Julian Assange WikiLeaks

It’s a dangerous moment for press freedom when governments — and some journalists — prioritise the privileges of the craft over fundamental human rights. Yet that’s where we seem to be with the arrest of Julian Assange for practicing journalism.

To prioritise the status of “journalist” over “journalism” is to get it precisely arse-about. Journalism is a practice. You become a journalist by practicing journalism — digging out and spreading fact-based news, in all its glorious diversity. The practice of journalism has an important job to do: to provide the public with the information they need to exercise their own civil rights.

For the authorities, it’s a con by states clamping down on freedom of speech: it’s not journalism, they say. It’s false news. It’s not licensed, not approved. Find any journalist detained around the world and you’ll find the detaining government — from Sisi’s Egypt to Suharto’s Indonesia — spruiking some variation or other of this “not a journalist” line.

For governments, it’s a win-win to say: “We love real journalists”. They can fake respect for press freedom while disempowering the solidarity of the global journalist community.

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To constrain the rights of press freedom to the privileges of the profession of journalists weakens both. Rather, the rights that journalists assume are a professional expression of the rights of everyone. These are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically in the right to freedom of expression which includes the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

“Seek, receive and impart”: sounds like the terms of the Assange conspiracy charge.

The only reason it matters whether Assange is a journalist or not — or, rather, whether WikiLeaks is a publisher or not — is due to the vagaries of US law through the application of the 18th century constitution (barring laws “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”) to 20th century corporate press structures, like The New York Times.

The US courts gave the US corporate media particular privileges. The dismissal of Assange as a source rather than a partner publisher (as NYT editor Bill Keller infamously did) has always felt like a protection of that 20th century privilege in the face of the fragmentation of 21st century media.

Declaration of conflict: I was one of the Walkley trustees who agreed to recognise WikiLeaks for its contribution to journalism back in 2011. There were two compelling reasons: it seemed odd to recognise the great journalism that others were doing off the back of the security cables cache without recognising WikiLeaks itself.

But more than that, WikiLeaks contributed something profound to journalism: a 21st century tool to get around the increasing state surveillance of journalists’ interactions with their sources. By putting an encrypted gap between source and media, the WikiLeaks model removed the opportunity for surveillance. It’s a model that has now been adopted by many investigative journalists and major media organisations.

Looking back, we can see that the cables drop did something else: it broke open the constraints on the scale of leaks. Since then, many of the major developments in journalism (such as the Panama Papers) have resulted from large-scale document drops — some old-style through the post, and some new-style through drop-boxes.

Still, it’s no secret that many journalists remain uncomfortable with Assange. His refusal to return to Sweden to answer questions about sexual assault has grown worse over time, even as his justification — fear of rendition to the US — has been shown to be justified.

Some are challenged by the ethical question as to whether accepting hacked (that is, stolen) documents (as distinct from internal leaks) is journalistically appropriate, particularly when the hacking was done by hostile Russian state actors and the resulting DNC files had limited news value. (WikiLeaks denies knowing that the DNC hack came from Russian agencies.)

Assange’s apparent enthusiasm for the election of Trump costs him allies, suggesting a political rather than journalistic motivation. But none of this alters the fundamental point of the current extradition charge: the US government is asking its court to criminalise the seeking and receiving of confidential information for the purposes of journalism. And that’s bad for everyone.

What do you make of the reception to Assange’s arrest? Send your thoughts to boss@crikey.com.au.