Journalism’s Assange Problem

“Every journalist in the world” should be speaking out on Assange’s behalf, said Intercept editor Glenn Greenwald. Another fugitive leaker of U.S. government secrets, Edward Snowden, tweeted that Assange’s arrest represents “a dark day for press freedom.”

As two journalism professors who practiced the craft for many years before becoming teachers of it, we know firsthand how powerfully reporters are drawn to unpopular causes. It’s an admirable reflex that often makes for great journalism and a better society.

But granting Assange journalist status is beyond problematic: It’s likely to draw more attacks on press freedom such as the Georgia lawmakers’ thinly disguised attempt to sanction and ostracize journalists whose work they don’t like.

Standards Differentiate Journalism

As the Pew Research Center has shown, journalists already are an endangered species. In part that’s because the digital revolution eliminated the advertising that subsidized newsrooms.

But as the Knight Foundation has documented, those financial problems are compounded by a credibility crisis. “Most U.S. adults, including more than nine in 10 Republicans, say they personally have lost trust in the news media in recent years,” the foundation reported in September 2018.

The Times wrote that it shared its rationale for making the redactions with WikiLeaks “in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents,” but Assange does not appear to have been impressed. He followed no journalistic practices or journalism ethics in subsequent data dumps.

When WikiLeaks posted the emails of Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign staffers in 2016, it included home and email addresses, and credit card, Social Security and passport numbers, as well as the details of a staffer’s suicide attempt.

Deserving a Privilege

In insisting that journalists should not be prosecuted for disclosing classified information or for refusing to reveal confidential sources to grand juries, the press is seeking a privilege in both the legal and literal meaning of the term.

It’s not a privilege if everyone gets it.

There has to be something special about what journalists do, and how and why they do it, that makes them worthy of a privilege that others don’t receive.

So far, the charges against Assange are for conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer network. As Gabe Rottman of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press writes, that “isn’t something that a newsroom lawyer would counsel a reporter to do.”

Rottman’s measured analysis also notes another concern for data reporters: The 1984 law at the heart of the Assange indictment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act could, if interpreted in an overbroad fashion, endanger journalists (or other members of the public, such as academics) who use computer programming to “scrape” otherwise hard-to-analyze information from public government websites. But that’s not the issue here.

Nor, significantly, is Assange charged with publishing on the WikiLeaks website documents obtained through that hack.

Legal decisions have long offered a great deal of protection to those who publish information, nowhere near as much to those who seek access to government information or facilities, and virtually none to those who steal information.

The best way for press and press freedom organizations to ensure the Assange case doesn’t set precedent that interferes with the public’s right to access important information – even information the government doesn’t want to reveal – is through friend of the court briefs.

Also Read : Ecuador Says Hit by 40 Million Cyber Attacks Since Assange Arrest

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