Investigative Reporting Faces Greater Threats From Authorities

This month’s indictment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for espionage and the police raid of freelance reporter Bryan Carmody’s home in San Francisco show the latest threats to America’s press freedoms.

While the two men’s circumstances differ, Assange and Carmody are similar in facing unjustified accusations from government authorities that see them as threats. Their treatment may have a chilling effect on all new organizations.

The Department of Justice last week filed 17 new charges against Assange under the Espionage Act, accusing him of soliciting, receiving and publishing hundreds of thousands of leaked documents in 2010. In other words, doing what reporters have been doing for years.

The Espionage Act is a relic of World War I, when the U.S. government sought to discourage antiwar efforts by criminalizing the disclosure of government secrets. The act rarely has been applied to media, and in those cases, was unsuccessful.



The New York Times and The Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers, but their reporters didn’t face any charges under the act, even as the Nixon administration investigated them.

The first indictment filed against Assange in March alleged he conspired with Manning to crack a code to access a classified database. Those allegations don’t have many implications for reporters, who shouldn’t engage in illegal activity to obtain information for publication.

The revised indictment last week seeks to punish Assange for allegedly soliciting leaks, receiving information from sources and publishing classified information has broader implications for reporters.

On May 10, the San Francisco Police Department raided the home and office of Carmody as part of a criminal investigation into what police called the illegal release of a report on the death of former Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who died suddenly in February.

The raids appear to have violated California's shield law, which specifically protects journalists from search warrants.

Faced with withering criticism, San Francisco’s police chief, William Scott, apologized for the actions, saying the warrants didn’t adequately identify Carmody as a journalist. Scott also said the officers who executed the warrants violated department policy by not first consulting with the district attorney's office.

Carmody has strong grounds for a lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department. Assange faces a tougher slog to clear his name, but every news organization should worry about the outcome of his case.

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