In an unprecedented and dangerous move that threatens the press freedom rights of all journalists, the US Justice Department has indicated it is preparing to charge WikiLeaks with a crime and may attempt to arrest its founder Julian Assange. The charges may stem from the publication of US State Department cables in 2010 and their more recent of disclosure of CIA hacking tools.
Whether you like or dislike WikiLeaks – especially if you dislike them – it’s important to understand just how dangerous this potential prosecution is to the future of journalism in the United States. Newspapers publish classified information all the time, and any prosecution of WikiLeaks puts journalists of all stripes at risk of a similar fate. Even WikiLeaks’ harshest critics need to denounce this potential move as a grave threat to the first amendment.
People may not realize it, but not a week goes by without classified information on the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal. Without the right to publish secret information, as New York Times reporter Max Frankel put it more than 40 years ago in the landmark Pentagon Papers case: “There could be no adequate diplomatic, military and political reporting of the kind our people take for granted, either abroad or in Washington and there could be no mature system of communication between the government and the people.”
There is no better example of this than the current reporting being done on the Trump administration: investigations that constantly require journalists to publish information that government considers classified. Whether it’s the resignation of controversial national security adviser Michael Flynn, the Trump administration’s plans for ramping up war across the globe, or the possibility it will bring back torture – the American people would be far worse off if none of this information came to light.
It’s easy to see what the response to these potential charges will be from some WikiLeaks critics. There is certainly a portion of the American public that holds an animus towards the organization due to the Clinton emails it published in the lead up to the presidential election and are eager to see the organization and Assange punished. “Julian Assange isn’t a journalist” or “he’s not an American citizen”, will be the claims, in an attempt to distance him from other news organizations.
US attorney general Jeff Sessions on WikiLeaks: ‘We’ll seek to put people in jail’
This is incredibly shortsighted. Whatever criticism you want to level at WikiLeaks for its editorial judgment, there is no doubt that it publishes significant information that many people consider newsworthy. Yes, the organization has angered two successive administrations because much of what it publishes is considered “secret”, but so has every paper worth its salt in this country at one time or another.
Just because you may think WikiLeaks may have bad opinions, that it is more antagonistic, partisan or abrasive than traditional news organizations, does not mean that our free press should be put at risk with this vengeful and deeply misguided prosecution. (By the way, first amendment rights are not just afforded to US citizens, they are universal to anyone who falls under US jurisdiction – citizen or not – contrary to what the CIA director thinks.) And does anyone really think the Trump administration – with its avowed hatred for the press – is really going to stop at WikiLeaks?
Republican and Trump supporter Peter King immediately went on CNN on Thursday and declared he was glad the Justice Department had apparently “found a way to go after” WikiLeaks. This is the same Peter King, who on multiple occasions in the last decade, has called for reporters to be prosecuted. During the Bush administration, he said New York Times reporters should be jailed under the Espionage Act. Then, under the Obama administration, he said the same thing about then-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald for his reporting on the Snowden documents. This is the kind of reporter who will be next in line if the Justice Department succeeds in their alleged plans.
It was just a few weeks ago that Trump called the New York Times and other mainstream news organizations “the enemy of the American people”. He has constantly decried their critical reporting of his statements as “fake news”, he threatened to sue news organizations or journalists at least a dozen times during the campaign, and openly questioned whether laws should be changed to make them easier to go after in court. Don’t think for a moment that his administration wouldn’t immediately turn around and use any precedent set by a WikiLeaks prosecution to go after the next newspaper that publishes a critical story.
If the Trump Justice Department follows through on its threat, make no mistake: next time it won’t be a publisher you don’t like, it will be the newspaper that Trump doesn’t like – likely the one you read every day. So stick up for WikiLeaks’ rights – or the New York Times, Washington Post or Guardian could be next.