The prosecution of Julian Assange for charges related to his publications of government documents on the whistleblower website Wikileaks poses a grave threat to press freedom, EFF, Freedom of the Press Foundation and other human rights organizations argue. In an open letter published today, we call on President Biden’s acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson to halt the prosecution and the threat of extradition.
The majority of the charges against Assange relate to the Espionage Act, a federal law passed in 1917 designed to punish espionage. The law’s broad language criminalized those who obtain and/or transmit materials related to the national defense (read the text of the law). While the authors of the law may have intended to keep the scope broad in order to encapsulate a wide range of espionage activities, today that law is being turned against publishers of information that seeks to hold government officials to account for unethical behavior.
As we argue in our letter, prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act raises the specter of prosecuting other journalistic institutions for routine investigative and publishing practices. As we state in our letter, “a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be leveraged—perhaps by a future administration—against publishers and journalists of all stripes.” Both the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act raise serious constitutional concerns, and the selective enforcement of these laws is used to threaten journalists, whistleblowers, and publishers who seek to cast light on government malfeasance.
The United States’ extradition request for Julian Assange was recently dismissed by a British judge, but Julian Assange is still in prison and the charges are likely to be appealed. Read EFF’s deeper dive into why the prosecution of Assange threatens press freedom and how the use of the CFAA against Assange fits into a larger pattern of selective enforcement of computer crime laws.
You can read the letter below:
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001
February 8, 2021
Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson:
We, the undersigned press freedom, civil liberties, and international human rights advocacy organizations, write today to share our profound concern about the ongoing criminal and extradition proceedings relating to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
While our organizations have different perspectives on Mr. Assange and his organization, we share the view that the government’s indictment of him poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad. We urge you to drop the appeal of the decision by Judge Vanessa Baraitser of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court to reject the Trump administration’s extradition request.
We also urge you to dismiss the underlying indictment. The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices. In addition, some of the charges included in the indictment turn entirely on Mr. Assange’s decision to publish classified information. News organizations frequently and necessarily publish classified information in order to inform the public of matters of profound public significance. We appreciate that the government has a legitimate interest in protecting bona fide national security interests, but the proceedings against Mr. Assange jeopardize journalism that is crucial to democracy.
The Trump administration positioned itself as an antagonist to the institution of a free and unfettered press in numerous ways. Its abuse of its prosecutorial powers was among the most disturbing. We are deeply concerned about the way that a precedent created by prosecuting Assange could be leveraged—perhaps by a future administration—against publishers and journalists of all stripes. Major news organizations share this concern, which is why the announcement of charges against Assange in May 2019 was met with vociferous and nearly universal condemnation from virtually every major American news outlet, even though many of those news outlets have criticized Mr. Assange in the past. It is our understanding that senior officials in the Obama administration shared this concern as well. Former Department of Justice spokesperson Matthew Miller told the Washington Post in 2013, “The problem the department has always had in investigating Julian Assange is there is no way to prosecute him for publishing information without the same theory being applied to journalists.”
It was reportedly the press freedom implications of any prosecution of Mr. Assange that led Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department to decide against indicting him after considering doing so. It is unfortunately the case that press freedom is under threat globally. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we protect a robust and adversarial press—what Judge Murray Gurfein in the Pentagon Papers case memorably called a “cantankerous press, an obstinate press, an ubiquitous press”—in the United States and abroad. With this end in mind, we respectfully urge you to forgo the appeal of Judge Baraitser’s ruling, and to dismiss the indictment of Mr. Assange.
(in alphabetical order)
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International - USA
Center for Constitutional Rights
Committee to Protect Journalists
Defending Rights and Dissent
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Fight for the Future
First Amendment Coalition
Freedom of the Press Foundation
Human Rights Watch
Index on Censorship
Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University
National Coalition Against Censorship
Open The Government
Partnership for Civil Justice Fund
Project on Government Oversight
Reporters Without Borders
The Press Freedom Defense Fund of First Look Institute
Whistleblower & Source Protection Program (WHISPeR) at ExposeFacts