If we care about a free press, we must defend Assange
- The US wants to extradite Julian Assange from the UK to face unprecedented charges for publishing government documents leaked by Chelsea Manning in 2010.
- The indictment could put Assange in prison for 175 years and could mark the end of First Amendment protections on journalism everywhere.
- Prosecuting Assange for exposing war crimes and human rights abuses is a threat to free speech, press freedoms, the public's right to know, and the ability to hold our government accountable.
- Ben Cohen is an activist, businessman, and cofounder of Ben and Jerry's. He divides his time between AssangeDefense.org, @DropTheMic2020, and working to end qualified immunity.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
With each passing day, it becomes more obvious that President Donald Trump views the media as his enemy. But with the pandemic, criminal justice reform, the presidential election, and now COVID-19 relief bill talks dominating headlines, little attention has been paid to the long-term damage caused by Trump's hatred of a free press.
Right now, Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks, is facing an extradition trial in England because Trump's Justice Department has hit him with an unprecedented indictment — seeking 175 years in prison for what experts consider customary newsgathering and publishing activities.
The Trump Justice Department is seeking to criminalize WikiLeaks' revelations that exposed war crimes, civilian casualties, torture, illegal surveillance, government lies, and corporate corruption. While the US government misled the country into tragic wars and concealed its actions, brave whistleblowers turned to WikiLeaks to share the truth with the public. For their efforts, WikiLeaks and Assange have received numerous journalism and human rights awards.
Charging Assange sets a dangerous precedent for the freedom of press
I had the privilege of meeting Assange during his time in the Ecuadorian embassy. Assange cares deeply about the public's right to know what governments do in their name. He cares about peace. He thought that by bringing this information to light, he could make the world a better place by bringing an end to foolish wars. Call him naive if you want, but he is not our enemy. The world needs individuals with Assange's passion and commitment to truth.
The American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Ben Wizner warns that the charges against Assange are "an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration's attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment."
The Trump Justice Department and its defenders rationalize this assault on press freedom with smoke and mirrors. They distract the public by changing the subject with what Noam Chomsky and Alice Walker call "inconsequential personality profiles." They downplay the danger of this indictment by suggesting that Assange is not a journalist. Even if you ignore the countless journalism awards WikiLeaks received and the full-throated condemnation of the charges from journalism organizations, this rhetorical sleight of hand is easy to see through. WikiLeaks is a journalistic enterprise that takes a more transparent approach than most, providing readers with curated source documents alongside more conventional reporting.
These semantic arguments over whether someone is a journalist or not miss the point. Journalism isn't about where you work. It's about what you do. Trevor Timm, founder of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, testified at Assange's extradition: "In the US, the First Amendment protects everyone. Whether you consider Assange a journalist doesn't matter, he was engaging in journalistic activity." Most importantly, the conduct Assange has been indicted for is textbook "journalistic behavior": communicating with sources and gathering, possessing, and publishing sensitive information.
The danger of criminalizing journalistic behavior extends far beyond WikiLeaks. This is why the Obama Justice Department did not indict Assange. They "looked hard" at him, but decided that charging Assange would create a "New York Times problem" — opening up to prosecution all news organizations who receive leaks or publish stories based on them.
Experts agree that a successful prosecution of Assange would undermine the First Amendment, and would particularly cripple investigative journalism. All journalism aims to inform the public, but what makes investigative journalism so vital to democracy is its power to inform us about what is deliberately hidden from our view.
Criminalizing journalism is 'killing the messenger'
The saying "don't kill the messenger" is as old as civilization itself, but we forget to take it to heart sometimes. People blast the bearers of bad news for "blaming America," as if being honest with ourselves is something shameful. Greatness depends on our willingness to look ourselves in the mirror and right the wrongs in our lives and in our society.
Without a free press shining light on the government, we are unable to hold our government accountable. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are necessary for us to form opinions and choose leaders. Without the information that a free press provides, we can only stumble around in the dark, blind to the realities of the world and the conduct of our government. A blind public is unable to see society's problems, let alone fix them.
If we care about a free press, we must defend Assange
The Washington Post's Bob Woodward's revelations that Trump misled the public on the dangers of COVID-19 should serve as a stark reminder of the important role journalists play in our democracy. And the reports that Trump offered Assange a pardon if he would publicly exonerate his campaign (and Russia) over the DNC leaks are a huge red flag.
If the reports are true, then Assange chose to not lie for Trump, and as a result he is now the first journalist in our history to be indicted for publishing truthful information. You don't have to like Assange personally or be happy with the stories WikiLeaks has broken, but if we care about a free press, we must defend Assange.
As we transition to a new administration, we should remember the previous one. The Obama-Biden record on war, transparency, and whistleblowers was not perfect, but President Obama respected democracy. He did not make the press his enemy. And even though the WikiLeaks disclosures embarrassed his administration, Obama showed restraint by not prosecuting Assange.
All citizens, regardless of their politics, should be outraged. But I don't want to tell people that they should be outraged; I want to give them information that makes them outraged — that their government is escalating its war on journalism.
After all, a war on journalists is not just a war on the messenger. It is a war on some of America's most important legal, cultural, and political traditions. It is a war on our right to know and our ability to participate in important debates. It's a war on democracy itself.
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