Yesterday, Trump’s Justice Department used an indictment against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange for publishing secret government documents under the Espionage Act of 1917.
The Espionage Act, originally intended for use against spies, has been wielded against as sources of journalists and whistleblowers in recent decades, but never a publisher or a journalist. These new charges against him are unprecedented and threaten to criminalize national security reporting in the United States.
Here’s what numerous civil liberties groups, press freedom organizations, and news outlets had to say about the gravity of the new indictment. We will update this post as more statements come in.
Civil liberties groups
Ben Wizner, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, American Civil Liberties Union:
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. This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration's attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment. It establishes a dangerous precedent that can be used to target all news organizations that hold the government accountable by publishing its secrets. And it is equally dangerous for U.S. journalists who uncover the secrets of other nations. If the US can prosecute a foreign publisher for violating our secrecy laws, there’s nothing preventing China, or Russia, from doing the same.
Joel Simon, Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists:
The indictment of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information is an attack on the First Amendment and a threat to all journalists everywhere who publish information that governments would like to keep secret. Press freedom in the United States and around the world is imperiled by this prosecution.
Sabine Dolan, Reporters Without Borders:
The latest charges against Assange could be truly disastrous for the future of national security reporting in the United States. We have seen the Espionage Act used far too many times against journalistic sources already. RSF worries that this extraordinary measure by the Trump administration could set a dangerous precedent that could be used to prosecute journalists and publishers in the future for engaging in activities that investigative reporting relies on.
Timothy Karr, Senior Director of Strategy and Communications, Free Press:
Regardless of your opinions about Assange, these charges are an assault on press freedom. Prosecuting journalists — any journalists — for publishing leaked material from government whistleblowers is wrong, dangerous and unconstitutional. It moves us closer to prosecuting any national-security journalist trying to expose the inner workings of the government, military or intelligence community. If this case goes forward, any reporter attempting to cover the most important stories of government wrongdoing, from corruption to war crimes, would fear a knock at their door. It’s not enough to abandon this prosecution of Assange. Congress must repeal the Espionage Act and safeguard the First Amendment rights of whistleblowers and reporters.
Jameel Jaffer, Director, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University:
The charges rely almost entirely on conduct that investigative journalists engage in every day. The indictment should be understood as a frontal attack on press freedom.
Bruce Brown, Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department’s assertion that Assange is not a journalist.
Trevor Timm, Executive Director, Freedom of the Press Foundation:
Put simply, these unprecedented charges against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are the most significant and terrifying threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century. 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. This decision by the Justice Department is a massive and unprecedented escalation in Trump’s war on journalism, and it’s no exaggeration to say the First Amendment itself is at risk. Anyone who cares about press freedom should immediately and wholeheartedly condemn these charges.
Dean Baquet, Executive Editor, The New York Times:
Obtaining and publishing information that the government would prefer to keep secret is vital to journalism and democracy. The new indictment is a deeply troubling step toward giving the government greater control over what Americans are allowed to know.
Marty Baron, Executive Editor, The Washington Post:
Dating as far back as the Pentagon Papers case and beyond, journalists have been receiving and reporting on information that the government deemed classified. Wrongdoing and abuse of power were exposed. With the new indictment of Julian Assange, the government is advancing a legal argument that places such important work in jeopardy and undermines the very purpose of the First Amendment. The administration has gone from denigrating journalists as “enemies of the people” to now criminalizing common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest. Meantime, government officials continue to engage in a decades-long process of overclassifying information, often for reasons that have nothing to do with national security and a lot to do with shielding themselves from the constitutionally protected scrutiny of the press.
Nicole Carroll, Editor in Chief, USA Today:
Investigative journalists routinely obtain and publish information the government would like kept secret. This indictment threatens such reporting and is a chilling attack on press freedoms and the public’s right to know.
Matt Murray, Editor-in-Chief, Wall Street Journal:
Setting aside the specific facts of the Assange case, the indictment’s use of the Espionage Act raises deeply troubling implications for traditional journalism and freedom of the press in this country. The right to publish uncomfortable, important information that the government would prefer to be kept secret is central to a truly free press.