The State Department refused to acknowledge on Wednesday, which marked World Press Freedom Day, that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a journalist.
State Department spokesman Vedant Patel was asked by AP reporter Matt Lee if he considers Assange to be a journalist. “Matt, I am just not gonna offer a prescriptive assessment from here. Our view on Mr. Assange is that he’s been charged with serious criminal conduct,” he said.
Lee retorted by pointing out that anyone can face criminal charges, including Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter recently arrested by Russia. Patel said the cases were “completely different” and refused to say whether the State Department considers Assange a journalist.
Assange has been held in London’s Belmarsh Prison since April 2019 as the US is seeking his extradition. If convicted in the US for exposing US war crimes by publishing information related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison.
Also on Wednesday, a talk between Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and Secretary of State Antony Blinken was interrupted by two protesters who called for the release of Assange. “We can’t use this day without calling for the freedom of Julian Assange,” said Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of Code Pink.
The other protester mentioned Shirren Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American Al Jazeera reporter who was killed by Israeli forces in May 2022. She was gunned down while covering an Israeli raid in the West Bank and wearing a blue vest with “PRESS” written on it.
Over the weekend, President Biden delivered a speech at the White House Correspondents dinner and declared “journalism is not a crime,” a statement that rings hollow as his Justice Department is seeking Assange’s extradition.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and several other progressive House Democrats recently sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, urging him to drop the charges against Assange. The lawmakers pointed out that since Assange obtained the information he published through standard journalistic practices, his conviction would set a dangerous precedent.
“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. In the future, The New York Times or Washington Post could be prosecuted when they publish important stories based on classified information,” the lawmakers said.