NEW YORK—The news that Julian Assange, founder and editor of WikiLeaks, has been charged with 18 new counts of criminal charges, including 17 counts under the Espionage Act, raises grave concerns about the implications for journalists and freedom of the press, PEN America said in a statement:

Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia released a new, 18-count indictment on Thursday accusing Julian Assange of violating the Espionage Act by having unlawfully obtained and disclosed classified national defense information. This latest raft of charges come nearly one month after news broke that the U.S. was charging Assange for conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. According to the new indictment, prosecutors allege that Assange and WikiLeaks “repeatedly encouraged sources with access to classified information to steal it.” The indictment further alleges that Assange and WikiLeaks encouraged sources to give information to WikiLeaks, specifically asking for information “likely to have political, diplomatic, ethical or historical impact on release.”

“Our concerns in relation to this unprecedented indictment center on its grave implications for a free press,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. “Whether Assange is a journalist or WikiLeaks qualifies as a press outlet is immaterial to the counts set out here. The indictment encompasses a series of activities—including encouraging sources verbally and in writing to leak information and receiving and publishing such information—that media outlets routinely undertake as part of their role to hold government to account. By bringing charges under the Espionage Act for actions that include receiving and publishing information and documents, the Department of Justice is setting a dangerous precedent that could be wielded against journalists and used to quash methods that are at the heart of the workings of a free press in a democracy. As an organization dedicated to freedom of expression and the transmission of thought within and between nations, PEN America supports the right of media to report on and publish in their entirety newsworthy materials that they have received from third parties, including classified information. As of today, that right is under new threat.”  

PEN America has been vigilant over the years in our defense of whistleblowers, our analysis and concerns around overreaching government surveillance, and our public conversation about these important issues. In 2011 PEN America convened a discussion on the implications of leaking classified information, revisiting the topic again with a discussion about WikiLeaks in 2012 at our PEN World Voices Festival. In 2015, we released an original report Secret Sources: Whistleblowers, National Security, and Free Expression—concluding that the Obama Administration’s zealous prosecution of leakers and whistlebowers posed a risk for freedom of expression and press freedom in the United States; our launch included a panel discussion featuring Edward Snowden, who participated via Skype. In 2018, we hosted Chelsea Manning at the World Voices Festival for a discussion on art, technology, and activism. 


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Michele Riggio, Director of Communications, [email protected]