As the US prepares to try to acquire WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange through extradition, the Justice Department has revealed a new series of charges against him. Assange would face 170 years in US prison if convicted.
The new charges are 17 separate charges under the Espionage Act. According to the Justice Department, the charges are all related to leaking classified documents related to national security, which were part of the leaks from Chelsea Manning, who the US has already indefinitely jailed for refusing to testify against Assange.
This sets up a potentially very controversial case. Though also used to prosecute proper spies for foreign governments, the Espionage Act of 1917 has been used repeatedly to target journalists and those who provided information to journalists. Its use against the press has historically been deeply criticized.
The Trump Administration has tried to push a narrative in which, even though WikiLeaks behaves like a journalistic outlet, they are something distinct, almost certainly an argument that envisioned having to argue a case like this as being something other than rank censorship of the media.
If the conviction of Assange is successful, it would have a chilling effect on the American press, and indeed the international press since Assange wasn’t American nor in America during the “crimes” in question, establishing that the US government can jail journalists for reporting on their embarrassing secrets.