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Julian Assange’s Arrest Should Worry Anyone Who Cares About Freedom of the Press

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Julian Assange’s strange seven-year residence in Ecuador’s London embassy has ended, and Assange, thanks to the American president he helped elect, is now in British custody facing a US extradition request. The question now is what the freshly unsealed Trump Justice Department indictment against him means, and doesn’t mean—for Assange, for the British courts, which must decide whether to hand him over, and for American press freedom.

Compared with the worst that Assange and his supporters have always feared—black-hooded rendition, indictment under the Espionage Act, the death penalty—the indictment, filed under seal in 2017, may seem like good news. It’s brief—six pages. He is accused of conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack one password on a classified government database. There’s no criminal allegation of spying, nothing touching Russia or the DNC, no broader list of WikiLeaks co-conspirators. As for punishment, while hacking a government password is a felony, the charge carries a maximum prison term of five years—less time than Assange’s voluntary confinement in his diplomatic London quarters.

The indictment focuses on one brief period in March 2010. According to the indictment, Manning, who had already leaking the vast Defense Department databases exposing an assortment of US abuses—what WikiLeaks called the Iraq War Logs—was trying to hack into a particular database without her own credentials. The indictment, citing decrypted chats, says Assange “agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password.”

This is a narrow offense. It also separates Assange, at least on technical grounds, from journalists who receive leaked material but who don’t directly participate in extracting secret files. It’s the difference between The New York Times’s Neil Sheehan receiving the photocopied Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg, and a reporter actively breaking into a government office with a crowbar to yank the papers from their drawers. In the digital realm that difference has sometimes tripped up journalists before Assange: In my journalism-ethics class every year, we examine the troubling, and ultimately tragic, case of a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter who in 1998 torpedoed an otherwise-brilliant investigative series on the Chiquita corporation by repeatedly hacking into that massively corrupt company’s voicemail system. That single illegal act gave an opening for Chiquita to successfully demand that the Enquirer un-publish and renounce the entire series, and it allowed prosecutors to threaten a criminal charge to force the reporter to name his source.

I suspect some reporters and some press-freedom advocates will see Assange’s direct involvement in password-hacking as grounds to walk away from the case. The man violated journalistic norms, goes the argument—and whether his hacking counts as misguided narcissism or a principled act of civil disobedience, it’s no longer about freedom of the press.





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