Effort to Compel Journalist to Reveal His Sources ‘Hostile’ to Press Freedom

NEW YORK — Efforts to compel journalist James Risen to reveal a confidential source(s) could cement the Obama Administration’s legacy as one of the most hostile to press freedom in U.S. history, according to a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder sent by PEN American Center this morning. On Tuesday, a federal judge issued a December 16 deadline for Holder’s Justice Department to issue a subpoena to Risen in the trial of a former CIA employee under the Espionage Act.

The call to drop the subpoena against Risen was signed by 127 writers—including Stephen Sondheim, Colm Tóibín, Junot Díaz, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman, Tony Kushner, and Lydia Davis—as part of PEN’s annual holiday gathering, at which the organization sends messages of solidarity to the 150-plus writers and journalists who are in prisons all over the world. This was the first letter from this gathering in the organization’s history to be addressed to the United States.

“It is deeply unsettling for an organization focused on writers imprisoned by the world’s most repressive governments to also have to worry about keeping a U.S. writer out of an American jail,” said PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “Risen’s case is emblematic of the Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of national security leaks, which has significantly degraded the U.S.’s reputation and global leverage on issues of free expression.”

Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, is one of only six U.S. cases on PEN International’s list of over 900 imperiled writers and the first American journalist in nearly a decade to face the threat of jail time for refusing to reveal a confidential source(s). His battle with the Justice Department spans seven years, as both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to subpoena his testimony in the prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling.

“Because my reporting depends on my ability to maintain sources’ confidentiality, the government has essentially issued me an ultimatum: get out of this business or go to jail,” said Risen in remarks prepared for the gathering last night, read aloud by his attorney, Joel Kurtzberg. “If authors and journalists do not speak out and fight back against these attacks on journalism and press freedoms, we will be come powerless to provide the access to information that we are responsible for safeguarding.”

The full text of the PEN American Center’s appeal to Attorney General Holder can be found here.


Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 3,500 American writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. In conjunction with the ACLU, PEN founded Reckoning With Torture, an innovative performance and film project sparked by the idea that coming to terms with torture begins by reading and acknowledging the record of those abuses. The project seeks to uphold the voices of servicemen and women who reported abuse, refused to participate in it, and advocated for the repeal of unlawful interrogation directives. www.pen.org

Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, snossel@pen.org, +1 212-334-1660 x 103
Sarah Edkins, Communications Manager, sedkins@pen.org, m. +1 347-927-9505