The Media Today

Julian Assange is free, but troubling journalistic questions remain

June 27, 2024
Supporters of Assange outside the Central Criminal Court as District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that the founder of WikiLeaks should not be extradited to the United States to face trial for espionage charges, on January 4, 2021, in London. Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via AP

A video clip posted on social media sites on Monday showed Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, climbing the stairs to a private airplane that was parked on the tarmac at London’s Stansted airport. A fairly mundane image in many ways, were it not for the fact that Assange has been in prison in the UK for the past five years, and for most of that period has been fighting the US government’s attempts to extradite him to the US to face Espionage Act charges for publishing classified information (I wrote about the filing of the initial indictment). The plane that Assange boarded at Stansted flew to Bangkok and then to Saipan, the island capital of the Northern Marianas, which have been a US commonwealth since World War II.

Assange flew to Saipan to attend a hearing on Wednesday as part of a deal reached with the US government under which he agreed to plead guilty to a single count of illegally obtaining and disclosing national security material. In exchange, he was released from prison, since the five years he spent there was more or less equivalent to what he would have received as a sentence for such a charge, and returned to his home country of Australia. The Northern Mariana Islands were chosen as the location for the court hearing because Assange didn’t want to set foot in the continental US, and because the islands are close to Australia, making it easier for him to travel there.

After news of the plea arrangement was published, Julian Assange’s mother told The Guardian that she was grateful her son’s “ordeal is finally coming to an end” and that the deal shows the importance and power of “quiet diplomacy”; John Shipton, Assange’s father, also expressed his joy at his son’s release from prison. Videos and photos posted on social media on Wednesday showed Assange’s wife, Stella, who married him in 2022 while he was in prison, embracing her husband (the two have been in a relationship since 2015 and have two sons, born in 2017 and 2019). A post from Stella Assange on X had a photo of the two hugging and said simply “Home.”

Reaction to Assange’s release was decidedly mixed. Supporters such as Michael Moore, the left-wing filmmaker who put up a $20,000 bond for Assange in 2010, celebrated the fact that he was out of prison, as did other members of the Free Assange lobby group, and free-press advocacy organizations such as PEN America. But Mike Pence, vice president under Donald Trump, described the plea deal as “a miscarriage of justice,” arguing that the classified information that WikiLeaks published put members of the US military in danger (something for which there is little concrete proof). The Times newspaper in the UK wrote that Assange was “not a genuine whistleblower, let alone a test case for journalistic freedom, but a thief,” and Doug Saunders wrote in Canada’s Globe and Mail that Assange was “a fraud who called himself a journalist and whistleblower while greatly hindering journalism and making life harder for actual whistleblowers,” and was a “tool of dictators” because of the way that some WikiLeaks disclosures (such as Hillary Clinton’s email logs) benefited the Russian government.

The news of a deal seemed to take some observers by surprise, but the Biden administration has been sending signals for some time that it wanted to resolve the Assange affair, and political observers say over the past year Anthony Albanese, the prime minister of Australia, has put a considerable amount of pressure on the US to settle the case once and for all. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported for the first time that the US Department of Justice was considering striking a plea deal with Assange, and noted that one of the reasons the Biden administration was willing to consider such an arrangement was the fact that pursuing Assange’s extradition on Espionage Act charges would have been a political hot potato just as the US was preparing for a presidential election.

The US government has been divided over how to proceed with a case against Assange ever since WikiLeaks started publishing thousands of classified documents in 2010, which it received from Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst (she was convicted of espionage and spent seven years in prison). Justice Department officials in the Obama administration considered indicting Assange under the Espionage Act, but ultimately decided not to because they believed that charging him for receiving and publishing leaked documents would criminalize behavior that many investigative journalists routinely engage in. Former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller told the Washington Post in 2013 that the problem with pursuing a case against Assange was that “there is no way to prosecute him for publishing information without the same theory being applied to journalists.”

