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April 11, 2019, 11:56 a.m.

Is Julian Assange’s arrest a threat to press freedom or an appropriate response to hacking?

The initial indictment against the WikiLeaks leader doesn’t seem to implicate journalistic issues as directly as some had feared — but some still see darker impacts on reporting, and more charges could be coming.

One of the stranger parts of rewatching Page One, the 2011 documentary about media reporting at The New York Times, is the presence of Julian Assange, who was at that time in his earlier days of leaking classified or otherwise secret information — initially via open platforms like YouTube, later in partnership with some of the world’s top news organizations. The various journalists and talking heads debate the right way to think of Assange and WikiLeaks — are they a source? a rival publisher? journalists? activists? — but the overall framing is that this is a new player on the field, and journalism is going to have to figure out ways to integrate it, respond to it, or otherwise engage with the new reality WikiLeaks seemed to portend. Bill Keller, then executive editor of the Times, says at one point: “The bottom line is, WikiLeaks doesn’t need us. Daniel Ellsberg” — leaker of the Pentagon Papers to the Times decades earlier — “did.”

As volatile an addition as WikiLeaks seemed at the time, on second viewing it feels like a simpler age — before Guccifer 2.0, before Seth Rich conspiracies, before embassy-as-hermitage, before President Trump. But where exactly Assange’s apparatus — dedicated to transparency, it says, while an actor on behalf of a foreign government, officials say — is still a matter of some debate.

So when Julian Assange was arrested this morning in London — after Ecuador, his diplomatic landlord since 2012, withdrew his immunity — it raised a set of old questions in a new context. Is Assange a journalist? Is the act of publishing newsworthy government secrets always journalistic, even if prompted by a foreign power? Does publishing not-particularly-newsworthy emails hacked from a private citizen earn the same benefit of the doubt? And is Assange facing charges as an enemy of the United States accused of real crimes or as a journalist being harassed by a government whose secrets he revealed?

Thankfully, Twitter figured this all out pretty quickly, as always.

The charges Assange faces in the United States do not directly relate to his publishing activities. Instead, he faces one count of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” alleging that Assange agreed to help Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning by trying to crack the password on a Defense Department computer in order to obtain classified government documents, which would then be leaked to WikiLeaks. That he wasn’t charged with espionage — which would have more directly entangled the act of publishing secrets with questions of press freedom — was a relief to some who’d been worried before the charges were unsealed. But not everyone was convinced, seeing in the conspiracy charge a lot of standard journalistic behavior. And more charges — with more potential complications for journalists — could be coming.

Underlying illustration of Julian Assange by Camilo Sanchez used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 11, 2019, 11:56 a.m.
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