all of its video. Masnick says given the volume of video uploaded to the Google-owned service—more than 500 hours of video is uploaded every minute—this would be virtually impossible unless Google wanted to more than quadruple the size of its workforce.
  • Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is suing the US government to overturn a decision that put him on an international trade blacklist, says he is launching a $600,000 prize fund this week to encourage journalists to find out why he has been sanctioned, according to a report in the Financial Times.
  • Igor Bosilkovski writes for CJR about Mirko Ceselkoski, a man who runs a Facebook marketing agency in Macedonia, but is better known as the teacher who inspired dozens of Macedonian teens to create fake news websites that may or may not have influenced the US election in 2016, and allegedly made their creators rich.
  • The New York Times has a profile of Susan Wojcicki, the Google executive who runs YouTube (and who also owned the garage where Sergey Brin and Larry Page started the search giant back in 1998). The Times says she is “exceedingly normal, bordering on boring,” but argues that those qualities might not make her the best person to be running the video unit while it is under fire.
  • According to a report by The Wrap, Paul Pope—the son of National Enquirer founder Generoso Pope—has dropped plans to try to acquire the tabloid from its current owner, saying “I don’t think the paper can be resurrected.” Owner American Media Inc. put the entertainment title up for sale after its financial backers criticized the paper’s coverage.
  • James Stavridis, a retired US admiral who was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander in NATO, says in an op-ed published by Time magazine that the Pentagon has not had a press briefing in almost a year, and that this is a “critical failure by the Department of Defense,” which could lead to a lack of trust in the government and the military.
  • Medium, the publishing platform run by former Twitter CEO Evan Williams, has pivoted its business model a number of times in the past, but says it is determined to sign up more than a million subscribers by forming partnerships with publishers and new magazine properties. Medium pursued a similar strategy in the past but shut it down suddenly and left a lot of publishers in the lurch.
  • Kristen Chick writes for CJR about how the World Press Photo Foundation disinvited disinvited award-winning photographer Andrew Quilty from its annual awards ceremony after it said it received allegations of “inappropriate behavior” by him. The photographer, who won an award for photos of a bombing in Afghanistan, said in a statement he is unaware of any such allegations.
ICYMI: Pete Buttigieg is flavor of the month Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.