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Julian Assange’s Plea Deal and the Future of Whistleblowing

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spent the last 14 years running from and fighting the United States Department of Justice after he published classified military and diplomatic materials in 2010. Pleading guilty to a single count of violating the U.S. Espionage Act, Assange was sentenced to time served, meaning his sentence is the same as the time he has spent in jail, allowing him to return to his native Australia. 


A controversial figure, Assange is hailed as a hero of information transparency by some and a selfish threat to American hegemony by others. Regardless, he has undeniably changed the world through his leaks. Starting WikiLeaks in 2006, he uploaded material ranging from the U.S. military’s operating manual for its detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to internal documents from the Church of Scientology and some of 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s stolen emails. His 2010 leaks are what his charges stem from. Working with then-military Private Chelsea Manning, the duo obtained and published secret reports about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables. Most famously was the “Collateral Murder” video, which showed a U.S. military helicopter attack in New Baghdad, Iraq, that killed at least 18 people, including two Reuters journalists, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen. 


American officials have justified their prosecution of Assange by arguing that his indiscriminate release of classified information has endangered lives, compromised national security and strained international relations. By publishing sensitive documents without sufficient redaction, Assange was accused of neglecting the ethical responsibilities that are norms in journalism and reporting. Officials hoped his charges could deter other would-be whistle-blowers from leaking classified material. 


But the case attracted criticism from human rights and journalism groups, including Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, over fears that the Espionage Act case against Assange could have broader implications for press freedom worldwide. A free press is essential for holding governments and powerful entities accountable, and so potential limits to the ability of journalists to report on government misconduct undermine the idea of free press in democracies. Although the deal Assange made finally relieves him of his 12 years of torment, he still had to plead guilty and has created a precedent for charging journalists with national security crimes. 


Assange's release, like his public perception, is two-sided. While he is now able to see his family after 12 years of isolation, the forces that took away his freedom in the first place are not yet defeated. His harsh treatment has cast a shadow over the most important kinds of journalism and led to a self-censoring of future journalists and whistleblowers and a reduction in important investigative journalism. As we navigate an era where information is both a powerful tool that can be used for construction or destruction, Julian Assange's contributions remind us of journalism's indispensable role in preserving democracy and justice.


Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author. 

1 Comment


Great piece. Assange and Snowden are held accountable while the security apparatus never will be. Its obviously because of the vast asymmetry in power between journalist and governments, but their treatment seems to indicate a different set of rules than the ones we believe to be in place.

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