Though many Democrats have so far remained silent, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden, and Bernie Sanders are among the few high-profile party members to join free press advocates in condemning Espionage charges against Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange.
The political and journalism worlds reacted to the Trump administration’s decision Thursday to charge Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act with concern for those celebrating the prosecution and dismay over those remaining silent on the issue.
“Espionage charges against Assange are a threat to press freedom.”
—Karen vanden Heuvel
Assange was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday. The charges are seen by many proponents of press freedom on both the right and the left as part of an effort from the White House to criminalize dissent by journalism and to produce a chilling effect on reporters exposing classified documents that the government would prefer remain hidden.
Despite the unpopularity of the Trump administration among Democrats, however, at press time only three members of the party’s congressional delegation has spoken up: Wyden, of Oregon; Warren, of Massachusetts; and Independent Sanders of Vermont.
In a statement, Wyden said that he was “extremely concerned about the precedent this may set and potential dangers to the work of journalists and the First Amendment.”
“This is not about Julian Assange,” said Wyden. “This is about the use of the Espionage Act to charge a recipient and publisher of classified information.”
“Let me be clear: it is a disturbing attack on the First Amendment for the Trump administration to decide who is or is not a reporter for the purposes of a criminal prosecution,” Sanders said in a tweet Friday. “Donald Trump must obey the Constitution, which protects the publication of news about our government.”
Warren, in a statement sent to The Intercept, differentiated between Assange and the free press.
“Assange is a bad actor who has harmed U.S. national security — and he should be held accountable,” said Warren. “But Trump should not be using this case as a pretext to wage war on the First Amendment and go after the free press who hold the powerful accountable everyday.”
Critics of Assange have claimed that the Wikileaks founder is not a journalist, so his “crimes” are not applicable to journalists and journalism as a whole. But, as Knight First Amendment Institute staff attorney Carrie DeCell pointed out in a twitter thread, that’s not the case.
“The government argues that Assange violated the Espionage Act by soliciting, obtaining, and then publishing classified information,” DeCell tweeted. “That’s exactly what good national security and investigative journalists do every day.”
Further, as The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer said in a series of tweets, anyone rejoicing over Assange’s indictments is missing the forest for the trees.
“Some of you are so eager to punish Assange for helping Trump that you’re willing to hand Trump a tool for prosecuting the reporters exposing his corruption,” said Serwer. “That’s plainly idiotic.”
“Please stop and think,” Serwer added. “If publishing classified information is prosecutable, than any outlet that does so can be prosecuted.”
Margaret Kimberley, “Freedom Rider” columnist for Black Agenda Report, pointed to a case in France where journalists are being called in for questioning for publishing classified materials as part of the same story.
“This will happen more and more in the wake of the persecution of Julian Assange,” said Kimberley.
In a column at The Intercept, journalist James Risen put the indictment into context.
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