The US criminalisation of WikiLeaks can lead to only one outcome: journalists beware

Julian Assange
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This guest article was written by Australians Greg Barns, barrister and longtime adviser to the Julian Assange campaign, and Tony Nagy, policy consultant and former journalist. Additional content and links by Canary writer Tom Coburg.


The UK and Canadian governments have just hosted a jamboree in London on ‘defending media freedom’. Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne attended. The irony is that in the same city languishes an Australian citizen with a freshly renewed passport: WikiLeaks journalist and publisher Julian Assange. His ‘crime’ is reporting on murders and other atrocities committed by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet the Assange case demonstrates that media freedom can only be protected if it focuses on the importance of disclosure.


Reporting war crimes is a duty for every citizen. And for journalists, it can be the pinnacle of their career. From Ed Murrow reporting on the Holocaust to Australian Wilfred Burchett reporting on Hiroshima, from My Lai to Abu Ghraib, journalists have been front and centre, holding the powerful to account.

To this list we can add Assange and the publishing house WikiLeaks. In 2010, WikiLeaks revealed war crimes of the US and its allies during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This included the killing of journalists. That Assange now finds himself fighting an attempt by the US to jail him for 175 years, simply because he did his duty, represents an attack on that duty.

And that Assange is or is not a journalist is irrelevant. Indeed, given that reporting crimes of imperial states like the US is a core feature of journalism, it begs the question: ‘what’s the difference between Assange and a journalist?’ And does it even matter? And why have many – including his fellow Australians – been so ready to abandon him?

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On the other hand, it’s perfectly clear why the US wants to deny Assange any status as a journalist, for this will rob him of a vital defence under their First Amendment. But we need to be careful not to be complicit in this sleight of hand. For whether Assange is a journalist, whistleblower or a publisher, we owe him our thanks for exposing crimes.

What is journalism?

Journalism is a unique profession that is central to democratic freedoms. And as we mark the 70th anniversary of Orwell’s 1984, it’s wise to remember this unerringly accurate and always relevant observation often attributed to Orwell:

Journalism is printing what someone doesn’t want published, everything else is just public relations.

While some journalists may take a somewhat grandiose view of their role, they of all people know their job cannot exist in isolation. Indeed, behind every great journalist and story lies a great publisher; and often a critical whistleblower or source.

Long line of courageous journalists

Take the Pentagon Papers: leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, published in June 1971 by the New York Times and written by Neil Sheehan. They revealed the criminal conspiracy behind America’s long war in Vietnam, demonstrating the manipulation of public debate by the deep state. It took a great act of courage for the proprietors of the NYT and its publisher, the Sulzberger family, to break with elite interests to print the news. Ironically, the leak of the papers precipitated Nixon and especially Kissinger’s obsession with security. That in turn saw the “plumbers”, who not only sought to destroy Ellsberg by stealing records from his psychiatrist but led to the infamous break-in of the Watergate hotel.

Next, welcome Woodward and Bernstein. Their source was the infamous “Deep Throat”, named after an X-rated movie and later identified as FBI investigator Mark Felt. As Woodstein and Bradlee sought to “follow the money”, the push back from the Nixon administration was immense. US attorney-general John Mitchell furiously declaimed: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer”. (Katherine Graham was the fearless publisher of the Washington Post, the platform for Woodward and Bernstein.)

Similarly in 1975, ex-CIA agent Philip Agee produced the CIA Diaries – forced to be published in the UK by Penguin. That led to the Church Inquiry and far greater congressional oversight of the agency. For revealing its criminal activities, Agee – like Assange today – was condemned for endangering human assets. Also, as with Assange, the US hounded Agee and sought his extradition. But back then, the British political system was not so supine.

We are all journalists

Quibbling about whether Assange or Edward Snowden et al are journalists, whistleblowers or publishers misses the point.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s head of investigations John Lyons, speaking at a little-reported Walkley event, agrees:

…people on social media and Twitter, and even journalists, debating whether (Assange) is a journalist or not. I don’t think at the moment that really matters… it’s about the American government and others trying to essentially nail him because he revealed information which didn’t jeopardise their security or lives, but in fact embarrassed them for what they were doing.

The ABC was itself raided by the Australian Federal Police, who were searching for evidence relating to the leaking of information about Australia’s complicity in alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. Yet foreign minister Payne made no reference to this at the London conference.

More hypocrisy

The London “Global Conference for Media Freedom” was hosted by UK foreign secretary (and prime ministerial contender) Jeremy Hunt. And it is he who insisted he will not “stand in the way” of Assange’s extradition to the US.

Without any hint of irony, Hunt told the conference:

The strongest safeguard against the dark side of power is accountability and scrutiny, and few institutions fill that role more effectively than a free media…

But distinguished human rights lawyer Amal Clooney was not prepared to let Hunt off the hook. She reminded the conference:

the indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has alarmed journalists at newspapers around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian because, as the editor of the Washington Post has put it, it… ‘criminalises common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest’.

She poignantly added to Hunt and others gathered:

my message to all the ministers who are here is that signing pledges and making speeches is not enough

Indeed, those who defend media freedom must demand an end to the pursuit by the US of Julian Assange and the criminalisation of WikiLeaks. For there must be no more hypocrisy.

And if, due to pressure from the state or business, journalists fail to fully disclose the truth, then they are no longer worthy of their profession.

Featured image via YouTube

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