PEN America’s scandalous failure to campaign for Julian Assange

By Lucy Komisar
Nov 2, 2023

Lucy Komisar asking question of Suzanne Nossel at Council on Foreign Relations.

Today is the United Nations International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. A week ago, at the Council on Foreign Relations, I asked Suzanne Nossel, CEO* of PEN and a former State Department official, why she has not led a campaign to free Julian Assange, the world’s most famous journalist political prisoner, imprisoned by the U.S. and UK for reporting on American war crimes. I was a board member of PEN for 20 years, 1976-96, and active on its Freedom to Write Committee.

(*The top PEN official was always called executive director, but she named herself CEO to align with her corporate ideology.)

She first attempted to avoid the question, then lied to say PEN has worked for Assange’s behalf. I get PEN emails to the public and follow all Free Assange campaign reports, which have never included such claims. PEN has occasionally signed on to statements that it could not without shame refuse but as the only freedom for writers organization in the U.S., it should have led a campaign to free Julian Assange. It has not. In fact, if you follow PEN press releases as I do, it weighs heavily on attacking governments that are U.S. adversaries.

Here is the Council exchange:


For the full video (my comment 47 minutes in).

“My name is Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist. I served on the Board of PEN for 20 years, from 1974 to 94 [Correction dates 76 to 96], and at that time, I was also very active on the Freedom to Write Committee, but when I left, I became a member of the Council [correction became member 1994] And my question is for the executive director of PEN. [Note, at this event she called herself executive director, standard for NGOs, though she has changed her title to the corporate “CEO.”]

The most important journalist political prisoner in the world is Julian Assange, and he is in jail because of the U.S. government in collaboration with the UK government. German PEN made him an honorary member. American PEN has declined, refused to run a campaign for freedom for Julian Assange.

Why doesn’t American PEN campaign for freedom for Julian Assange?

Nossel:  This event is focused on [the pro-Ukrainian government lawyer] Alexandra Matvichuk. I really, I don’t think it’s the right thing to get into PEN’s policies and, okay. We have not defended his imprisonment, we have raised, I’ll say the same in a sentence and then I’m going to move on.

Suzanne Nossel responding to Lucy Komisar at Council on Foreign Relations.

She said: “We have, we have raised concerns about the prosecution of Julian Assange on the basis that the crimes for which he is being prosecuted cannot be distinguished from the work of journalism. I’m going to turn to Richard Hurwitz in the front row. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Richard, go ahead. Please go ahead.”

So I was cut off. As I had no mike, my challenges to what she said could not be heard or recorded. Of course, there is no evidence that what she said was true! And the evidence that refutes her claims are in an article by @ChrisLynnHedges in December 2021.

He wrote:

Nossel and PEN America have stated that the prosecution of Assange raises “grave concerns” about press freedom and lauded the decision by a British court in January 2012 not to extradite Assange. Should Nossel and PEN America have not taken this stance on Assange it would have left them in opposition to most PEN organizations around the world. PEN Centre Germany, for example, made Assange an honorary member. PEN International has called for all charges to be dropped against Assange.

But Nossel, at the same time, repeats every slanderous trope and lie used to discredit the WikiLeaks publisher facing extradition to the United States to potentially serve a 175-year sentence under the Espionage Act. She refuses to acknowledge that Assange is being persecuted because he carried out the most basic and important role of any publisher, making public documents that expose the multitudinous crimes and lies of empire. And I have not seen any direct appeals to the Biden administration on Assange’s behalf from PEN America. “Whether Assange is a journalist or WikiLeaks qualifies as a press outlet is immaterial to the counts set out here,” Nossel said.

But, as a lawyer who was a member of the State Department task force that responded to the WikiLeaks revelations, she understands it is not immaterial. The core argument behind the U.S. effort to extradite Assange revolves around denying him the status of a publisher or a journalist and denying WikiLeaks the status of a press publication.

Nossel parrots the litany of false charges leveled against Assange including that he endangered lives by not redacting documents, hacked into a government computer and meddled in the 2016 elections, all key points in the government’s case against Assange. PEN America under her direction has sent out news briefs with headlines such as: “Security Reports Reveal How Assange Turned an Embassy into a Command Post for Election Meddling.” The end result is that PEN America is helping to uncoil the rope to string up the WikiLeaks publisher, a gross betrayal of the core mission of PEN.

“There are some things Assange did in this case, or is alleged to have done, that go beyond what a mainstream news outlet would do, in particular the first indictment that was brought about five weeks ago focused specifically on this charge of computer hacking, hacking into a password to get beyond the government national security infrastructure and penetrate and allow Chelsea Manning to pass through all of these documents. That, I think you can say, is not what a mainstream news outlet or a journalist would do,” Nossel said on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC on May 28, 2019.

But Nossel did not stop there, going on to defend the legitimacy of the US campaign to extradite Assange, although Assange is not a US citizen and WikiLeaks is not a US based publication. Most importantly, left unmentioned by Nossel, is that Assange has not committed any crimes.

Where is the call to prosecute those who committed the war crimes, carried out the torture and engaged in the corruption WikiLeaks exposed? Not from PEN America….

Nossel’s repetition of the lie that Assange endangered lives by not redacting documents was obliterated during the trial of Manning, several sessions of which I attended at Fort Meade in Maryland with Cornel West.

As for Nossel’s claim that “in the beginning they worked with journalists to be careful about redacting names of individuals” she should be aware that the decryption key to the unredacted State Department documents was not released by Assange, but Luke Harding and David Leigh from The Guardian in their book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.

[End of Hedges’ comment]

#                                  #                                  #                                  #

The exchange is more proof that that PEN America under Nossel has aligned with the interests of the U.S. State Department instead of showing a commitment to freedom for all journalists, including ones the U.S. government doesn’t like. A sad fact to commemorate on this day.

Chris Hedges details Nossels subservience to the State Department and corporate America, including her parroting Washington’s line on Julian Assange and Israel’s repression of the Palestinians: “PEN America Self-Destructs.”

This is an coalition of American and international organizations defending Julian Assange. PEN America is not there. A challenge to American writers to take PEN America back from the State Department.

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One Response to "PEN America’s scandalous failure to campaign for Julian Assange"

  1. Mattias Forsgren   Jan 4, 2024 at 8:58 am

    Great article documenting the hypocrisy and war crime apologetic nature of PEN.


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