Major news outlets must push Biden DOJ to drop Assange charges — their press freedom rights are at stake

Parker Higgins

Advocacy Director

Three major news organizations are set to meet with the Department of Justice (DOJ) today to discuss the recent journalist surveillance scandals, and talk with the Attorney General Merrick Garland about how the DOJ plans to to prevent the use of subpoenas and surveillance to root out journalistic sources in future leak investigations.

While the news outlets plan to push for more concrete promises from the Justice Department to prevent further spying on reporters, it’s vitally important that the same publishers use today’s opportunity to press the Attorney General to drop the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which constitutes the most clear and present danger to this country’s press freedom rights. If the case continues, it would render Garland’s new promises worthless.

Assange is charged under the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, largely for activities U.S. national security journalists engage in all the time. When the Trump administration proceeded with the indictment, many major news publishers spoke out forcefully against it, despite harshly criticizing Assange in the past. Virtually every major human rights and civil liberties group in the country urged Biden's DOJ not to continue with the prosecution earlier this year.

Beyond the injustice of the case itself, though, its precedent threatens to undermine the very same new rules that publishers will discuss today. As Garland said in Senate testimony Wednesday: “In developing this policy, we have to distinguish between reporters doing their jobs and reporters committing crimes unrelated to the leaking.”

If the Justice Department is promising on the one hand not to use subpoenas against journalists unless they are otherwise engaged in a crime, and on the other hand is laying out the blueprint for charging journalists who report on sensitive national security information, the problem could not be more clear.

We are cautiously optimistic about the new Department of Justice rules, pending final language, and we view their introduction as a possible sea change for press freedom in the United States. We absolutely encourage the news organizations meeting today to push for the strongest possible guidelines, and for Congress to codify those guidelines into law that cannot be changed at the stroke of a future president's pen.

But we also must remain vigilant to loopholes and exceptions to these new guidelines, and expect this and future administrations to interpret the rules as they see fit. With the Knight First Amendment Institute, we've written about one major unknown in terms of who constitutes a "journalist" for the purpose of the guidelines.

Today, as stakeholders hammer out the details of this new rule, we urge the news organizations and the self-described press freedom advocates within the administration to consider the danger of pending Espionage Act charges against a publisher. And we continue to urge the Department of Justice to drop the prosecution.

Donate to support press freedom.

Your support is more important than ever.