What so enrages the journalists’ “club” is the challenge from those who question their power, journalists like Julian Assange. His revelations threatened them. But Assange, the outsider, did much more than that, he laid the path for the future of journalism, where journalists would be expected to produce primary source documents, wherever possible, and horror of all horrors, share them with the general public.
The internet made this possible, but for those who were holding out against the inevitable rise of this new form of communications, it posed a huge threat to the old order. Assange was not interested in off-the-record briefings from government insiders.
He wanted to show the original documents to practice what he called Scientific Journalism. Its style of operation, where it worked with traditional media like The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and Le Monde in collaborative journalistic endeavours, spawned a host of similar operations, notably the International Consortium of Journalists’ most significant work, the Panama Papers. It is easy, and for some convenient, to forget how much in journalism was changed by the arrival of WikiLeaks.
It’s perhaps one reason why he is rejected by so many journalists. In what can only be described as an extraordinary event, one of Australia’s most celebrated journalists, Peter Greste, who worked as a reporter for Al-Jazeera, turned on Assange. Greste who was charged with aiding a terrorist group by the Egyptian government, and was only freed from prison by a campaign run by journalists attempted to strip Assange of his journalistic credentials, writing that he was not a journalist because he published some material which named US sources in Afghanistan. Whether you consider WikiLeaks’ Afghan war reporting good or bad journalism, it is still journalism. After all, even the most appalling acts of phone hacking failed to deny the News of the World’s right to be described as a newspaper (although what kind of a newspaper was another matter) and the reporters involved in the hacking were never anything but journalists.
So why does this matter? Those who deny Assange’s journalism are denying him a major part of his defence. The First Amendment free speech provisions of the US Constitution provide protections for publishers and journalists who would otherwise be subject to prosecution under the US Espionage Act (1917). By arguing that Assange is not a journalist – though he is a fully paid up member of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance – journalists are giving ammunition to the US administration to prosecute Assange for espionage, a crime which carries a possible life sentence. And if the prosecutors can prove that Assange acted deliberately to damage US national security and aid a foreign power, the death sentence.
Journalists should also understand that they could be next. All those journalists who believe this is far-fetched don’t have to look any further than the federal police raid on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters to understand it is not. The acting head of the AFP Neil Gaughan said the raid was necessary, in part, to ensure the “international community” knows that Australia takes the “leaking of sensitive information seriously”. The “international community” in this case means only one thing, the United States, Australia’s most significant intelligence sharing ally.
If Assange is left to swing in the breeze, it will be an open invitation for any journalist, anywhere in the world, to be extradited to the US if the administration deems that they have published material which threatens US national security.
Andrew Fowler is a former Four Corners reporter who now writes books on journalism, national security and espionage. His latest book is Shooting the Messenger: Criminalizing Journalism.