With every day that passes, it becomes painfully clear that journalism is under attack in the United States. No, this problem did not start with Donald Trump, but it has greatly expanded under his administration.
On Thursday the U.S. Department of Justice announced that a grand jury in Virginia returned a new 18-count indictment against Wikileaks founder and journalist Julian Assange. The indictment includes violations of the Espionage Act related to his role in publishing the classified documents leaked by former Army private Chelsea Manning. The indictment was expected by Assange and supporters, but the impact was still felt by a community which had hoped the controversial figure might somehow escape the long reach of Uncle Sam.
"In addition to significantly raising the punishment threshold (from a maximum of 5.5 years under the previous indictment to the prospect of a death sentence for violating the Espionage Act), the new charges will raise serious first amendment issues as Assange will become the first journalist charged under the Espionage Act.
Though it’s not a guarantee, Espionage Act violations have, in the past, carried the prospect of a death sentence, though Assange’s specific violations will likely spare him the possibility of such a fate (read more about Assange’s charges here)."
Following reports of the charges, Wikileaks tweeted that the new charges were “madness” and would be “the end of national security journalism.”
Despite Donald Trump stating that he loved Wikileaks during his 2016 presidential campaign, he has since claimed that he doesn't know much about Wikileaks and seem uninterested in defending Assange against the DOJ charges.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco the case of journalist Bryan Carmody continues to raise eyebrows and draw concerns from civil liberties and first amendment groups. Carmody was the victim of a SWAT raid by San Francisco police, who used a sledgehammer to break down his door while storming in with guns drawn. Police handcuffed Carmody for six hours while they stole tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and confidential journalistic material.
The raid came after Carmody refused to divulge who had leaked a police report to him about the death of San Francisco atttorney Jeffrey Adachi. Carmody reported on the leaked report which detailed that Adachi had died of heart failure after a cocaine-filled night. San Francisco Police Chief William Scott claimed that Carmody "crossed the line" by paying a source for the report, a claim which Carmody adamantly denies.
First Amendment expert David Snyder told the Associated Press Carmody did not commit a crime when he published the police report. Synder says a police report is "not a confidential, legally protected document" and its disclosure and publication is lawful.
Carmody has received the support of a number of organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Under the facts as set forth in Carmody’s sworn declaration, both California law and the federal Privacy Protection Act would have absolutely barred the search warrants in this case," says Gabe Rottman, a First Amendment attorney with the RCFP.
California Governor Gavin Newsom released a statement in support of Carmody, warning that “Journalists should be able to do their jobs — including working with confidential sources — without becoming targets themselves.”
These two cases will likely spark lengthy court battles over a journalist's right to publish confidential and leaked documents that governments and law enforcement do not want the public to see. Coincidentally, both Assange and Carmody are accused of overstepping their journalistic roles by going beyond simply acquiring documents, and instead actively playing a role in their release. Whether these claims hold up remains to be seen, but it might indicate a strategy that will be employed against journalists in the coming future.