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die Welt, Germany

Assange Indictment Would
Threaten the Free Press


By Claus Christian Malzahn

Translated By Ron Argentati

1 December 2010

Edited by Heidi Kaufmann


Germany - die Welt - Original Article (German)

Sarah Palin would like to lock Julian Assange away in Guantanamo. But it would be dangerous to prosecute him for breach of secrecy.


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is currently being sought by Interpol. Not because he elevated disclosure of secrets to a journalistic principle with the help of his media partners, but because he is suspected of improper sexual conduct with two Swedish women. He is wanted for questioning, and it’s only a matter of time before it happens.

The question of whether he will have to answer to U.S. charges that he disclosed classified materials for political motives is a much more difficult one. There’s no doubt that his latest revelations have put American diplomacy in its tightest spot yet. But many are making the best of an embarrassing situation out of the unadorned diplomatic reports about unmasked politicians. Behind the scenes, however, people are angry, enraged and hurt. Little can ever be done to mitigate the damage.

Bumper-Sticker Wisdom from America

The Obama administration is also looking into whether it could indict the WikiLeaks messiah for that as well. Sarah Palin used the opportunity to accuse the White House and the State Department of incompetence and demanded that WikiLeaks and its supporters be treated like al-Qaida terrorists. Off to Guantanamo with Julian Assange?

Such bumper-sticker wisdom doesn’t help the United States one bit. That Assange has an anti-American agenda — via Skype on Wednesday, he called for Hillary Clinton to step down — has hardly been a secret for several months now. Even his own media partners wouldn't deny that he has caused immense political damage. Fortunately, that’s still not just cause for prosecution in a Western democracy.

Incalculable Precedent

The only justification for prosecution the United States has yet been able to come up with is a 1917 law from World War I days that makes the dissemination of secret documents a prosecutable offense. It’s still questionable whether that law would apply to digitized data. There could be a vague possibility that Assange could be indicted if he were proven guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. But that would create a precedent that would have to apply to investigative journalists like Watergate veteran Bob Woodward, for example. By then, Assange would have a solid phalanx of people on his side who are critical of him today.

It’s not just a problem for WikiLeaks. That’s why it’s less a question of government intervention than it is a necessity for a self-critical examination by those media outlets that have made the Internet ideology of total disclosure into a clever sales strategy and who now wash their hands of the consequences of Assange’s information dump, even as they shed copious crocodile tears over it.





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