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US indictment of Julian Assange a profound threat to the free press

The unsealed US indictment against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange raises profoundly troubling issues for journalists and their sources. Assange was arrested in London earlier today after the Ecuadorian government allowed British police to enter their London embassy. Assange had been granted political asylum by Ecuador in 2012 in light of the threat of a US prosecution.

Assange was arrested for a bail violation and for the purposes of extradition on a provisional warrant. Prosecutors in the United States now have 65 days to issue a final warrant, which may contain superseding charges.

The current indictment does not directly seek to criminalise publishing, but targets the communications between sources and journalists that make publication possible. The journalist-source relationship is not a transactional, one-way relationship. Journalists develop their sources. Journalists enter into extended conversations with their sources. They discuss ways of verifying allegations. Increasingly, they use instant messaging protocols and encrypted communications.

Technology and whistleblowing go hand in hand. They always have. Daniel Ellsberg’s whistleblowing involved a Xerox machine, a phone and the post. Mark Felt used phones, coded messages and a car park. Today, whistleblowers and the journalists they work with use computers and smartphones.

The communication between a journalist and a source is a particularly vulnerable part of the publication process. If journalists are unable to communicate with their sources without fear of criminal liability, the press will have one of its most vital functions curtailed. Wrongdoing in powerful institutions will no longer be exposed and stories will no longer be written, out of fear of prosecution. Combined with the threat of extradition, today’s indictment represents a profound danger to the free press, not just within the United States, but also well outside its borders.

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