Either everyone gets to enjoy journalistic independence, or the powers-that-be transform journalism into glorified public relations job.
With the decision by Britain's High Court that Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States, his high-profile case looks to be coming to an unhappy conclusion at long last. The destiny of Assange will soon be decided by federal courts in the United States, and it is doubtful that either he or freedom of the press will emerge unhurt from the ordeal.
In a decision that heavily relies on the British government's history of believing official U.S. assurances, the US statements that Assange will not be detained in particularly harsh jail circumstances "unless he does anything subsequent to the provision of these assurances" that would warrant such treatment were taken at their value by the High Court. As a result, the district judge was directed to "submit the matter to the Secretary of State, who will determine whether Mr Assange should be extradited to the United States." That's very much a given, considering that it's what the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States have been after all along.
The charges Assange will face in the United States relate to his "alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States," in the words of the U.S. Department of Justice. Wikileaks collaborated with Chelsea Manning to publish material that humiliated the US government, and Assange is facing espionage charges for the methods used to get the information.
Ironically, Assange risks extradition to the United States in the same year that Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov were won the Nobel Peace Prize for defying the governments of the Philippines and Russia, respectively, to publish news that leaders found embarrassing.
"They are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions," the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted. "Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda," it added.
Notably, the information disclosed by Assange and Manning was mostly concerning US military activities, showing realities that, in some ways, contradict war propaganda.
"The US government's indictment poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad," Amnesty International objected to the U.K. High Court decision. "If upheld, it would undermine the key role of journalists and publishers in scrutinizing governments and exposing their misdeeds would leave journalists everywhere looking over their shoulders."
"Today's ruling is an alarming setback for press freedom in the United States and around the world, and represents a notable escalation in the use of the Espionage Act in the 'War on Whistleblowers' that has expanded through the past several presidential administrations," the Freedom of the Press Foundation commented.
"This has served the purpose of illuminating all of the global voices of freedom to the authorities. 'If this can happen to Assange for simply exposing the truth, then it could happen to me for publishing a leaked document,'" Richard Hillgrove, Julian Assange's former PR representative, says over email. "At the same time, it's created a petrifying and chilling example to the global journalistic community – crushing investigative journalism worldwide."
However, journalistic support for Assange is not uniform.
"I think that the wholesale dumping of Wikileaks actually isn't journalism," Maria Ressa, one of this year's Nobel Peace Prize winners, insisted in 2019. "A journalist sifts through, decides, and knows when something is of value to national security and withholds until you can verify that it isn't."
But as Reason's Jacob Sullum pointed out last month, journalists tend to get unreasonably sniffy about their profession, insisting that it's an elevated status rather than an activity that anybody can do.
"As UCLA law professor and First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh has shown, the idea that freedom of the press is a privilege enjoyed only by bona fide journalists, however that category is defined, is ahistorical and fundamentally mistaken," Sullum wrote. "It is clear from the historical record that 'freedom of the press' refers to a technology of mass communication, not to a particular profession."
That is, anybody gathering information and releasing it to the public is engaged in journalism, even if others doing the same thing have different ideas about how that information should be acquired and what should be reported. And, while government officials habitually evoke "national security" as a talismanic phrase to ward off scrutiny, there's no convincing reason why the use of those words by themselves should prevent publication of Manning's information, the Pentagon Papers, or anything else.
Speaking of the Pentagon Papers, consider this.
"This is the first indictment of a journalist and editor or publisher, Julian Assange," Daniel Ellsberg, who released the documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, pointed out in 2019. "I see on the indictment, which I've just read, that one of the charges is that he encouraged Chelsea Manning and Bradley Manning to give him documents, more documents, after she had already given him hundreds of thousands of files. Well, if that's a crime, then journalism is a crime, because just on countless occasions I have been harassed by journalists for documents, or for more documents than I had yet given them."
Of course, in Assange's case, or any others that may come in the near future, journalism will not be explicitly categorized as a crime. But his years-long odyssey, which culminated recently in a High Court ruling and a stress-induced mini-stroke (according to his girlfriend, Stella Moris), is a warning shot to people in the journalism business. The fact that the shot is fired by governments of ostensibly free countries merely adds to the message. When British and American leaders cheer the punishment of embarrassing reporting, how can individuals exposing the powers-that-be expect to be treated by overt authoritarians?
Finally, professional journalists must cease acting as though their work necessitates membership in an exclusive club if we are to maintain press freedom and expand free speech rights. Either Julian Assange and the rest of the press get to perform journalism in ways that anger powerful people, or it will be reduced to glorified public relations work for those in power.