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Press wake in fright to Assange prosecution

  • 28 November 2018


'Never before has the life of the WikiLeaks founder been so crucially in the hands of public opinion and the hands of one of the few powers whose mission is to reign [sic] in the worst instincts of our governments: the press.' — Stefania Maurizi, La Repubblica, Nov 26, 2018 The fourth estate has awoken in fright, with beads of sweat developing on writers, editors and subeditors. With the evidence of a cobbled prosecution case against Julian Assange irrefutable, the at times previously mute press has become concerned. To get at Assange, goes this fear, is not to punish a narcissist keen to make etches in history; it is, by its very spirit, to attack the entire vocation, cause, and role of journalism proper.

There was a time when enthusiasm, notably from progressive causes, was warm for Assange. He won plaudits, such as the Amnesty International New Media Award in 2009. WikiLeaks was being cheered for exposing corruption and crime; forensic journalism was in vogue. But partnerships with established media outfits collapsed. Arrangements with the New York Times and Guardian soured. Questions were asked, and unconvincingly answered, that Assange had become a bedfellow of the Kremlin.

He became an ideal alibi for the Democrats sore at losing in 2016 to the Trump campaign, despite the possibility that the Democratic Party emails published by WikiLeaks might have stemmed from a party insider. In October, Assange, in an address via videolink to an International Bar Association conference in Sydney, suggested that 'the press is, in general, a toxic instrument'.

Matt Taibbi, writing for Rolling Stone, makes the vital point that a prosecution against Assange 'could give the Trump presidency broad new powers to put Trump's media "enemies" in jail, instead of just yanking a credential or two'. Despite being different in motive to other journalists, the principle remained: members of the press publish material that is often stolen, hacked or illegally obtained. 'A case that defined such behaviour as a criminal conspiracy would be devastating.'

US lawyer and civil liberties advocate Ben Wizner is similarly apocalyptic of an Assange prosecution. Such a process 'would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to the criminal investigations of other news organisations.' A reciprocal degrading of rights and liberties would take place: pursuing a foreign publisher for violating US secrecy provisions would also encourage prosecutions of US journalists 'who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to