(MintPress) – If Bradley Manning is convicted of aiding the enemy for his release of government documents to WikiLeaks, the implications for journalists and whistleblowers will be nothing short of devastating.
Manning is facing more than 20 charges for leaking thousands of secret military documents to the whistleblower organization — documents which proved the number of civilians killed in the Iraq War were greater than previously reported, amounting to more than 111,000 between 2003 and 2011.
On Thursday, Manning admitted to providing documents to WikiLeaks, but said he was doing so to make the world a better place.
Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler is expected to take the stand in the Manning case as an expert witness, someone who will testify that Manning’s actions were done in the spirit of transparency through journalism.
“I will explain at trial why someone in Manning’s shoes in 2010 would have thought of WikiLeaks as a small, hard-hitting, new media journalism outfit — a journalistic ‘Little Engine that Could’ that, for purposes of press freedom, was no different from the New York Times,” Benkler wrote for New Republic.
A blow to journalism
The scenario painted by Benkler follows this logic: If Manning is convicted for leaking otherwise secret government files to WikiLeaks, why then would any other whistleblower providing a journalist with secret government files be protected from similar charges?
And if the government is going after WikiLeaks, which it is, for dispersing those documents, what case would a news outlet have for publishing a story that cites secret material considered by the U.S. government as vital to national security?
Theoretically, the New York Times could wind up in the hands of a terrorist. It recently came under fire from the White House for publishing a story, using a confidential White House source, detailing the president’s kill list and drone strike campaign oversees and highlighting the subsequent deaths of innocent civilians. Would that whistleblower and journalist not then be guilty of the same act the government alleges Manning carried out?
According to the prosecution team in the Manning case, there is no difference.
When asked by Col. Denise Lind, the presiding judge, if the prosecution would be pressing the same charges if the material was leaked to The Times (rather than WikiLeaks), Prosecuting Attorney Capt. Angel Overgaard said “yes”.
This statement has far-reaching consequences for the future of journalism in the United States, presenting a possible erosion to freedom of the press, guaranteed in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
This aspect of the First Amendment is fundamental to the nation’s foundation — one which values and necessitates watchdog journalism.
“Freedom of the press is anchored in our Constitution because it reflects our fundamental belief that no institution can be its own watchdog,” Benkler writes. “The government is full of well-intentioned and quite powerful inspectors general and similar internal accountability mechanisms. But like all big organizations, the national security branches of government include some people who aren’t purely selfless public servants.”
The Manning case has the ability to set dangerous precedents contrary to the democratic nature of the U.S. journalism — and depending on the court’s ruling, it could be up for a challenge.
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