In a case that advocates of freedom of the press have been watching closely, on Jan. 4 a British judge rejected the U.S. Justice Department’s request that Julian Assange be extradited from the United Kingdom to face trial in the United States. For Assange and his supporters, the ruling was a victory — even if the Justice Department has pledged to appeal. (Assange was also denied bail.) But the ruling’s implications for press freedom are more complicated.
The Justice Department’s case against Assange raised serious press freedom concerns from the outset. This is partly because so much of the indictment is devoted to describing activity that journalists engage in routinely — like cultivating government sources, communicating with them confidentially, protecting their identities and publishing classified secrets. In defending the indictment, Justice Department spokespeople have insisted that the case does not implicate press freedom because Assange himself is not a journalist and because WikiLeaks, which Assange founded, is not a media organization. But this defense misses the point. The point is that Assange is being prosecuted for activities that national security journalists engage in every day — and that they need to engage in if they are to serve as a meaningful check on government power.
The Justice Department’s case against Assange raised serious press freedom concerns from the outset.
Of particular concern are three counts in the indictment that charge Assange with having violated the Espionage Act merely by publishing classified information. As the Justice Department knows, publishing government secrets is an important part of what American news organizations do. The Washington Post disclosed classified information when it revealed the CIA’s network of black sites. The New York Times disclosed classified information when it exposed the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program.
Jameel Jaffer is executive director of the Knight Institute.