In 2018, however, the Trump administration came to a very different conclusion, and laid eighteen charges against Assange under the Espionage Act (a decision that was revealed accidentally due to a cut-and-paste error in a different case). The Justice Department alleged that Assange conspired with Manning and “abetted her in obtaining classified information with reason to believe that the information was to be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of a foreign nation,” including cracking a password stored on government computers. In 2020, the Justice Department filed an update to the indictment in which they said that Assange also “recruited and agreed with hackers to commit computer intrusions” to gain access to classified documents, including giving a list of high-value targets to LulzSec, a group of criminal hackers. According to the Justice Department, this kind of behavior made Assange’s offenses qualitatively different from normal journalism.

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The reaction from free-press advocates was swift. Carrie DeCell, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia, wrote on Twitter that the question “isn’t whether Assange is a journalist, but whether the government’s legal theory threatens freedom of the press. It does.” The government’s case was that Assange committed espionage by obtaining and then publishing classified information, DeCell said, but “that’s exactly what good national security and investigative journalists do.” Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute, said after the indictment was approved by a grand jury that the Justice Department’s allegations described “everyday journalistic practices as part of a criminal conspiracy,” including cultivating sources, protecting sources’ identities, and communicating securely. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said that the charges posed “a dire threat,” and the Freedom of the Press Foundation called them “terrifying.”

After the indictment, Assange was removed from the Ecuadoran embassy by British police and taken to the UK’s Belmarsh prison, where has spent the past five years in what amounts to solitary confinement, fighting the US government’s attempts to extradite him. Britain’s foreign minister signed an extradition order in 2019, but Assange and his legal team appealed, arguing that the charges effectively represented political offenses, and that extradition would therefore be a breach of a 2003 treaty between the UK and US that prevents extradition for political offenses. Assange’s lawyers also argued that being held in a US prison could endanger his mental health and increase the risk of suicide. In 2021, a judge blocked the extradition order based on the mental health argument, but it was reinstated after US authorities promised that Assange would be well treated. Assange appealed again, arguing that prosecution was a breach of his fundamental First Amendment and EU rights to freedom of expression, and the British High Court ruled last month that his appeal could be heard.

While free-press advocacy groups expressed satisfaction at Assange’s release, they said the deal he cut with the Biden administration still represents a threat to journalists and the practice of journalism. David Greene, head of civil liberties at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on First Amendment and digital freedom issues, told the New York Times that the deal means that the “US has now, for the first time in the more than 100-year history of the Espionage Act, obtained an Espionage Act conviction for basic journalistic acts.” Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Reuters that while the group welcomed Assange’s release from prison, the US prosecution of him “set a harmful legal precedent by opening the way for journalists to be tried under the Espionage Act if they receive classified material from whistleblowers.”

Alan Rusbridger, the editor in chief of The Guardian when it published some of the WikiLeaks documents, wrote in Prospect magazine that Assange’s release was “very good news,” but that his plea deal would “undoubtedly have a chilling effect on genuine and legitimate reporting.” Rusbridger, who is now the editor of Prospect, added that whatever Assange was, he was “not a spy. Publisher, journalist, activist, information anarchist, whistleblower, impresario—he is all those things. But no one, not even the US government, seriously alleged that whatever he did in 2010/11 amounted to espionage.” Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said the plea deal won’t carry the same precedent as a court ruling would have, but could still “hang over the heads of national security reporters for years to come.” Stella Assange, who said her husband plans to seek a pardon, told Reuters that the guilty plea under the Espionage Act is “a very serious concern for journalists.”

In an editorial, The Guardian wrote that the Biden administration should never have pursued Espionage Act charges against Assange, especially after the Obama government identified the chilling effect this might have on investigative journalism, and the UK government should never have agreed to Assange’s extradition. Unfortunately, the paper’s editors added, “it is possible that future administrations could take this case as encouragement to pursue the press under the Espionage Act [and] it is likely that an emboldened second Trump administration would do so.” Jaffer wrote that the bottom line is that Assange “served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day,” and for that reason establishes “a terrible precedent.” The case, he said, will “cast a long shadow over the most important kinds of journalism, not just in the United States but around the world.”

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.