US: Threats by the US Government against WikiLeaks and whistleblowers

In his speech last week, Mike Pompeo, CIA Director, referred to WikiLeaks as a “non-State hostile intelligence service” and stated that protection of free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, do not apply to WikiLeaks and its publisher and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange. Pompeo also focussed on other whistle-blowers – namely Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning – and signalled that any similar disclosures should be treated as “hostile acts.” It has been also reported that the US Justice Department is considering whether to file criminal charges against members of WikiLeaks.

Even more concerning is the potential that Assange could be charged under the WWI-era Espionage Act. This act is a vaguely worded and overly broad statute that makes it a crime to retain or communicate “any document … relating to the national defense,” regardless of intent and with no specific exemptions for whistleblowers or journalists. Not only could this apply to the publication of leaked documents by reporters with a legitimate public interest claim, it could conceivably also be applied to any tweet that mentions an article that contain leaked national security information.

ARTICLE 19 is concerned by these discussions and urges the US Government to refrain from taking these steps. We believe that the prosecution of WikiLeaks staff would violate First Amendment protections for free speech and set a historically dangerous precedent in the United States: to date, there has never been a prosecution of a publisher in the US for publishing truthful information to the public. Any prosecution will also set a dangerous precedent for media freedom worldwide.

Despite the overly broad langauge of the Espionage Act, ARTICLE 19  reiterates that whistleblowers and those who provide information to WikiLeaks and other media outlets should not be prosecuted if there is a strong public interest in the release of the information. Journalists and publishers should not be liable under espionage laws for disclosing information of public interest. The laws should be amended to include public interest defenses for protecting whistleblowers.

Protecting journalists, media outlets and whistleblowers that hold governments and institutions to account is central to protecting the right to freedom of expression under both the First Amendment of the US Constitution and under international law.

The US Government’s relationship with the media must be governed by transparency and respecting the public right to know and not attempts to silence those who hold the government and other powerful interests to account.

We urge the US Government to ensure that all media can publish information in the public interest without obstruction, persecution, and threats of prosecution by the state. We also call on the US Government to urgently improve the protection of whistleblowers in the country, and to enact legislation based on international standards protecting journalists from revealing their confidential sources and materials. This legislation should apply to every person who is engaged in the business of making information available to the public.

Anything less is a fundamental threat to press freedom in the United States and around the world.