Sunday, April 14, 2019

On press freedom and Julian Assange.

And why the two are pretty much mutually exclusive. At least in this case.

Gerd Altman | Pixabay

Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks -- a shadowy organization that calls itself a publisher. He has been holed up in Ecuadorian Embassy in London since August 2012, avoiding extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges that have since been dropped. As you have probably heard, on Thursday Ecuador withdrew its protection of Assange, allowing the London Metropolitan Police in to arrest him. He faces trial on the bail-jumping charge in London -- but his biggest concern is whether England will extradite him to the United States, where an indictment was unsealed on the day of his arrest, charging him with conspiring with convicted spy Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer.

Ecuador has given a number of reasons for rescinding the sanctuary it extended to Assange for seven years -- among them that he didn't wash often enough and he didn't take care of his cat. (The cat, we are told, was relocated to friends of Assange's months ago.) Perhaps the biggest reason, however, was their claim that Assange continued to direct WikiLeaks' activities from inside the embassy, using a cell phone he wasn't allowed to have.

There has been quite a hue and cry amongst Assange's supporters and others, saying his arrest and potential prosecution in the U.S. will have a chilling effect on press freedom. The New York Times has gone so far as to say that "most of what he does at WikiLeaks is difficult to distinguish in a legally meaningful way from what traditional news organizations, like The New York Times, do every day: seek out and publish information that officials would prefer to be kept secret, including classified national security matters, and take steps to protect the confidentiality of sources." And these same people say that prosecuting Assange for that type of activity could lead, down the road, to charges against any journalist who publishes government secrets -- thereby weakening the press freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

But Assange isn't charged with publishing any government secrets. He's been charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion -- in other words, he's accused of helping Manning break into that computer at the Pentagon in March 2010. Manning, who was working as an Army intelligence analyst, had already given WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified documents, including information on conditions at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to Assange's indictment, Manning was having trouble cracking a password that would have helped her access more documents, and provided the partial password to Assange; Assange later told her in a private message that he was working on it.

It's true, as a number of news outlets have opined, that investigative journalists thrive on leaks of documents and information that they shouldn't otherwise have access to. The classic example is the Pentagon papers, in which Daniel Ellsberg got hold of classified documents indicating the Johnson Administration had ramped up the Vietnam War and lied to the American people about the extent of our involvement there. The New York Times began publishing the papers in 1971, but the Nixon Administration issued an injunction against the paper -- whereupon the Washington Post picked up the baton and began publishing its own series of articles. Nixon sought an injunction against the Post, too, but a D.C. judge -- and quickly thereafter, the Supreme Court -- ruled against the administration. The ruling was hailed as a victory for press freedom. (The 2017 movie The Post tells this story better than I ever could.)

So what's the difference between Julian Assange on one hand, and The New York Times and the Washington Post on the other?

Here's what it comes down to for me: In 1971, the newspapers didn't actively help the whistleblower. Assange did. If the charges against him are true, he actively assisted Manning with attempting to break into a Pentagon computer. He didn't just publish the stuff Manning handed him -- he tried to help her get more. That has nothing to do with the First Amendment. That's not investigative journalism. That's espionage.

WikiLeaks has published secret documents that have blown the lid off of a number of questionable incidents. In some cases, it has been a force for good; in others, its motives have been iffy. But in no case should WikiLeaks be disseminating documents it broke the law to get hold of -- and if it has, then whoever was involved in breaking the law should go to jail.

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These moments of journalistic blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.