“If Assange can be declared guilty of espionage for working with sources to obtain and publish information deemed ‘classified’ by the US government, then there’s nothing to stop the criminalization of every other media outlet that routinely does the same,” Greenwald wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday, highlighting what he considers “the greatest threat to press freedom in the Trump era, if not the last several decades.”
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By redefining Assange’s actions as “espionage” rather than “journalism” or “publishing,” the Trump administration seeks to exempt him from legal protections governing speech that belong to everyone, from the Post itself to the lowliest blogger, the Intercept editor and former civil rights attorney explains.
The public smearing of Assange – as a rapist, as a “foreign agent,” or any of the other epithets tossed his way over the last decade – is deliberate, designed to make the public cheer his persecution. Because once one act of journalism has been legally reclassified as espionage, a precedent has been set, and further cases become impossible to oppose.
Once it is established that working with sources to publish classified information is no longer journalism but espionage, it will be impossible to limit that menacing principle.
Dismissing Assange as “not a journalist” – as government officials and Assange detractors in the press do on a regular basis – misses the point of the First Amendment entirely, Greenwald argued. Such a distinction puts unprecedented power in the hands of prosecutors to “restrict ‘freedom of the press’ to a small, cloistered priesthood of privileged citizens designated by the government” – something the First Amendment was designed to avoid.
The false distinction between “real journalists” (the mainstream media) and “not journalists” such as Assange and others like him is encouraged by those powerful factions in order to dissuade establishment voices from coming to Assange’s defense. Yet even Obama’s Justice Department – no friend to whistleblowers, prosecuting more sources under the Espionage Act in his two terms than in all of US history – could not find a way to prosecute WikiLeaks.
Once a single journalist or publisher, even one as universally reviled among the establishment as Assange, is successfully prosecuted for “espionage,” there is no going back. Greenwald’s warning to both his media colleagues and American citizens implores them to put aside their “personal animus toward Assange,” ignore the false distinctions put forth by the Trump administration, and focus on what is truly at stake.
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