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Why I brought up Julian Assange at “Journalism is Not a Crime”

September 29, 2023

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Amira Oguntoyinbo

First, solidarity with Evan Gershkovich ’14.

At the “Journalism Is Not A Crime” event on Tuesday, Professor of Government and Asian Studies Henry Laurence moderated a panel about Russia’s wrongful detention of Evan and the state of the free press. Among the panelists was Paul Beckett—Evan’s colleague and the Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ)—who has made numerous media appearances promoting the WSJ’s campaign to free Evan.

While the campaign is laudable, it says little about the publication’s stance on the event’s titular claim: “Journalism is not a crime.” The real test is not how the WSJ responds to Russia’s abduction of their employee but how they talk about journalists who expose our country’s atrocities. By this standard, the Journal fails miserably. For the past 13 years, the WSJ has supported the prosecution of Australian journalist Julian Assange, whose publication of three major scandals—the Diplomatic cables, the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and the Guantanamo Bay prison files—vaulted him to international prominence in 2010.

WSJ op-ed support for prosecuting Assange commenced quickly thereafter with a piece by Senator Dianne Feinstein titled “Prosecute Assange Under the Espionage Act.” A controversial relic of the first Red Scare, the Act intended to penalize U.S. government officials for giving classified documents to enemies during World War I, its existing provisions have never before been used against a journalist, much less an Australian citizen. Another highlight is Seth Lipsky’s 2017 argument for kidnapping Assange from London to circumvent extradition difficulties. That same year, the CIA plotted his kidnapping and assassination, but the WSJ never covered these revelations. Something about these patently absurd op-eds seemingly struck a chord with the WSJ editors.

Currently detained in England and awaiting extradition to the U.S., Assange faces up to 175 years in prison. His indictment alleges one failed hacking attempt to obscure the identity of his source, Chelsea Manning, and 17 charges under the Espionage Act of 1917. While a 2013 court martial trial convicted Manning of charges under the Espionage Act, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ) did not press any charges against Assange due to precedent concerns. According to the Washington Post, “Justice officials said they looked hard at Assange but realized that … if the Justice Department indicted Assange, it would also have to prosecute the New York Times and other news organizations and writers who published classified material.” Notoriously hostile to the press, the Trump administration indicted Assange under the Espionage Act in 2019, and the Biden DOJ is quietly continuing the fight to extradite him.

What distinguishes Assange from other journalists is not his counseling whistleblowers nor his publishing of sensitive information for which he is indicted but the damning crimes he revealed: the U.S. government’s systematic violation of international treaties and conventions on human rights. Highlights include the murder and subsequent cover-up of Reuters journalists via Apache helicopter; the extrajudicial detention of 150 innocent men and 15 children at Guantanamo Bay (where torture lasted for up to 22 hours daily); methodical undercounting of civilian casualties; and the State Department’s collaboration with American corporations to shut down inconvenient labor movements and lawsuits across the global south. Assange’s status as an outsider to mainstream media institutions makes him an easy target for opponents of the free press.

When Trump’s DOJ announced the espionage charges, dozens of media organizations, free-press NGOs and politicians around the world condemned the move. Per Amnesty International, “Julian Assange’s publication of disclosed documents as part of his work with WikiLeaks should not be punishable as this activity mirrors conduct that investigative journalists undertake regularly in their professional capacity.” The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement warning of the dangerous precedent.

“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,” Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said. “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 U.S. can prosecute a foreign publisher for violating our secrecy laws, there’s nothing preventing China, or Russia, from doing the same.”

Meanwhile, the WSJ Editorial Board celebrated. After the original indictment (which contained only the failed hacking charge), the Editorial Board proclaimed, “Julian Assange has done much harm to American interests over the last decade, and on Thursday, the WikiLeaks founder moved a large step closer to accountability in a U.S. court.” Following the addition of espionage charges, the board conceded that the charges could set a slippery precedent, but they ultimately approved of the DOJ’s use of the 1917 act against Assange. Somehow, when these editors contemplated the countless war crimes Assange exposed, they concluded that the worst crime of all was telling the public.

On the reporting side, the WSJ has a gaping blind spot. Despite noteworthy developments over the past 15 months in Assange’s case that foreign outlets have covered extensively, the WSJ has not published a single article about Assange. The silence demonstrates a conspicuous disregard for the criminalization of adversarial journalism.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tuesday’s event, which was billed as an opportunity “to keep the plight of [Evan] in the spotlight and highlight the ongoing struggle for press freedom in much of the world.” I thought Assange seemed extremely relevant, so during the question and answer section, I asked Mr. Beckett about the impact of the WSJ’s support for Assange’s prosecution on the meaningfulness of their campaign to free Evan. Beckett stated that he was here to speak solely about Evan and that he did not see “any relevance” of Assange to the event. And yet, he was eager to talk about topics ranging from Brittney Griner to Venezuela and China throughout the Q&A; what was it about Julian Assange that made him draw a line? Perhaps “much of the world” excluded the United States?

From publishing crazed op-eds to the enthusiastic Editorial Board pieces, accompanied by the current year-plus of silence on the reporting side, the WSJ has consistently supported the prosecution of Julian Assange. Mr. Beckett’s non-response is simply a continuation of his organization’s regrettable stance that journalism is a crime when it threatens powerful Americans. Unfortunately, this only hurts their noble campaign to free Evan.

Journalism has nothing to win and everything to lose by letting Assange go to court. Pleas from the Biden administration to free Evan mean nothing when his administration simultaneously prosecutes Assange for everyday journalistic practices. Likewise, the Wall Street Journal’s campaign rings hollow after thirteen years of advocating for Assange’s imprisonment.

Discussing Evan’s dire situation is commendable, and we all should closely follow his case. Tragically, though, we currently have little control over his fate. We have far more influence over the destiny of journalists whom our own government prosecutes. Protecting press freedoms requires that we unequivocally denounce attacks on all journalists: By supporting Assange, we are supporting Evan, too.

Caleb Packard is a member of the Class of 2026.


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  1. Class of '19 says:

    Thank you, Caleb. This is so nice to see coming from a Bowdoin student.

    Attention to Evan in the absence of attention to Assange amounts to American war propaganda. Not only do the “powerful Americans” you mention have an interest in setting this bad precedent with Assange, but they also have interests in framing the Russian government as far more authoritarian than the American government. Doing so helps maintain support from the American public for an immensely profitable war and for the continuation of a geostrategic agenda.

    Awesome journalism. Keep it up.

  2. Noah Saperstein says:

    It makes it hard to take most of this article too seriously when another student you came with started name-calling and yelling at Beckett when he continued to say he was not going to answer that question. It detracted from the event and was rude; both to everyone who attended and Gershkovich himself. My own thoughts on Assange or the Wall Street Journal aside, it felt like the wrong setting for this kind of stunt.

    • Caleb Packard says:

      Hi Noah, thanks for reading my article. I am sorry to hear that you felt another student’s comment was rude. I wrote this piece to articulate my opinion of Beckett’s response to my question. If you found another student’s behavior problematic, you should take that up with him.

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