Why the Julian Assange Case is a Threat to the Free Press

Matt Orfalea
8 min readJul 4, 2019

6 Pulitzer Prize Winners Explain

The Trump administration’s latest charges against Julian Assange may mean the death of the free press. Under the Espionage Act, the Wikileaks founder faces life in prison for publishing government secrets that informed the public, exposed war crimes, and didn’t harm anyone.

America’s most respected journalists are terrified. Because if the prosecution against Assange is successful, it will criminalize their own work exposing government crimes, and make government dangerously unaccountable.

Here’s 6 Pulitzer Prize winners, for outstanding journalism, who warn that the Trump administrations latest indictment against Assange is a serious threat to the freedom of all Americans.

6. The Washington Post

The Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, famous for leading the investigation exposing sex abuse in the catholic church, released a statement condemning the new charges against Assange. He wrote:

The Post’s current executive editor, Marty Baron, is famous for leading the investigation into sex abuse in the catholic church portrayed in the film Spotlight. When the Trump Justice Dept. indicted Assange for espionage charges, Marty released a statement condemning the decision

“Dating as far back as the Pentagon Papers case and beyond, journalists have been receiving and reporting on information that the government deemed classified. Wrongdoing and abuse of power were exposed. With the new indictment of Julian Assange, the government is advancing a legal argument that places such important work in jeopardy and undermines the very purpose of the First Amendment.”

“The administration has gone from denigrating journalists as ‘enemies of the people’ to now criminalizing common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest. Meantime, government officials continue to engage in a decades-long practice of over-classifying information, often for reasons that have nothing to do with national security...”

Separate from Baron, even The Post’s editorial board, which has been notoriously critical of Assange, voiced concern citing the fact that “government officials refused to explain how the activities for which Mr. Assange is now being charged differ from those investigative journalists use daily.”

The board went on to argue that the charges against Assange using the “vaguely worded”, “dangerous”, and “likely unconstitutional” Espionage Act of 1917 is an “abuse of the law”.

5. James Risen

In the Intercept, Risen wrote “The Indictment of Julian Assange Under the Espionage Act Is a Threat to the Press and the American People”.

He explains the espionage charges against Assange describe “almost a textbook definition of a reporter covering national security at a major news organization…If the government can charge Assange for conspiring to obtain leaked documents, what would stop it from charging the CIA beat reporter at the New York Times for committing the same crime?”

Risen says that the government secrets that Assange is charged for publishing “brought new light to the dark corners of the war on terror…[Trump’s Justice Department is] going after the publication of classified documents that helped educate Americans about the conduct of their own government. All journalists — and all Americans — should be deeply worried about that.”

I think it’s so important to get the American people to understand that and to look at that issue of government abuse of power. And to realize that when the government cracks down on whistleblowers and targets reporters that what they really are doing is they’re trying to stop from being embarrassed, stop from politically damaging information from coming out, and it’s not really about national security.

4. Seymour Hersh

Hersh has spent a lifetime stunning the world by breaking stories such as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the abuses at Abu Gharab prison. One of the most famous, one of the most respected, one of the most successful investigative reporters in the world.

Does it frustrate you at all that perhaps there’s never been a greater need for investigative journalism?

I think it’s going to hell.

In addition to charging Assange for publishing, the indictment against Assange charges him as a “co-conspirator” for “encouraging sources” to give him classified information. Hersh explained how this criminalizes journalism to Harpers Magazine which wrote:

“If Trump’s Justice Department succeeded in prosecuting Assange, the only safe course of action for a reporter would be to receive information from a leaker passively. But it’s naïve to think that reporters can sit around waiting for leaks to fall into their laps…[Hersh says] that he obtains classified information through a process of ‘seduction’ in which he spends time trying to induce the source into giving up the information. If he isn’t allowed to do that, he says, ‘It’s the end of national security reporting’.”

Hersh warned the New York Times of this existential threat to investigative journalism when he said, “Today Assange. Tomorrow, perhaps, The New York Times and other media that published so much of the important news and information Assange provided.”

