Ever since President Donald Trump made a habit of referring to journalists as “the enemy of the people,” there was reason to be concerned about his administration attempting to suppress the role of a free press in America.
Now, the Trump Administration is in the process of launching its most dangerous attack on a free press by punishing Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange.
In 2010, Manning and Assange were responsible for publishing hundreds of thousands of classified government documents containing information about American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The documents, including a video of American soldiers laughing after killing a Reuters journalist and other civilians, were published to WikiLeaks.
Shortly after the leak, Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden for sexual assault charges against him.
Julian Assange has just been charged with 17 new counts under the Espionage Act. None of this is about 2016, the election or allegations in Sweden. This is about attacking journalism and the public's right to information about war crimes done in their name with their dollars. https://t.co/Go6lYWVPmO
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) May 23, 2019
Manning was imprisoned and subjected to mental torture in the form of prolonged solitary confinement among other abuses. Her then 35-year sentence was unprecedented in terms of its legal severity. In 2017, President Barack Obama commuted her sentence, giving her an early release.
While the actions of Assange and Manning did not follow a typical journalistic model, they did the public service that journalists should always strive to do: provide people with truthful, unbiased information that they would otherwise have no access to.
Now, Assange and Manning are being punished for it, and anyone who claims to care about the free press should be concerned.
Although Manning had been freed by Obama, she is now back in prison for refusing to testify against WikiLeaks to a secret grand jury.
Again, the legal repercussions she has been charged with are unprecedented. She has been placed in jail and will be charged a $500 fine every day she refuses to testify. After 60 days the fine will be raised to one thousand dollars daily.
Manning released a public statement clarifying her reasons for refusing to testify.
“I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been historically used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political free speech,” Manning said in her statement.
This also clarifies that Manning publicly testified about the leak six years ago and she stands by that testimony.
As for Assange, he was arrested in London back in April after the Ecuadorian embassy stopped offering him refuge.
In February of 2020, he will face a trial in England to determine if he should be extradited to the United States. If extradited to the U.S., he is looking at an 18-count indictment under the Espionage Act, potentially facing 175 years in prison.
Regardless of what people think of Manning and Assange, the legal attacks against them should be opposed in order to protect free speech.
Watching Australian journalists & politicians debate #PressFreedom while they desperately ignore Julian Assange – jailed, tortured, facing 170 years prison for journalism – is hilarious, depressing, frustrating, and highly educational. #JournalismIsNOTaCrime #auspol #FreeASSANGE pic.twitter.com/LdupzV882h
— Jaraparilla 🇾🇪 🇵🇸 (@jaraparilla) June 8, 2019
Assange should be extradited to Sweden for the sexual assault allegations, but to send him to the United States would discourage future attempts to expose truthful information about U.S. foreign policy.
Manning should be freed immediately and should not be expected to pay any fines. She has taken a strong stance in favor of transparency and even after being subjected to torture, she is choosing to remain in prison for what she believes is right.
It’s easy to write these attacks off by saying what Assange and Manning did was not true journalism because they broke the law. There is certainly a debate to be had about whether or not what they did was true journalism, but even if it was not, the repercussions, particularly those against Manning, are intended as an attack on the truth.
Legal experts and reporters alike have been acknowledging that the charges against Manning and Assange are unprecedented and excessive for the crimes they committed.
While the United States has always been particularly harsh when punishing whistleblowers, it should not be considered a coincidence that these extreme charges are coming from the same administration that regularly tries to discredit journalists.
It is questionable that Manning is still being charged for refusing to testify about WikiLeaks now that Assange has been arrested. Considering she already thoroughly testified, punishing her for not doing so a second time is redundant unless the point is to make an example out of her and not about justice.
In terms of the legality of what Manning and Assange did, it should be irrelevant. Journalists should always do their best to follow a high ethical standard and not break the law whenever they please. However, given the limited resources journalists have for covering foreign affairs in a way that is not biased in favor of the United States, it is likely the information about Iraq and Afghanistan could not have been obtained and published through legal methods.
The only reason Manning and Assange knew about these documents in the first place was because Manning had access to some of the information while serving as an intel analyst in the U.S. Army.
It is worth pointing out that the information leaked by Assange and Manning proved that the United States military was breaking international law. To say Assange and Manning should be punished for breaking the law is to say that the laws of one specific country should be valued over laws that are globally agreed upon.
There are many reasons to stand by Manning and Assange, but the one that matters most is that the information they published was truthful and unbiased.
To punish them, especially so severely, is to start going down a slippery slope of extreme consequences for trying hold a powerful government accountable.
For this reason, all journalists, and anyone who values journalism, should be using their platforms to publicly support Manning and Assange before it’s too late.
All those who spent the last 2+ years proclaiming to be so very concerned about attacks on a free press will now have to decide whether they really meant it, or whether – due to feelings about Assange – they will cheer the Trump Administration's frontal assault on press freedom: https://t.co/4yW1DB58wP
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) May 23, 2019