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"Frightening": charges against Julian Assange alarm press advocates - The New York Times

24.05.2019, 12:32
Journalists and press freedom groups reacted with alarm on Thursday after the Trump administration announced new charges against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks leader, for publishing classified information, in a case that legal experts say takes direct aim at previously sacrosanct protections for the news media, as to The New York Times. In indicting Mr. Assange for obtaining, accepting and disseminating classified materials, the Department of Justice opened a new front in its campaign against illegal leaks. While past cases involved government employees who provided material to journalists, the Assange indictment could amount to the pursuit of a publisher for making that material available to the public. “It’s not criminal to encourage someone to leak classified information to you as a journalist — that’s called news gathering, and there are First Amendment protections for news gathering,” said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a lawyer who frequently represents media organizations like CNN. “The ramifications of this are so potentially dangerous and serious for the ability of journalists to gather and disseminate information that the American people have a right to know.” Federal prosecutors under President Trump have drawn criticism for extending a crackdown on leakers that had ramped up during President Barack Obama’s administration. The indictment of Mr. Assange — which related to WikiLeaks’ publication of secret documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst — struck some experts as a grave escalation. “It is one thing to charge a government official who has sworn an oath not to disclose classified information,” said Matthew Miller, who served as the Justice Department’s chief spokesman under Mr. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr. “It’s another thing to charge someone outside the government who published information or solicited information, which is something that reporters do all the time.” The charges against Mr. Assange are likely to face a challenge on First Amendment grounds. And journalists’ use of illegally obtained materials has been upheld in Supreme Court cases. But Mr. Miller said prosecutors had now skated to the edge of criminalizing journalistic practices. “The Espionage Act doesn’t make any distinction between journalists and nonjournalists,” Mr. Miller said, referring to the law that Mr. Assange is accused of violating. “If you can charge Julian Assange under the law with publishing classified information, there is nothing under the law that prevents the Justice Department from charging a journalist.” A deeply divisive figure, Mr. Assange is in some ways an unlikely martyr for press freedoms. A crusader for radical transparency, he is faulted by many American liberals for releasing hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee at the height of the 2016 presidential race. “The calculation by the Department of Justice is that here’s someone who people don’t like,” Mr. Boutrous said. “There’s a real element of picking the weakest of the herd, or the most unpopular figure, to try to blunt the outcry.” The New York Times
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