God damn it, this story in the Times by Hersh. The son-of-a-bitch is a son-of-a-bitch. But he’s usually right isn’t he?

3. Glenn Greenwald

Greenwald and his colleagues at the Guardian shared in the highest Pulitzer of them all: The Prize for Public Service. Greenwald, now editor of the Intercept, warned on NPR that “prosecuting Julian Assange in connection with publishing secret documents that showed U.S. war crimes is one of the greatest threats to press freedom possibly imaginable.”

It’s clearly a threat to the first amendment because it criminalizes core journalistic functions.

Given the seriousness of the situation, Greenwald urges people to put aside their emotions about Assange revelations of DNC corruption in 2016

The current attempt to prosecute Wikileaks and Assange are all about documents that were published, not in 2016, but in 2011 and 2012…If you just look at that how media outlets have used that archive, it’s probably the most valuable journalistic archive in the last 50 yrs since the Pentagon Papers…And there’s never been identified by the US government anyone who’s been harmed by those publications but a lot of media outlets have used them to do really good reporting.

It’s the criminalization of journalism by the Trump Justice Dept. and the gravest threat to press freedom by far under the Trump presidency…and ever journalist in the world should be raising their voices loudly as possible to protest and denounce this.

Glenn wrote in the Washington Post: “Now every journalist and every citizen must decide whether their personal animus toward Assange is more important than preserving press freedom in the United States.”

2. Chris Hedges

His correspondence from the Middles East for the NY Times won him a Pulitzer and an Amnesty International Global Award for human rights journalism.

I came specifically to London to speak out against the judicial lynching of Julian Assange…If we had a functioning judicial system…Julian would have been a witness for the prosecution against the war criminals he helped expose. He would not be wasting away at Belmarsh prison.

The lynching of Julian Assange sets a terrifying — and I don’t use that word lightly — legal precedent which permits the US government to seize journalists, and allows the government to prosecute publishers.

You know the animosity that the Trump administration have towards the press is quite public, and quite open, so I have little doubt that once this precedent is set if it is set — I hope it isn’t — it will not in anyway end with Julian Assange and Wikileaks.

1. The New York Times

The Times actually worked with Assange to publish some of the exact same material Assange is being prosecuted for publishing in the early 2010s — at one point running Wikileaks material on its front page nine days in a row.

Here’s the Time’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, reflecting on his paper’s collaboration with Assange:

Wikileaks to me was a clear public service…It was about how governments operate. It inspired parts of the Arab Spring. It was so clearly journalistically newsworthy.

Frightened about the new Julian Assange indictment, Baquet said:

“A fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that journalists have the right to publish truthful information, even when a source may have broken the law to provide that information. In charging Julian Assange for receiving and disclosing classified information in violation of the Espionage Act, the government threatens to undermine that basic tenet of press freedom. Obtaining and publishing information that the government would prefer to keep secret is vital to journalism and democracy. The new indictment is a deeply troubling step toward giving the government greater control over what Americans are allowed to know.”

Separate from Baquet, The New York Times editorial board put out their own statement warning the public that “this case now represents a threat to freedom of expression and, with it, the resilience of American democracy itself.”

How do you feel about Wikileaks and Assange now? Would you partner with them again?

If Julian Assange came to me and he had information I thought was really vital for people to know, I would take a deep breath, and yeah of course I would.

I’m Matt Orfalea. Thanks for watching.

What Julian Assange has done what the media says they’re supposed to do…which is bring transparency to the world’s most powerful factions.

I don’t believe you can have a democracy without aggressive investigative reporting…and without freedom of the press.

I think you need crusaders. I think you need crusaders now more than ever.

All those who hold power should be held accountable.

Whether it’s text, whether it’s documents, whether it’s emails, whether it’s John Podesta’s theoretical calendar that shows meetings that are newsworthy, I think the information trumps all.

Let us make sure that those who fight back like Julian do not become martyrs to a lost cause.

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