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The Case of Julian Assange Criminalizes Journalism

On June 26, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange returned home to Australia after pleading guilty to one charge of espionage. This followed a 14-year legal battle and more than five years spent in a UK high-security prison.

He was sentenced to 62 months of time already served. 

Assange, 53, was fighting extradition to the U.S., where he faced up to 175 years in prison. 

In 2019, he was indicted by former President Donald Trump’s administration over WikiLeaks’ publication of hundreds of classified documents that revealed U.S. war crimes. 

The Biden administration dropped the request for extradition only after Assange agreed to plead guilty to violating the Espionage Act. The plea deal brought him freedom, but also triggered international concern in setting a legal precedent that threatens journalists’ rights.

“Pleading Guilty to Committing Journalism”

On her husband’s first day back home, Stella Assange urged Australian journalists to obtain details from the U.S. government about Julian Assange’s case by filing a freedom of information request. 

“If Julian pleaded guilty in federal court in Saipan, it’s because he was pleading guilty to committing journalism,” she said in a press conference on June 27. “This case criminalizes journalism – journalistic activity, standard journalistic activity of news gathering, and publishing. And so, this is the reality of this prosecution.”

Assange’s crime was publishing documents that had been disclosed to him. According to activists and journalists, the Espionage Act now threatens press freedom all over the world. 

“Although the WikiLeaks founder is expected to walk free from the U.S. district court in Saipan after Wednesday’s hearing, the Espionage Act will still hang over the heads of journalists reporting on national security issues, not just in the US,” wrote The Guardian editor Julian Borger. “Assange himself is an Australian, not a U.S. citizen.”

Borger argued that U.S. prosecutors claimed Assange is a hacker and activist with an agenda, and put the lives of U.S. sources and contacts in danger only to apply the Espionage Act without harming the freedom of press. 

“The things he was accused of doing, ‘obtaining and disseminating classified information,’ are what national security journalists do for a living,” he said. 

Other advocates for press freedom also argued that the charge represents a threat to free speech.

“A plea deal would avert the worst-case scenario for press freedom, but this deal contemplates that Assange will have served five years in prison for activities that journalists engage in every day,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

“It will cast a long shadow over the most important kinds of journalism, not just in this country but around the world.”

Key WikiLeaks Disclosures 

In April 2010, Julian Assange published a video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad that killed 12 people, including two Reuters journalists, Namir Noor Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, on July 12, 2007. 

In July 2010, WikiLeaks shared 90,000 classified documents on the U.S. war in Afghanistan with media outlets, which highlighted U.S. military operations and revealed undisclosed civilian casualties that were much higher than what was originally reported. 

In April 2011, WikiLeaks shared thousands of pages of classified documents from February 2002 to January 2009 with American and European media outlets. The reports detailed the abuse of nearly 800 prisoners and violations of international humanitarian law at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. 

Wikileaks’ Iraq War files revealed more than 15,000 unknown civilians who were killed after the U.S. claimed there was no official record of casualties. More than 66,000 civilians were reportedly murdered out of 109,000 deaths. 

The files also revealed that U.S. soldiers had killed hundreds of civilians for moving too close to checkpoints or not stopping to be searched. According to the leaked documents, there were nearly 14,000 “escalation of force” incidents, which ended in accidental killings of civilians. 

Between 2004 and 2010, about 680 civilians were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded. Bullets reportedly used as warning shots at checkpoints harmed civilians in the area. Even further, more than a dozen documents about the Iraq War detailed instances of guards from the private security firm Blackwater opening fire on civilians, killing 10 people and injuring seven others.

According to the files, Blackwater contractors, who were operating under a $465 million State Department contract, were involved in the illegal murder of civilians while protecting U.S. diplomats in one third of the reported cases. They fired at civilian vehicles that came too close to their convoys, and shot at an ambulance on its way to a bomb scene, killing its driver. 

In 2016, WikiLeaks released 19,252 emails and 8,034 attachments from the U.S. Democratic National Committee (DNC) discussing how to undermine Bernie Sanders and support Hillary Clinton. The leaks led to the resignation of the DNC chair, CFO, CEO, communications director, and finance director. 

Julian Assange: A “Hero for the Ages”

Julian Assange’s release pleased not only journalists, but also international supporters, including world leaders, politicians, and lawmakers. He was praised for his efforts to expose the truth about war and invasions.

According to Al Jazeera, Australian Greens Senator David Shoebridge said that Assange should have never been charged with espionage or forced to accept the plea deal. 

“[He] has spent years in jail for the crime of showing the world the horrors of the U.S. war in Iraq and the complicity of governments like Australia and that is why he has been punished,” he said.

The president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, expressed his happiness, inviting Assange and his wife to visit Colombia in a statement on X. Petro also described Assange’s “imprisonment and torture” as an “attack on global press freedom.” “Denouncing the massacre of civilians in Iraq by the U.S. war machine was his crime, and now the massacre is being repeated in Gaza,” he added.

Evo Morales, the former president of Bolivia, celebrated Assange’s release and called it a day of joy for the fight for peace and truth. “He was imprisoned for many years for exposing to the world the crimes of the U.S. He helped reveal and dismantle the lies that justify wars and invasions,” he wrote on X. 

The CEO of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Jodie Ginsberg, criticized the attack on journalism and welcomed Assange’s release in a statement.

“Julian Assange faced a prosecution that had grave implications for journalists and press freedom worldwide,” she said. “While we welcome the end of his detention, America’s pursuit of Assange has set a harmful legal precedent by opening the way for journalists to be tried under the Espionage Act if they receive classified material from whistleblowers. This should never have been the case.”

British investigative journalist Matt Kennard described Assange as a “hero for the ages” and said that “what he endured for all of us is unimaginable.” 

Two of this year’s U.S. presidential candidates, Cornel West and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., also took to X to praise Assange and celebrate his freedom. 

West said Assange did not commit a crime, but rather “exposed the barbaric crimes of the American empire.”  Kennedy Jr. hailed Assange as “a generational hero.”

“The bad news is that he had to plead guilty to conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense info. Which means the U.S. security state succeeded in criminalizing journalism and extending their jurisdiction globally to non-citizens,” Kennedy wrote on X.

“Julian Assange had to take this. He has heart problems and he would have died in prison. But the security state has imposed a horrifying precedent and dealt a big blow to freedom of the press.”

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  • Zahraa Abbas

    Zahraa Abbas is a Muslim American journalist who aims to dismantle euphemized and dehumanizing language targeting marginalized communities by redefining the terms and interrogating U.S. domestic and international affairs as well as mainstream media. She has a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor's in journalism and psychology from the University of Michigan, a master’s degree in English, and an MFA in creative writing.

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