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Julian Assange: Truth teller or criminal?

The 360 is a feature designed to show you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

Speed read

What's happening: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was charged with receiving and publishing classified information in a 17-count indictment by the U.S. Justice Department on Thursday. The charges are in addition to previous accusations that he was involved in a conspiracy to hack a Pentagon computer.

Assange also faces legal jeopardy in Sweden, where prosecutors reopened a dormant rape case against him. The 47-year-old Australian was arrested in London last month after spending nearly seven years living in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Both Sweden and the U.S. have requested that he be extradited.

Since 2010, WikiLeaks has been responsible for a series of major document releases, including confidential diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department and military documents from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Mueller report alleges Assange coordinated with the Russian government in its campaign to influence the 2016 election by publishing emails stolen from Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee.

Why there's debate: Advocates for transparency and government accountability have praised Assange for his bold steps in bringing truth to power. They argue the cases against him in the U.S. and Sweden are unfounded and are merely an attempt to punish him for embarrassing powerful government figures.

His critics contend he is not a journalist because he has shown a clear bias and used methods that are unethical, even if they are technically legal. This view was given new weight by the accusations in the Mueller report.

Some journalists believe that even though Assange may not be the most sympathetic figure, the accusations against him in the U.S. could set a dangerous precedent that stifles freedom of the press.

What's next: Earlier this month, Assange was sentenced to 50 months in jail by U.K. authorities for bail violations. The question of which country's extradition request takes priority is up to the British Home Secretary. The decision may be influenced by the perceived legitimacy of the U.S. government's charges and the statute of limitations on the allegations in Sweden, which expires in 2020.


The accusations against Assange are a threat to press freedom

"The fact is that though it’s Assange who is right now in the dock, it is journalism that stands trial." — Eresh Omar Jamal, Daily Star

"Far more important than one’s personal feelings about Assange is the huge step this indictment represents in the Trump administration’s explicitly stated goal to criminalize journalism that involves reporting on classified information. Opposition to that menacing goal does not require admiration or affection for Assange. It simply requires a belief in the critical importance of a free press in a democracy." — Glenn Greenwald, Micah Lee, The Intercept

Assange is being used as a way to tamp down on all journalists

"The reason why the Assange case is so momentous is because it is based at least in part on a theory of criminal liability under the Espionage Act of 1917 that the government has never successfully prosecuted before — and because that theory crosses a constitutional line with regard to the press that the government has previously respected." — Steve Vladeck, NBC News

Assange is not a journalist

"Unlike real journalists, WikiLeaks dumped material into the public domain without any effort independently to verify its factuality or give named individuals an opportunity to comment. Nor, needless to say, would a real journalist have cooperated with a plot by an authoritarian regime’s intelligence service to harm one U.S. presidential candidate and benefit another." — Editorial, Washington Post

Some of the most important victories for press freedom have come from unsavory sources

"We don’t get to choose the individuals who provide an opportunity for us to defend free speech and journalism, and it’s hard to argue that Assange is any worse than Larry Flynt or any of the other reprobates who have helped shape First Amendment law." — Mathew Ingram, Columbia Journalism Review

"This story is worrying for a number of reasons: One, because journalistic freedoms may be under threat. And, unfortunately, in order to protect them … I’m really sorry, everyone, but it might actually be time to defend Julian Assange.” — John Oliver, Last Week Tonight

WikiLeaks abandoned its journalistic mission

"So whether Assange is a publisher depends on the year you're asking the question. When Assange founded WikiLeaks, its mission was to expose authoritarian governments. … By 2016 though, WikiLeaks was not so much a publisher as it was a combatant in information warfare." — Eli Lake, Bloomberg

He walks the line between journalist and criminal

"The case of Mr. Assange, who got his start as a computer hacker, illuminates the conflict of freedom and harm in the new technologies, and could help draw a sharp line between legitimate journalism and dangerous cybercrime." — Editorial, New York Times

The sexual assault allegations against him are the most pressing concern

"The trouble is that many of those who like what Assange did with WikiLeaks are willing to look the other way about the accusations against him. The same people who would march for women’s rights wearing pussy hats and waving banners about what a sexist pig Trump is are not feminist allies when their gods are found to be fallible." — Jess Phillips, Guardian

Assange's alleged role in Russian hacking is irredeemable

"Assange should also have been charged with conspiracy against the United States. That's because the WikiLeaks founder supported Russian espionage efforts to unlawfully interfere with the U.S. 2016 presidential election." — Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner

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