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CWA # 126, 8 June 2019

Julian Assange
Espionage or Investigative Journalism? 

  Jerin George

Assange’s prosecution for espionage is not legally founded, violates press freedom.

Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange was indicted with 17 additional counts of charges under section 793 of the US Code for violating the controversial Espionage laws of the US Code. Earlier he was charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.  It is for the first time in history that the US is using its espionage laws against an investigative journalist. Assange is charged for conspiracy and disclosure of the ‘national defence information’ and ‘secret’ documents of the US Military and Intelligence. His indictment is an encroachment upon press freedom and an aggressive measure to silence investigative journalism globally. 

Assange’s prosecution for espionage is not legally founded, violates press freedom
One, the disclosure made by Wikileaks, although obtained through covert actions cannot contain as espionage. According to the US code ‘an intention or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the US or the advantage of any foreign nation’ is a common element for all espionage charges under section 793 of the US Code.  The leaked documents published by Wikileaks had only made the covert Military and Intelligence operations for scrutiny before the public eye. It didn’t cause any injury to the US or gave any advantage for a foreign nation. Instead, it upholds the cardinal principles of a liberal democracy that is transparency and accountability. The legislative intent behind the Espionage Act of the US was to prosecute the spy work done by enemy states and within during World War-I. The disclosures made by WikiLeaks are in public interest and for a broader public good.

Two, Assange’s indictment violates freedom of information and press. The first amendment of the US constitution guarantees freedom of speech and the media. Press freedom and freedom of information derived from the freedom of opinion and expression. 

According to article 19 of UDHR, this right includes freedom to receive and impart information through any media regardless of frontiers. ICCPR adds two restrictions for these rights, one for the respect of the rights or reputations of others and two, for the protection of national security. It’s true that WikiLeaks had revealed specific names, who gave information to the US Military and Intelligence agencies. However, this alone cannot restrict WikiLeaks from publishing the complete information. National Security is the global defence today for concealing information. How can national security be protected by concealing their faults and heinous secret operations? Whether the revelations brought by the Wikileaks is a national security issue or are they working for global security from covert and unaccountable government operations. 

Three, why only Assange? What the US claims is that Assange is not a journalist. Henceforth although the disclosure was made public through a consortium of media’s, Assange is the only one who is indicted. Assistant Attorney general John Demers and the Justice Department had expressed this point. However, do professional journalists and licensed media have any immunity from being charged. Alternatively, press freedom is restricted to journalists alone. The human rights jurisprudence or the US constitution does not make such a classification. It seems the US is taking advantage of the World War-I era espionage laws to prosecute Assange.

A deterrent measure against disclosure 
Assange’s indictment raises concerns about the security of investigative journalists and Whistleblowers.  Even Assange’s native country, Australia until now has washed their hands on this issue. More than any other nation, the US had fall prey to the WikiLeaks disclosure. In the recent past, from Snowden to Winner, US whistleblowers have leaked crucial intelligence and defence information. However, they are indicted and prosecuted for espionage. Assange’s indictment leads to the conclusion that the US has done and continued several consequential covert acts. Fearing its disclosure, the US is deterring the journalists using its espionage laws from publishing concealed information.


What would have happened if the World didn’t come across the War crimes committed by the US army during the Iraq war or about the surveillance done on foreign leaders by the NSA? It will create a blind public and could lead to an increased number of atrocities in the future. The authority fears to be accountable and taking responsibility. 


The intelligence agencies do not have any authority to eavesdrop on others, but once the information is gathered, it is classified. Moreover, those who reveal and publish the same have done a crime against national security. If the democratic US could use its espionage laws against a foreign national who disclosed nothing but the truth, what precedent would it give for authoritarian countries? A world without whistleblowers or WikiLeaks could pave forward for a world, where there are no means for the public to know about the operations of the government agencies. When unaccountable and arbitrary power rests with the authority democracy collapses.


 

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