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Why Assange’s plea deal is bad news for investigative journalism

Posted by: John Phoenix

The WikiLeaks co-founder didn’t just have his case dropped – it does not bode well for the future of truth-telli

Why Assange’s plea deal is bad news for investigative journalism

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. ©  Daniel LEAL/AFP

Julian Assange, the co-founder of WikiLeaks, has agreed to plead guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act for his role in collecting and publishing top-secret military and diplomatic documents from 2009 to 2011. What does this verdict mean for media freedom around the world?

While it’s certainly positive news that the US Department of Justice is apparently closing the book on the tragic Assange saga, it’s shocking that the administration of President Joe Biden demanded a guilty plea for the alleged crime of obtaining and publishing government secrets. After all, this is the crucial task that investigative journalists perform on a regular basis.

“The plea deal won’t have the precedential effect of a court ruling, but it will still hang over the heads of national security reporters for years to come… It’s purely symbolic,” Seth Stern, the director of advocacy for Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), said in a statement. “The administration could’ve easily just dropped the case but chose to instead legitimize the criminalization of routine journalistic conduct and encourage future administrations to follow suit.”

Assange rose to international fame in 2010 after WikiLeaks published a series of leaks from US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. He was granted asylum by Ecuador in August 2012 on the grounds of political persecution and fears he might be extradited by the UK to the US. He remained in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London until April 2019, and then was imprisoned in Belmarsh Prison until June 2024, as the US government’s extradition effort was contested in the British courts.

READ MORE: Assange secures big win in US extradition hearing: How it happened

While a plea deal would avoid the worst-case scenario for media liberties, it cannot be ignored that Assange was incarcerated for five years for activities that journalists engage in every day. There is good reason why the US waged a massive smear campaign against Assange, who was blessed with courage rarely seen in journalism.

As the late journalist John Pilger wrote of his beleaguered colleague, who viewed his work as a moral duty: “Assange shamed his persecutors. He produced scoop after scoop. He exposed the fraudulence of wars promoted by the media and the homicidal nature of America’s wars, the corruption of dictators, the evils of Guantanamo.”

The question that must be asked now is: How long can Julian Assange continue with his crusade on behalf of truth? The sole purpose for WikiLeaks is the pursuit of justice. It is about achieving justice by letting the public know what is going on, letting the average person on the street know what those who have power over their lives are conspiring to do. To say this seldom-seen method of journalism is a courageous act is the greatest understatement.

Case in point was the murder of 27-year-old Seth Rich, a former member of the Democratic National Committee who was shot and killed on the street in Washington, DC on July 10, 2016, just weeks before the presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In an interview with the Dutch news program Nieuwsuur, Assange insinuates that Rich was responsible for the leak of DNC emails to WikiLeaks, not the Russians, as the entire US media complex had been reporting.

“There’s a 27-year-old, he works for the DNC, who was shot in the back, murdered, just a few weeks ago for unknown reasons as he was walking down the street in Washington,” Assange said. “I am suggesting that our sources take risks and they become concerned to see things occurring like that… We have to understand how high the stakes are in the United States and our sources take serious risks and that’s why they come to us so we can protect their anonymity.”

READ MORE: What UK High Court’s decision in Julian Assange case means

In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, he was asked: “So in other words, let me be clear… Russia did not give you the Podesta documents or anything from the DNC?”

“That’s correct,” Assange responded.

To better appreciate the severity of the leak, the information found in the emails caused major harm to the Clinton campaign, and has been cited as a potential contributing factor to her loss in the general election against Trump.

It’s worth pondering at this point in Assange’s life whether he will continue fighting the powers that be, or take a long and much-needed vacation from the dangerous world of truth-telling.

Time will tell, but I’ve got a hunch that Julian Assange has only just begun to fight.

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