The U.S. government’s legal prosecution of Julian Assange is very disconcerting. Journalistic publications, including WikiLeaks, exist to tell the people the truth — even when the government tries to hide it. Revealing the ugly truth can be embarrassing, but sometimes confronting uncomfortable truths is necessary in a democracy.
It is already hard enough to get the truth to the public. Government officials prefer to overclassify information to protect their reputations. Sometimes it takes brave whistleblowers willing to leak secrets because their conscience tells them the public’s right to know outweighs the letter of the law. Those whistleblowers face serious consequences. But imagine if the journalists were jailed, too. The prosecution of Assange demolishes our commitment to a free press and our moral authority around the world. If Assange is extradited to the U.S. for engaging in journalism, it would set a dangerous legal precedent. Imagine if politicians were able to hide their corruption, if government agencies were able to hide their mistakes and wrongdoing, or if the military were able to mislead the public about wars. When these things happen, we rely on journalists to serve as a check on government secrecy and deception. Imagine if reporting in the public interest were a crime simply because the government declared something a secret. In such a system, the “news” would be limited to stories approved by the government.
If that sounds like an authoritarian regime, that’s because it is.