The verdict on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition, slated for Jan. 4, will pose an important precedent for the future of journalism. University of Georgia communication law and policy professor Jonathan Peters discussed the concerns the case raises about the practices used in journalism, and to what extent information can be protected under the First Amendment.
In the summer of 2010, news leaking website WikiLeaks released the Afghan War documents in cooperation with The New York Times, The Guardian and German magazine Der Spiegel. The collection of around 92,000 documents, videos and files shined a new light on United States involvement in the war and shocked the international public.
The primary source of the leaks was Chelsea Manning, who at the time was an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army. Manning was later sentenced to 35 years for espionage and theft for her involvement.
Later that year, once again in collaboration with news organizations and the addition of Le Monde and El Pais, WikiLeaks published over 250,000 U.S. government diplomatic documents.
Due to the highly sensitive nature of the documents, Assange has faced numerous controversies and charges of espionage and hacking as well as an ongoing criminal investigation by the U.S. government.
If declared guilty, Assange could face a maximum of 175 years in ADX Supermax prison in Colorado.
Peters has an extensive history covering WikiLeaks and Assange to determine WikiLeaks’ place in the media landscape. Peters said he also studies whether Assange and WikiLeaks are protected under the First Amendment’s speech clause.
“The indictment discusses journalistic practices in the context of a criminal conspiracy: using encryption, making efforts to protect a source's identity and source cultivation. Those practices are characterized as the manners and means of the conspiracy. That's problematic because those practices are routine and lawful,” Peters said in an email to the Red & Black.
Peters said these are the best practices, and their involvement in the conspiracy should worry all journalists.
Because of the claim that Assange and Manning conspired to break a password stored on a secure computer and network, the unlawful nature of this activity sets Assange aside from the notion of a traditional journalist.
In a 2011 case study, then-New York Times executive editor Bill Keller reflected on his experience dealing with Assange and the leaks.
In the article, Keller discussed the notion of the “information anarchy,” a state in which information flows freely and is published rampantly and with little regard for journalistic integrity. Keller says that this state of alleged anarchy has not been reached yet. Newspapers have leaked classified documents for decades, and as a result, the actions of WikiLeaks are not novel.
Nonetheless, the question of whether the documents were handled in a safe, ethical manner is still debated.
“When WikiLeaks released the Afghanistan war documents in July 2010, it withheld roughly 15,000 said to be particularly sensitive, but it did not remove the names of Afghan intelligence sources from the documents it did release. That, to me, is highly irresponsible,” Peters said.
Citing his recent published article, Peters said because of the current political climate, the press is in a critical state of disapproval. Reporters are being denounced for their coverage, and though 84% of Americans believe the press is essential in a functioning democracy, a scant 28% believe the press is fulfilling its role.
Peters said that the current moment is a critical time for the free press, and the verdict of the Jan. 4 Assange case will either affirm or decrease confidence in its functions.
“A free press, however imperfect, is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, one in which journalists are both benefactors and beneficiaries of the First Amendment—protecting and relying on its freedoms to inform their communities and enable democratic participation,” Peters said in his article.