DETROIT — Today, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (MI-12) led Congressmembers Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), Cori Bush (MO-01), Greg Casar (TX-35), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Ilhan Omar (MN-05) and Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling on the Department of Justice to uphold the First Amendment’s protections for the freedom of the press by dropping the Trump-era charges against Australian publisher Julian Assange and withdrawing the American extradition request currently pending with the British government.
“Press freedom, civil liberty, and human rights groups have been emphatic that the charges against Mr. Assange pose a grave and unprecedented threat to everyday, constitutionally protected journalistic activity, and that a conviction would represent a landmark setback for the First Amendment,” the lawmakers wrote.
Julian Assange faces 17 charges under the Espionage Act and one charge for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. The Espionage Act charges stem from Mr. Assange’s role in publishing information about the U.S. State Department, Guantanamo Bay, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Assange has been detained on remand in London for more than three years, as he awaits the outcome of extradition proceedings against him.
“The prosecution of Julian Assange for carrying out journalistic activities greatly diminishes America’s credibility as a defender of these values, undermining the United States’ moral standing on the world stage, and effectively granting cover to authoritarian governments who can (and do) point to Assange’s prosecution to reject evidence-based criticisms of their human rights records and as a precedent that justifies the criminalization of reporting on their activities. Leaders of democracies, major international bodies, and parliamentarians around the globe stand opposed to the prosecution of Assange,” the lawmakers continued.
Leading global newspapers The New York Times, The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde,and Der Spiegel have taken the extraordinary step of publishing a joint statement in opposition to the indictment, warning that it “sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press.”
Similarly, the ACLU, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Defending Rights and Dissent, and Human Rights Watch, among others, have written to Attorney General Merrick Garland three times to express these concerns. In one of the letters, they wrote:
“The indictment of Mr. Assange threatens press freedom because much of the conduct described in the indictment is conduct that journalists engage in routinely—and that they must engage in in order to do the work the public needs them to do. Journalists at major news publications regularly speak with sources, ask for clarification or more documentation, and receive and publish documents the government considers secret. In our view, such a precedent in this case could effectively criminalize these common journalistic practices.”
“The prosecution of Mr. Assange marks the first time in U.S. history that a publisher of truthful information has been indicted under the Espionage Act. The prosecution of Mr. Assange, if successful, not only sets a legal precedent whereby journalists or publishers can be prosecuted, but a political one as well… We urge you to immediately drop these Trump-era charges against Mr. Assange and halt this dangerous prosecution,” the lawmakers concluded.
The following organizations and world leaders have also spoken out against the Assange prosecution and its danger to the First Amendment and the freedom of the press:
- News Media: The New York Times; The Guardian; The Sydney Morning Herald; El Pais; Le Monde; Der Spiegel; The Nation; The Intercept. The Executive Editors of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and USA Today.
- Organizations: Human Rights Watch, the ACLU; Defending Rights and Dissent; Amnesty International; Reporters Without Borders; the Committee to Protect Journalists; Center for Constitutional Rights; Demand Progress; First Amendment Coalition; Free Press; Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University; National Coalition Against Censorship; Project on Government Oversight (POGO); the Brennan Center; and PEN America.
- World Leaders/Political Figures: Australian PM Albanese; Mexican President Obrador; Brazilian President Lula da Silva; Argentinian President Fernández; Bolivian President Arce; Colombian President Petro; Former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer; Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic; Sign on Letters from Legislators from the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and Brazil.
“Defending Rights & Dissent applauds Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s courageous defense of the First Amendment,” said Chip Gibbons, Policy Director, Defending Rights & Dissent. “Defending the Bill of Rights is the responsibility of every branch of government and we are proud to stand with those members of Congress who are joining with nearly every press freedom group and newspapers such as The New York Times, in calling on the Department of Justice to end its prosecution of Julian Assange. When the Trump Administration brought unprecedented Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange for doing what journalists do every day, they put the First Amendment in peril. To turn the page, the Biden Administration must heed the call of these members of Congress, human rights and press freedom groups, and halt this press freedom endangering prosecution.”
“As Julian Assange marks four years in Belmarsh prison and faces possible imminent extradition to the United States, it’s more crucial for Members of Congress to speak up now than ever before,” said Rebecca Vincent, Director of Operations and Campaigns, Reporters Sans Frontières/Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “No one should face prosecution or the possibility of the rest of their lives in prison for publishing information in the public interest. As long as the case against Assange continues, it will be a thorn in the side of the US government, and undermines US efforts to defend media freedom globally. We welcome Representative Tlaib’s leadership on this issue and encourage widespread support for her call on the Justice Department to drop the charges against Assange. It’s time for the US to lead by example by bringing this 12 year-old case to a close and allowing for his release without further delay.”
The full text of the letter can be found here.