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Analysis: Assange case stirs free-speech concerns

FILE PHOTO. Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, speaks to media and supporters from a balcony at the Ecuadorian embassy in London on May 19, 2017. Bloomberg photo by Luke MacGregor.

Few reporters would willingly compare themselves to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder arrested in Britain last month, who's accused of recklessly publishing leaked U.S. military document that endangered sources and American soldiers.

But the sweeping list of charges the Trump administration filed against Assange yesterday reads in part like a Washington reporter's basic job description: count after count of "obtaining" and "disclosing" classified information. Soliciting leaks from the public on his website. And he faces years in prison for each charge.

The move has chilled not only reporters but also lawyers and international free-speech experts, who see an administration that has long been hostile to the press now moving closer to a potential crackdown.

"It's very, very dangerous," said Theodore Boutrous Jr., a media lawyer who represented CNN's Jim Acosta when he was barred from the White House for two weeks last November, among other high-profile cases.

"I'm not a fan of Julian Assange. He does things no responsible new organization would do," Boutrous said. But "if the government decided they want to do this to Julian Assange, they could next week decide to do it to a journalist the government doesn't like."

He is especially worried because President Donald Trump routinely calls the media "the enemy of the people," and wonders aloud about ways to punish his perceived enemies.

Leaders of some of the largest news outlets in the United States have expressed similar fears since the 18-count indictment against Assange was made public Thursday.

"A fundamental principle of the First Amendment is that journalists have the right to publish truthful information, even when a source may have broken the law to provide that information," reads a statement from Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, which has worked with Assange to publish classified material.

"Dating as far back as the Pentagon Papers case and beyond, journalists have been receiving and reporting on information that the government deemed classified. Wrongdoing and abuse of power were exposed. With the new indictment of Julian Assange, the government is advancing a legal argument that places such important work in jeopardy and undermines the very purpose of the First Amendment," Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said in a statement.

Reporters Without Borders, an international group that tracks the repression of journalists, ranks the United States as 48th in the world for press freedom - just below Romania.

The group's interim North American executive director, Sabine Dolan, said charging someone for publishing classified information reminded her of countries near the rock-bottom of the list - particularly Turkey, where her group counts dozens of reporters jailed since 2016.

The Justice Department has long been aware that prosecuting Assange could alarm mainstream reporters - which is one reason the Obama administration did not press the issue while Assange took refuge inside the Ecuadoran Embassy in London for years. Assistant Attorney General John Demers tried to calm those fears on Thursday, telling reporters that "Julian Assange is no journalist" - or at least not a responsible one.

This argument is little comfort to Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz, who has argued several significant civil liberties cases, and who advised Assange shortly after he took refuge in the embassy.

Like Boutrous, he said the Constitution and prior case law make no distinction between a responsible journalist and an irresponsible one. Whatever is done to Assange could be done to a reporter from the Times, The Post, or even someone writing a small news blog, he said.

"What's so dangerous about this precedent is it lies like a loaded gun for any Justice Department to use against its enemies," Dershowitz said. And even if the espionage charges eventually collapse, he added, the government has signaled a willingness to punish the press not seen since the days of the Pentagon Papers - when the Times and The Post won a Supreme Court fight to published leaked government reports about the Vietnam War.

"The Nixon administration had exactly the same theory, and they were going to prosecute" the reporters, said Dershowitz. "In the end, cooler heads prevailed."

The former Times reporter who broke the Pentagon Papers story, Neil Sheehan, is now in his 80s. Reached by phone at his home, he said that while he has not been following the Assange case closely, he remembered being accused of endangering national security back in Nixon's days, and did not sound surprised to learn the same arguments are resurfacing.

Sheehan said, "Reporters and editors are going to have to be very courageous in the times to come."

This article was written by Avi Selk, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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