The Guardian view on prosecuting WikiLeaks: don’t do it | Editorial

Editorial
If Julian Assange is charged with conspiracy or espionage under the new administration, it would set an alarming precedent. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

“I love WikiLeaks,” President Donald Trump last year told an adoring crowd on the campaign trail. At around the same time, one of his supporters, Representative Mike Pompeo, tweeted triumphantly that emails from the Democratic National Committee provided “further proof … the fix was in from President Obama on down”. To give his lies authority, he added: “Leaked by WikiLeaks.” Those cloudy and insubstantial allegations have been widely credited with helping Mr Trump win his election, but times are different now. Mr Pompeo is director of the CIA and has denounced WikiLeaks as “a non-state, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors, like Russia” – something entirely obvious to the rest of the world back when Russia was, in the opinion of many, conspiring to help Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo to attain their present eminence.

This would be just another example of the shameless dishonesty of the Trump administration, if there were not credible reports that the US Department of Justice is considering an attempt to prosecute WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange. This would threaten one of the core freedoms of the press. Mr Assange is in many ways an unattractive champion of liberty. But he is right to claim that at least sometimes his organisation serves a journalistic function and should be protected in the US by the first amendment. Some of the documents that WikiLeaks has published, and that other media organisations, including the Guardian, have also used, were obtained by means that may have been illegal. But there is a longstanding principle that this does not in itself make their publication illegal. If we, as journalists, had to rely solely on public-spirited and scrupulously honest sources, some very important stories would be missed. Key stories that hold the powerful to account in a democracy would no longer be heard. The defence of a free press is that it doesn’t necessarily make its participants virtuous, but it harnesses some of their vices to the public good. The dumping of unredacted documents, as WikiLeaks did with the Turkish ruling party’s internal emails, is wrong, and so is the apparent refusal to offend powerful patrons. Nonetheless offending or embarrassing the wealthy and the influential – even if they are your friends – is an important function of journalism. It is also constitutionally protected in the US.

If Mr Assange is charged with conspiracy or espionage under the new administration, it would set an alarming precedent. Many news organisations now advertise ways in which whistleblowers can contact them anonymously and safely. Are we then to be charged with conspiracy when a whistleblower takes us at our word? That kind of abuse of the law would cripple the protections necessary for a free press to function. The grounds for optimism lie more in the Trump administration’s difficulties with reality than with its principles. Mr Assange is not an American citizen. He is protected both in England and in Sweden from extradition on political grounds. The European convention on human rights protects him from extradition anywhere he might face the death penalty. Back in 2010, when savagery was to his advantage, Mr Trump demanded the death penalty for Mr Assange. The law of civilised countries protects us all against the whims of would-be tyrants.

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