WHISPeR Statement on Assange Plea Deal: Julian Assange is free – the press is not

While the U.S. has agreed to drop most of its charges against Julian Assange, it has not dropped its position that it can seek to prosecute and imprison any journalist operating in any country who publishes information that embarrasses the U.S.

To extract this plea deal, the Department of Justice abused an authoritarian and constitutionally dubious law, and it induced at least two allied countries to debase their legal systems in its service. A foreign national journalist operating in a foreign country was subjected to conditions of arbitrary confinement and torture for 14 years of his life.

While the plea deal is a welcome victory for Assange personally, we have seen such “victories” before. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg both saw the Espionage cases against them fall apart while failing to stanch the longer-term 1st Amendment threats at their core.

In this agreement the U.S. government has reasserted its power to set hard limits on press freedom at home and around the globe and to punish anyone who would dare challenge it by seeking and publishing the truth.

We are deeply relieved that Julian Assange will regain his freedom, especially given the harsh strain on his physical and mental health from a long confinement. But this prosecution, initiated under President Trump and decisively continued by President Biden, was ill-conceived from the outset and will chill press freedom moving forward, given the increasing normalization of the Espionage Act – first against sources and whistleblowers and now against a publisher and journalist.

We have always said that the war on whistleblowers was a back-door war on the press which, left unchecked, would become a frontal assault. This case made that prediction a reality. With a publisher pleading guilty to the Espionage Act, we are significantly closer to having a de facto Official Secrets Act.