The New York Times and four European news outlets urged the federal government to drop the charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for publishing classified information.
In an open letter published Monday, the Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País argued that the prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act "sets a dangerous precedent" that threatens to diminish the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.
"Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists," the news outlets wrote. "If that work is criminalized, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker."
"Publishing is not a crime," they added.
All of the news outlets worked with Assange in 2010 and 2011, during the events central to the criminal case, according to the Times.
WikiLeaks granted traditional media organizations access to leaked classified American diplomatic and military documents, which the news groups used to publish articles.
Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the Times, said the newsroom was not involved with the letter and that the company's publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, decided to sign it, in consultation with the legal department.
The government's case against Assange is complex and does not hinge on whether he is considered a journalist; instead it focuses on whether his soliciting and publishing classified information is considered a crime.
The letter comes as Attorney General Merrick Garland looks to dismantle the difficulties the Justice Department has thrown up to make journalists' jobs harder. New regulations he issued last month include banning the use of subpoenas, warrants, or court orders to confiscate reporters' communications records or compel their testimony in an attempt to identify confidential sources.
Assange entered the public consciousness in 2010 when he began publishing classified materials related to the United States' wars and relations with foreign governments.
It was ultimately revealed that former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning had leaked the classified archives to WikiLeaks and she was court-martialed in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years in prison, according to the Times.
Former President Barack Obama commuted most of Manning's remaining sentence before leaving office in January 2017.
Manning's trove of documents included about 250,000 State Department cables that exposed secrets around the world, dossiers on Guantánamo Bay detainees and records of significant events in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that revealed, among other things, that civilian casualties were higher than official estimates, according to the Times.
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