Protect the founder of WikiLeaks for the future of press freedom

By Clara Snyder | Reporter

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is currently fighting extradition — the process of being handed over to the jurisdiction of a foreign state in which a crime was committed — from a UK prison to be tried in the US for espionage and spying. If he is convicted, press freedom will take a detrimental blow in America, which will have a ripple effect across the globe.

Founding the organization in 2006 as “an intelligence agency for the people,” Assange created a name for himself with WikiLeaks by publishing countless classified documents and US military secrets, making him the world’s most infamous hacker-publisher activist.

The conversation about prosecuting the WikiLeaks founder for these actions is not a new one. The Obama administration decided not to indict Assange for publishing the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, recognizing that a case against WikiLeaks also meant a case against the news organizations that published the information.

The Trump administration had different feelings about the situation, indicting Assange in 2019. The change of heart, in my opinion, had everything to do with former CIA director Mike Pompeo’s personal animosity toward Assange for exposing CIA hacking tools through the Vault 7 leaks.

Embarrassed and taking the leaks personally, Pompeo sought revenge through a CIA campaign to kidnap and possibly assassinate Assange. This plot remained secret until 2021, when Yahoo News published “The CIA’s war on WikiLeaks,” compiling information from over 30 unnamed former US intelligence sources on the agency’s plans to silence the leaker.

Worried that kidnapping him without legal basis would impact the US’ ability to charge Assange, the Justice Department was urged to quickly draft an indictment against him in case the CIA moved forward with its kidnapping plans. With this evidence, it is reasonable to assume that the political motivations behind the indictment will pose a clear threat to ensuring Assange’s right to a fair trial in the US.

Assange as an individual is flawed, but his role in framing the understanding Americans now have of their country’s foreign affairs is invaluable. Particularly in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, the picture we now have of those conflicts’ realities is a direct result of Assange’s pursuit to share true information he believed the public deserved to know.

Recently, discussions on whether Assange is a journalist and can be protected as one have been circulating in the journalism community. The top of the site for the Free Julian Assange Movement reads, “Journalism is not a crime.”

But is Assange a journalist?

Although the digital age has smeared the defining boundaries of who can be called a journalist, Assange should be protected as one because his actions are journalistic.

Journalists get information the public needs when it needs it. They act as watchdogs for the state. Journalists don’t take the story provided by those in power at face value. They dig to affirm its truth or prove its falsity.

The original press baron, Lord Northcliffe, said it best: “News is something someone somewhere doesn’t want printed. Everything else is advertising.”

Even if we can’t agree that Assange is a journalist, and even if we can’t agree on support for him as a person, it is imperative that we agree on the principles of the situation. Prosecuting someone whose actions align with the daily practices and goals of journalism would be an attack on the First Amendment freedom that allows the press to give the public the news it needs.

Press freedom in America has been declining in recent years, becoming a growing cause for concern among journalists. If Assange is convicted of the charges against him in the US, press freedom will be impacted in three major ways:

1. The arguments used in the case lay the groundwork for other journalists to be prosecuted on similar grounds. This threatens the protection of journalists under the First Amendment, and it criminalizes common reporting tactics used by investigative journalists.

2. A precedent will be set that anyone who reveals information the government doesn’t want revealed is an enemy of the state and can be treated as such in a court of law, threatening America’s press freedom and paving the way for government suppression of media.

3. Onlooking authoritarian leaders have an example of the US imprisoning an individual for publishing information critical of the government, which they can use to back future efforts to imprison journalists they see as a threat to their regime.

Assange’s case is a reminder to us all that being American does not make us immune to democratic injustice. Freedom isn’t a guarantee we can overlook; it is a luxury we must protect.