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Assange as journalist: An inconvenient truth?

By Kellie Tranter - posted Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Sealed Indictment.The magistrate judge to whom an indictment is returned may direct that the indictment be kept secret until the defendant is in custody or has been released pending trial. The clerk must then seal the indictment, and no person may disclose the indictment’s existence except as necessary to issue or execute a warrant or summons. - Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure December 1, 2010.

Last week an Australian citizen, Julian Assange, walked into the Ecuadorian embassy in the United Kingdom seeking political asylum. He knows only too well what a sealed indictment is, as do his family and supporters; they all wait patiently for Ecuador's decision on his request.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s not only admitted on Lateline last week that he did not know what a sealed indictment was, but he also gave this disturbing answer:


STEVE CANNANE:  One of the questions that’s being raised about Julian Assange is whether he’s a journalist and if he’s a journalist whether he would be subject to the Espionage Act. As a former journalist yourself, do you consider Julian Assange to be a journalist

BOB CARR: I have not a view on that, Stephen. I’d - like anyone - like every journalist I know, I’d need to get a lawyer’s advice on whether journalists have that immunity or whether we would stand-whether we would stand subject to espionage legislation.

Notice that he didn’t answer the question? The question was simple: did he consider Julian Assange a journalist?  Yes or no? Carr’s omission to answer that question is both revealing and disturbing.

After four years of research the Project for Excellence in Journalism identified and clarified the principles that underlie “journalism” as involving a: first obligation to the truth; its first loyalty to its citizens; its essence being a discipline of verification; its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover; it must serve as an independent monitor of power; it must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise; it must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant; it must keep the news comprehensive and proportional; and its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

By those standards, the work of WikiLeaks obviously fits the bill.

If the United States Government isn't interested in or considering prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act, as our politicians keep suggesting, why do they have any difficulty answering that question?


The fact that our elected representatives aren't prepared to answer that question should be ringing alarm bells. Every concerned Australian, and particularly every journalist, should be demanding an answer from the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, and the Foreign Minister, an unequivocal answer by reference to objective standards like the principles determined by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.


Because prosecutions against the media under the Espionage Act are unprecedented. In the history of the United States, no member of the news media has ever been criminally prosecuted under the Espionage Act for gathering, publishing, or retaining classified information. It's another reminder that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution – part of the Bill of Rights – includes a prohibition against the making of any law abridging the freedom of speech or infringing on the freedom of the press.

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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