The Justice Department indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on May 23 on 17 new counts of violating the Espionage Act for obtaining and publishing classified government documents on his website in 2010. The case focuses on Assange’s role in the leak of thousands of classified State Department and military documents by former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. These charges follow a previous case brought against Assange last month, when he was charged with one count of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” related to an alleged attempt to help Manning hack a government computer to obtain classified information.
“The latest charges against Assange could be truly disastrous for the future of national security reporting in the United States,” said Sabine Dolan, interim Executive Director of RSF’s North America bureau. “We have seen the Espionage Act used far too many times against journalistic sources already. RSF worries that this extraordinary measure by the Trump administration could set a dangerous precedent that could be used to prosecute journalists and publishers in the future for engaging in activities that investigative reporting relies on.”
This is the fifth individual to be charged under the World War One-era Espionage Act since President Donald Trump took office. If found guilty, Assange could face a maximum of 10 years in prison for each count except for “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion,” for which he would face a maximum of five years.
Meanwhile, Assange remains in custody in the United Kingdom, where he is serving a 50-week prison sentence for breaking bail in 2012. He currently faces possible extradition to both the United States and Sweden for criminal charges. The charges in Sweden, however, are unrelated to the WikiLeaks case. RSF has called on the UK government to respect the principles of press freedom and protection of journalistic sources in their treatment of Assange, and has expressed concern about his possible extradition to the United States in connection with his journalistic-like activities.
The United States ranks 48th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index.