Based on all the available information we have, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is not a good guy. I feel comfortable in making this judgement, in part because he’s been accused of rape and in part because of the political company he keeps.
I also believe Assange’s arrest by British authorities today—which came after Ecuador dropped his asylum status after sheltering him in its London embassy for seven years—and his indictment by the Department of Justice is a stunning overreach by the U.S. government and its ally, one that could have a chilling effect on journalists for years to come.
People, I’m sorry, especially liberals, are having a hard time holding both these truths in their heads at once, chief among them—again, sorry—the people who were embarrassed (perhaps even personally!) by Wikileaks publishing Hillary Clinton’s emails.
In a statement on Assange’s arrest, the Freedom of the Press Foundation nodded to the fact that whether you like Assange or not seems to play quite an active role in the your assessment of this development—and also that, though the charges against him initially appeared not to be directly related to journalism, that was far from the whole picture:
The ACLU also called the U.S. charging Assange an “unprecedented and unconstitutional” move, one that “would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations.”
Assange’s disclosures were messy, they made a lot of powerful people mad, and there’s a compelling case that some of then did cause harm. But you don’t have to like him as a person, like his personal politics, or even much care for his work to see a dangerous precedent being set here. If you throw your lot in to celebrate his arrest, know that you’re joining the Trump administration in pushing this forward.
Although the Obama administration was deeply hostile to whistleblowers, it eventually declined to prosecute Assange out of concerns for press freedom and, after a long delay, commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning. Manning is back in jail under this administration, this time for refusing to testify before a grand jury.
This is all related. If you’re going to defend Jim Acosta’s right to grandstand to the president, if you consider Daniel Ellsberg a hero for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, if you cheered for Spotlight winning Best Picture, you should also defend the rights of a publisher who—even if he is not a good person—made the world see documents your government never wanted you to. Those first three cases make standing up for press freedom easy. But you must also stand for the more difficult cases, the ones that feel less cozy, if you stand for a free press at all.