The most dangerous press freedom issue of 2020 is Trump’s prosecution of Julian Assange

Parker Higgins

Advocacy Director

Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr

The extradition process for Julian Assange officially got underway late last month, with the first phase of hearings in the U.S. government’s case to remove him from the United Kingdom to face charges under the Espionage Act and more.

When the charges were revealed last year, Freedom of the Press Foundation led the charge in denouncing them, and we were joined by the unanimous voices of the civil liberties and press freedom communities. The Trump administration’s extradition efforts, which will continue in a second phase of hearings in May, is perhaps the most dangerous attack on U.S. press freedom in the 21st century.

Assange is not a popular figure, and has alienated people both inside and outside of the U.S. political establishment. But the facts of the case at hand are clear: Assange is being charged for speaking to a source and publishing information that source gave him. Whether or not you believe Assange is a “journalist,” the actions laid out in the indictment are virtually indistinguishable from common practices in newspapers around the country. It’s exactly why both The New York Times and The Washington Post — themselves no fans of Assange — have denounced the charges against him in the strongest terms.

And it’s why everyone who cherishes our press freedom rights should too.

Although the hearings so far have brought few surprises — the outrageous facts of this case have mostly been aired publicly over the last months and years — the facts bear repeating. Regardless of who Julian Assange is, there is no defensible argument that he should be deprived of his human rights while facing trial. And yet, he has suffered conditions a top U.N. expert has described as “psychological torture.” He was subjected to shocking levels of surveillance while claiming asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, including the recording of private conversations with his lawyers. During these hearings, Assange repeatedly complained of not being able to hear the proceedings or effectively communicate with his own attorneys, and reported being handcuffed nearly a dozen times and strip-searched.

Alone, these facts would show a flagrant disregard for the rights of a person accused of a crime. But these proceedings are not just a story of an individual. Rather, they are a foray into the uncharted territory of U.S. government prosecution of publishers. For decades, it has been assumed such a prosecution would be unconstitutional. The Obama administration ultimately came to the same conclusion when it considered but did not pursue similar charges against Assange years ago. A Department of Justice spokesperson said at the time: “The problem the department has always had in investigating Julian Assange is there is no way to prosecute him for publishing information without the same theory being applied to journalists.”

That logic was laid bare in open court, as the U.S. government’s attorney reportedly acknowledged that the same precedent could readily be applied to American newspapers, simply for publishing newsworthy information the government considers classified.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly used unsettling “enemy of the people” language to refer to the American press, and he has now established them as his legal adversary. This is a president whose campaign has sued three major newspapers for libel in the past month alone, and who promised during his election bid to “open up” the relevant laws to make such lawsuits easier to file and more likely to succeed. One of his closest allies in Congress set the blueprint for this course of legal harassment with numerous lawsuits of his own. Trump reportedly told James Comey that reporters who cover leaks should serve time in jail.

Under any administration charging a publisher with crimes is a danger. But against the backdrop Trump has created it is downright terrifying. Does anyone doubt — if such a precedent were set — that Trump would turn around and attempt to charge the Times or the Post for similar crimes?

Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric about journalists is harmful in its own right. The embrace of that language by supporters conducting the physical attacks we’ve seen against reporters reflects the danger in his words. And his harassing lawsuits set a terrible example others will follow. But pursuing Espionage Act charges against a publisher shows he will use not just the bully pulpit of his presidency, but the full weight of the criminal justice system against outlets outside of his favor.

The treaty between the U.S. and the U.K. prohibits extradition for “political offenses,” and it’s hard to view this persecution of a publisher as anything but political. Assange’s attorneys argued as much in court a week ago. As the hearings enter their second phase in May, we will be watching closely to see if the judge sees through the government’s case, and recognizes this prosecution for the danger that it is: a direct threat to the First Amendment.