Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, April 11, 2019 7:03 pm

Julian Assange: Let him face the music


Julian Assange might or might not be a journalist, at least some of the time. But what he’s charged with, no journalist should do.

Julian Assange of Wikileaks infamy lost his political asylum, was arrested by London’s Metropolitan Police, and is being held for extradition to the U.S. A lot of journalists were worried that Assange might be charged with publishing classified material, something the most principled journalists very occasionally find necessary to hold governments to account. But at least so far, all he’s charged with is something no ethical journalist would or should consider: conspiring to hack into a classified Department of Defense computer.

This case reminds me of the Cincinnati Enquirer’s expose of Chiquita in 1998. The 18-page package accused the company of everything from pollution and having mistreated foreign workers to turning a blind eye to cocaine smuggling on its ships. The package said it relied on, among other things, more than 2,000 voicemail messages provided to the Enquirer by an authorized Chiquita executive.

Problem was, there was no such executive. The package’s lead reporter, Michael Gallagher pleaded guilty to two felony counts of unlawfully tapping into Chiquita’s voicemail. The paper retracted and apologized for the series, fired Gallagher, and negotiated a $14 million civil settlement with Chiquita. The paper’s editor, Lawrence Beaupre, was removed by Gannett, the paper’s parent company.

Never mind that the reporting almost certainly was accurate and that the vast majority of the package didn’t even rely on the voicemails. Gallagher tainted the whole thing with his actions, as well as tainting co-writer Cameron McWhirter (who was not involved in the voicemail hacking) and the entire paper. He did something no reporter should ever do. It’s not only illegal, it’s also unethical.

That’s basically what Assange is being charged with here. Material he disseminated might well be accurate — and damaging to Democrats — but that doesn’t matter. It’s fruit of a poisoned tree. The charge might or might not be proved in court, but it has nothing to do with any journalism Assange might have committed.

Journalists, and those who believe in good journalism, are right to be concerned about the possibility that the government might criminally punish journalists who publish material the government doesn’t want published, or those who leak it to them. Former intelligence analyst Reality Winner is serving a five-year prison term right now for the “crime” of exposing to the nation the fact that Russians were interfering in the 2016 elections; she never should have been charged in the first place because what she did was a public service. Assange’s alleged crime, on the other hand, had nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with hacking. Let the case play out in court. Journalists, meanwhile, should consider themselves fortunate that Trump’s Justice Department, unbelievably, appears so far to have walked a tightrope with great care.

 

Advertisements

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: