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The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its census report for 2023. Three hundred and twenty detained or imprisoned journalists were counted by the press freedom organization, as of December 1, 2023.
As indicated, that number is not far from the record high of 360 jailed journalists that was set in 2022.
The 2023 census takes on greater significance given the Israeli government’s war on Gaza and the military attacks and crackdown on Palestinian journalists. Seventeen journalists were jailed by Israel, the “highest number of arrests” since CPJ began tracking arrests in 1992. It is the first time that Israel has “ranked among the top six offenders.”
But at this moment, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his legal team are preparing for a major hearing on February 20 before the High Court of the Justice in the United Kingdom. They view the hearing as a final opportunity to save him from extradition to the United States, where he was charged with violating the Espionage Act in 2019.
Assange needs press freedom organizations, especially those with U.S. headquarters, to strengthen their stand against the charges from the Justice Department. However, for another year, CPJ excluded the imprisoned former WikiLeaks editor-in-chief from their database of jailed journalists.
I emailed CPJ a request for comment and asked why Assange remains excluded from the organization’s annual jailed journalist census, especially given CPJ’s methodology. The response that a CPJ communications person sent me was disappointing.
“After extensive research and consideration, CPJ chose not to list Assange as a journalist, in part because his role has just as often been as a source and because WikiLeaks does not generally perform as a news outlet with an editorial process,” CPJ answered.
The statement was copied-and-pasted from a 2019 post that then-CPJ executive editor Robert Mahoney authored, where he defended the exclusion of Assange.
I pointed out to CPJ that this “extensive research and consideration” was completed in 2019, and I did so because perhaps it is time for CPJ to reassess their determination. To that, CPJ replied, “Yes, there have been many articles about our position on Assange. While you're free to disagree, our position has been clear, transparent, and consistent for years.”
Indeed, CPJ’s position has been clear. The organization has been consistent in their exclusion of Assange from the press freedom organization’s annual census.
It is debatable whether the organization has been transparent. To my knowledge, the “extensive research and consideration” that they did to decide that Assange is not a journalist has never been shared with the public.
Also, it remains puzzling how a press freedom organization led primarily by journalists with experience in newsgathering can insist that Assange is a source. He has never held a security clearance or a position in the U.S. government that would give him access to classified documents.
The source of the documents at issue in the Espionage Act prosecution against Assange was a U.S. Army intelligence analyst known as Chelsea Manning. She had access to the classified military and government documents, submitted over 700,000 files to WikiLeaks, and Assange published them in 2010 and 2011.
My request for comment mentioned CPJ’s own methodology for labeling someone a journalist, however, CPJ ignored this part of my question.
According to CPJ, a journalist is someone who covers the news or comments on public affairs through any media—including in print, in photographs, on radio, on television, and online.”
Between 2010 and 2017, Assange appeared numerous times on news networks, such as CNN and Al Jazeera English, to comment on WikiLeaks publications as well as public affairs, like National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, NSA surveillance, and internet freedom. He frequently appeared on the independent news program “Democracy Now!” to discuss Google, corruption within U.S. security agencies, and even the Catalonia independence movement in Spain.
Assange is a member of the International Federation of Journalists, which is the world’s largest federation of journalists. Twenty affiliates of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, granted Assange honorary membership.
Since 2010, Assange has also been a member of the Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance, a trade union in Australia.
CPJ partnered with various civil liberties, human rights, and press freedom organizations in December 2022 to send a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding that the Justice Department drop all charges against Assange.
On World Press Freedom Day in 2023, CPJ CEO Jodie Ginsberg spoke at an event hosted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the UN headquarters in New York.
Ginsberg called out lawfare targeting journalists and clearly stated, “One thing that the United States could concretely do is drop the charges against Julian Assange." She noted if Assange was brought to trial that it would "effectively criminalize journalists everywhere.”
So, why the refusal to label Assange a journalist?
I asked CPJ if they have come under pressure from officials within the U.S. government and that is why they will not acknowledge Assange is a jailed journalist. After all, if the Chinese or Russian governments detained someone like Assange, that person would almost certainly be included in CPJ’s index.
The press freedom organization disregarded this portion of my request for comment.
Throughout 2023, there was no posting on CPJ’s website about Assange. It has been over a year since CPJ seemingly acknowledged Assange’s plight in detention at His Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh. (CPJ has also paid no attention to the lawsuit against the CIA for allegedly copying the contents of journalists' electronic devices when they visited Assange.)
In 2023, Jacob Weisberg became the chair of CPJ’s board of directors. Has he played any role in the decision to keep Assange out of their index?
Weisberg is the former editor-in-chief of Slate Group. He opposed Assange and WikiLeaks in 2015 when they published emails from Sony Entertainment that were hacked. He published an opinion article at Slate under the headline, “Stop Publishing the Sony Hacks.”
“News outlets should obviously cover the story of the hack itself, the effect on Sony, the question of how it happened, and who’s responsible. This is a big and legitimate news story,” Weisberg declared. “But when it comes to exploiting the fruits of the digital break-in, journalists should voluntarily withhold publication.”
“They shouldn’t hold back because they’re legally obligated to—I don’t believe they are—but because there’s no ethical justification for publishing this damaging stolen material.” Weisberg failed to disclose that he had ties to Sony Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton, and emails that he had sent were in the archive that WikiLeaks published.
Washington Post columnist Erik Wemple contended that Weisberg should have included a disclosure. Weisberg denied the existence of any conflict of interest and countered, “I continue to think that writing articles based on these emails is a massive violation of privacy—now including mine—without any compelling justification.”
As CPJ finds further questions about their exclusion of Assange bothersome, another press freedom organization, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has included Assange in their year-end round-up of detained journalists for three years in a row.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire and RSF director of operations Rebecca Vincent attempted to visit Assange at Belmarsh in April 2023. Yet despite approving Deloire and Vincent for a visit before they traveled to the facility, the prison warden denied them access when they arrived. (Though for whatever reason, RSF does not list the U.K. or U.S. as having any detained journalists in their custody.)
Assange is and will always be a detained journalist so long as the Justice Department pushes onward with this political case. It is too bad CPJ staff cannot get past their professional hangups and include him in their annual index. It would strengthen their opposition to the prosecution in a way that would give their advocacy even more clarity.