In an unprecedented move that journalists and press freedom defenders denounced as “the most significant and terrifying threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century,” the Trump Justice Department announced Thursday that a federal grand jury charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with 17 new counts of violating the Espionage Act.
“This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media.”
—Edward Snowden, whistleblower
“This is about attacking journalism and the public’s right to information about war crimes done in their name with their dollars,” The Intercept‘s Jeremy Scahill said in a series of tweets. “This is about retaliation for publishing evidence of U.S. war crimes and other crimes by the most powerful nation on Earth. It’s a threat to press freedom. That’s why you should care.”
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, explained in a statement what sets these charges apart from past U.S. government legal actions targeting journalists and publishers.
“For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information,” Wizner said. “This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment.”
Journalist Chris Hayes concurred, tweeting: “The Espionage indictment of Assange for publishing is an extremely dangerous, frontal attack on the free press. Bad, bad, bad.”
Whistleblower Edward Snowden, in a tweet, warned of the broader implications: “The Department of Justice just declared war—not on WikiLeaks, but on journalism itself. This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media.”
In response to the charges, Trevor Timm, executive director of the U.S-based Freedom of the Press Foundation, warned in a statement that “the Trump administration is moving to explicitly criminalize national security journalism, and if this prosecution proceeds, dozens of reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere would also be in danger.”
“The ability of the press to publish facts the government would prefer remain secret is both critical to an informed public and a fundamental right,” Timm added. “This decision by the Justice Department is a massive and unprecedented escalation in Trump’s war on journalism.”
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