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The US government should not prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for releasing classified US State Department cables as this would imperil media freedom everywhere, Human Rights Watch said in a letter today to President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. Human Rights Watch urged the US government to reject overbroad interpretations of national security that clash with the freedom of expression guarantees of the US Constitution and international law.

"This is a signature moment for freedom of expression and information in both the US and abroad," said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. "Prosecuting WikiLeaks for publishing leaked documents would set a terrible precedent that will be eagerly grasped by other governments, particularly those with a record of trying to muzzle legitimate political reporting."

In a related Q&A, Human Rights Watch said that it has expressed concern to WikiLeaks and other media organizations that information be redacted from the cables that could place human rights defenders at risk, but condemned suggestions that Assange be targeted as a "terrorist" for attack. Human Rights Watch criticized private companies that had denied services to WikiLeaks in the absence of any legal judgment against it. Human Rights Watch also criticized the Office of Management and Budget's recent instructions that federal employees not access the documents that already have been made public, unless they have the appropriate authorization to view classified material.

"Once State Department cables are being circulated around the Internet, this sort of legalistic instruction makes the administration look out of touch," said PoKempner. "But it also raises worries that the government may think it can interpret the Espionage Act of 1917 as reaching anyone who transmits or retains such documents after their initial disclosure - from The New York Times to the curious web-surfer."

Human Rights Watch urged the Obama administration to favor transparency and declassification of information where that is possible, and refrain from prosecuting media who publish leaks and legislation that would broaden the scope of the already vague terms of the Espionage Act.

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