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What a Julian Assange conviction could mean for the future of press freedom

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Inside a London courtroom this week, lawyers have been arguing the case of WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, who is fighting his extradition to the United States. Outside that London courtroom, protesters have gathered - with them, Assange's wife, Stella Assange, who says her husband's prosecution would threaten freedom of the press everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA ASSANGE: It's an attack on all journalists. It's an attack on the truth, and it's an attack on the public's right to know.

KELLY: Well, the U.S. Justice Department sees things differently. It has charged him with 17 counts of espionage for his role in publishing hundreds of thousands of classified documents in 2010. We're going to talk this through with Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Hi, there.

JAMEEL JAFFER: Hello.

KELLY: Hi. So I know you testified - this was back in 2020 - at the request of Assange's attorneys during an earlier extradition proceeding. But I read through, and it - you came down squarely on the side that Assange's indictment does indeed pose a grave threat to press freedom. So make the case.

JAFFER: You know, what gets people hung up here is this question of whether Assange is properly considered to be a journalist or WikiLeaks is properly considered to be a media organization. And I think both of those questions are essentially red herrings. The important point is that the indictment that the Justice Department has filed charges Assange with having violated the Espionage Act for engaging in the kinds of activities that national security journalists engage in all the time. And a successful prosecution of him would end up criminalizing a lot of investigative journalism that is really crucial to our democracy.

KELLY: So let me put to you an argument that lawyers for the U.S. have been making. They argue that Assange indiscriminately published to the world the names of individuals who acted as sources of information to the U.S. - that the material he published was obtained by encouraging people to steal documents, that it contained unredacted names of U.S. sources, potentially putting them in danger. What do you make of those arguments?

JAFFER: One of the arguments is that Assange solicited classified information. You know, journalists do that all the time.

KELLY: We don't...

JAFFER: They use...

KELLY: ...If I may...

JAFFER: ...Technology...

KELLY: ...We don't encourage people to...

JAFFER: Go ahead.

KELLY: ...Steal documents. We're not publishing unredacted names of sources without any consideration as to whether that would put them in danger.

JAFFER: Well, so I do want to say - I do want to get to the second point in a second, but I just want to address this - the stealing classified documents point. You know, when national security journalists are reporting on issues relating to, say, war, they do it by asking government officials to share government secrets, you know? And that's a request for classified information.

Now, you asked me a second question, which is important, I think. I want to make clear that I am not defending Assange's editorial choices. I think some of them were terrible. But you have to separate the sort of ethical questions from the legal questions. You know, at the end of the day, if the entitlement to First Amendment protection turns on whether the government believes that a publisher exercised its editorial discretion appropriately, then the First Amendment's protection is going to be unavailable most of the time.

KELLY: Understanding that this next question is not central to the legal considerations, it feels central to me as a journalist who has worked extensively on the national security beat. I'm well familiar with the painstaking process that reporters go through in weighing whether and how to publish classified information. Is there evidence that Assange did any of that - fact-checking, providing context, weighing the risk to national security, weighing the risk to individuals' lives who might be named in secret documents?

JAFFER: I don't think he did anything like what, you know, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal did. I think there's a real difference. That said, some of what WikiLeaks published was hugely important to informing the public. And it is also true that what you have to think about is how would the precedent created by the prosecution of Assange be used against all of the journalists who you and I probably think of as exercising their power more responsibly.

KELLY: Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, thank you.

JAFFER: Thank you. Pleasure to talk with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINK WRAY AND THE WRAYMEN'S "RUMBLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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