Fear of Government Spying 'Chilling' Writers' Speech Worldwide

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Fear of Government Spying 'Chilling' Writers' Speech Worldwide

'If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material available to readers—particularly those seeking to understand the most controversial and challenging issues facing the world today—may be greatly impoverished.'

PEN American found that writers in liberal democracies reported an almost equal level of concern of government spying as those living in non-democracies. (Photo: Arielle Fragassi/cc/flickr)

Fear of government surveillance is prompting writers worldwide—even those residing in countries that claim to uphold free expression—to self-censor their works, according to a new report published Monday by international literary association PEN American, leading to a "devastating impact" on the freedom of information.

The report, Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers (pdf), found that more than half of the 800 writers surveyed think that mass government surveillance has "significantly damaged U.S. credibility as a global champion of free expression for the long term."

Further, according to the survey, writers living in countries defined as "Free" by U.S.-based NGO watchdog Freedom House expressed an almost equal level of concern about surveillance as those living in countries defined as "Not Free" (75% and 80%, respectively), prompting notable levels of self-censorship.

"The levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in liberal democracies are astonishing, and demonstrate that mass surveillance programs conducted by democracies are chilling freedom of expression among writers," the report notes. According to the survey, 34 percent of writers living in liberal democracies admitted to self-censoring, compared with 61 percent of writers living in authoritarian countries, and 44 percent in semi-democratic countries.

"Writers are reluctant to speak about, write about, or conduct research on topics that they think may draw government scrutiny. This has a devastating impact on freedom of information as well: If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material available to readers—particularly those seeking to understand the most controversial and challenging issues facing the world today—may be greatly impoverished."

Survey respondents also voiced concern that surveillance by the U.S. government and "Five Eyes" partner countries (which include Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand) has damaged their reputation abroad and thus their ability to champion free expression and other human rights around the world.

When asked, "how have recent revelations about U.S. government surveillance programs affected the United States’ credibility on free expression issues around the world?" roughly 60 percent of writers in both Western Europe and the Five Eyes countries said that U.S. credibility "has been significantly damaged for the long term."

"The USA has fundamentally damaged the 'Western' model of human and citizen’s rights," one respondent wrote, "turning large parts of the world’s population (including the U.S. population) into right-less objects of surveillance and secret intelligence operations."

The international survey follows a 2013 PEN report which found that in the months following NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's disclosures of widespread government surveillance, American writers had become "overwhelming[ly] worried" about government overreach and one in six had reported self-censoring as a result.

A June 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch also found that journalists and lawyers were increasingly avoiding work on controversial topics over fear of government spying.

"Surveillance is insidious," said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN American Center. "While governments may intend these bulk collection programs to be used only to detect terrorist wrongdoing, people under surveillance change their behavior to avoid triggering scrutiny. Because the programs are so broad, they could affect billions of people whose sense of privacy and creative freedom is curtailed."

The survey, conducted by non-partisan research firm the FDR Group, comes in advance of a full report to be released this spring. PEN hopes these results will inform public and Congressional debates on the future of mass surveillance. The group is calling for "the right to be free of unwarranted surveillance" to be made a "cornerstone of U.S. surveillance policy and practice." In addition, PEN American proposes a number of legislative reforms, including allowing provisions of the Patriot Act to expire and ending surveillance programs carried out under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333.

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