Seven weeks ago, when Julian Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, headed for possible extradition to the United States, the WikiLeaks editor, Kristinn Hrafnsson, told us the legal charges waiting for Assange in the US were "just the tip of the iceberg". And that there would be more coming.

Last week, he was proven right. US prosecutors have expanded the indictment against Assange by another 17 counts. His maximum jail term has jumped from five years to 175 years. And the US Department of Justice is going after him under a different law now, the Espionage Act.

That law has been used against whistleblowers before, WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning included, but never against a publisher. The alarm bells, including from mainstream media organisations that fear the precedent such a prosecution would set have been going off ever since.

The Assange case isn't really about him or WikiLeaks anymore. It has implications, serious ones - for journalists just about everywhere.

"This is the first time that the government has brought a charge under the 1917 World War One era Espionage Act, which is supposed to cover spying, not disclosing information to journalists," explains Gabe Rottman, project director, Reports Committee for Freedom of the Press. "It's the first time that the government has brought charges under the Espionage Act based exclusively on the receipt and publication of government secrets."

When the Department of Justice announced the indictment, it held a closed-door briefing for journalists. It was on the record but off camera.

The head of the department's national security division was widely quoted on Assange's journalistic credentials.

"The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy", he said. "It is not and never has been the department's policy to target them for reporting. But Julian Assange is no journalist".

"But the question about whether Julian Assange is a journalist or not is irrelevant," contends Trevor Timm, executive director, Freedom of the Press Foundation. "The First Amendment does not bestow upon journalists a certain set of rights, they bestow everybody those rights whether they call themselves a journalist or not ... I think everyone can agree that Donald Trump shouldn't be the one deciding who is a journalist and who isn't."

The use of the Espionage Act by the Department of Justice galvanised media outlets alarmed at the implications. Not for Julian Assange. For themselves.

The Washington Post called the case "a blueprint for making journalists into felons".

The New York Times' editorial board said the indictment "aims at the heart of the First Amendment".

And the Guardian's former editor called the charges "a grave threat to free media".

All that pushback felt like too little, too late. Assange has been treated like a pariah by those same news outlets. And even now, with all the Assange indictments out there, those news outlets are clearly more concerned with possible legal precedents affecting them - than they are about the fate of their one-time source.

"You can be critical of Julian Assange and there may be many good reasons to take issue with the way that Assange has conducted himself and the way that WikiLeaks has released information to the public," says Caroline DeCell, staff lawyer, Knight First Amendment Institute.

"But the charges brought against him in this indictment sweep much more broadly into the realm of typical journalistic practice. The news media organisations that have reacted to this with alarm have done so with a full appreciation of the signal that this indictment sends to the press."

Contributors

Caroline DeCell - Staff lawyer, Knight First Amendment Institute
Kevin Gosztola - Managing editor, Shadowproof
Trevor Timm - Executive director, Freedom of the Press Foundation
Gabe Rottman - Project director, Reports Committee for Freedom of the Press

Source: Al Jazeera