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Scared Silent: NSA Surveillance has 'Chilling Effect' on American Writers

New report published by PEN America found writers self-censoring as a result of spy revelations

Lauren McCauley

Recent disclosures of the NSA's widespread dragnet program coupled with its frequent targeting of journalists are having a 'chilling effect' on American writers, stifling their freedom of expression at great detriment to society, says a new report Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self Censor.

Published Tuesday by the group PEN America—an organization of writers dedicated to advancing literature and promoting free speech for writers around the world—surveyed 520 American writers and found they are "not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result."

"[D]uring the Nixon years," one respondent wrote, "I took it for granted that the administration had an eye on me, and if it didn’t, I wasn’t doing my job. For a political cartoonist, active early on against Vietnam, one expected tax audits and phone taps. Irritating, but not intimidating. I view the current situation as far more serious, and the culpability and defensiveness of the president and his people deeply and cynically disturbing.”

Journalists and nonfiction writers responding to the poll were overwhelmingly concerned over how best to protect their sources in this new climate of repressed press freedoms.  Eighty-one percent of writers surveyed said they are "very concerned about government efforts to compel journalists to reveal sources of classified information, and another 15% are somewhat concerned."

"The NSA’s surveillance will damage the ability of the press to report on the important issues of our time," note the report authors, "if journalists refrain from contacting sources for fear that their sources will be found out and harmed, or if sources conclude that they cannot safely speak to journalists and thus stay silent."

As a craft, writing demands extensive research into any number of topics. What the survey found was that disclosures of NSA spying, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, have caused the respondents to shy away from speaking or writing about certain subjects, pursuing research about certain subjects, or communicating with sources abroad.

The report notes, "writers reported self-censoring on subjects including military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government."

Further, many writers said they "assume that their communications are being monitored," and have thus changed their behavior in many ways which, according to the authors, "curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information."

"Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it."

For example, the survey found:

  • 24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations;
  • 16% have avoided writer or speaking about a particular topic and another 11% have seriously considered it;
  • 16% have refrained from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious and another 12% have seriously considered it.

One PEN writer shared a story, which the report authors said indicated "that writers’ fears of being targeted for writing about certain topics are not without basis":

Selected’ for a special security search returning to the United States from Mexico twice last summer, I learned I was on a U.S. Government list. I was searched for ‘cocaine’ and explosives. I suspect ... that I must have been put on the government list because of an essay I wrote ... in which I describe finding a poem on a Libyan Jihad site, and ultimately express some sympathy for young men on the other side of the world who are tempted into jihad ... one can see how [the poem] might be a comfort to jihadists.

And other PEN writers shared their experiences with self-censorship:

As a writer and journalist who deals with the Middle East and the Iraq War in particular, I suspect I am being monitored. As a writer who has exposed sexual violence in the military, and who speaks widely on the subject, likewise.

I would hesitate to express in writing understanding for anti-American sentiments abroad, as I suspect that expressing such understanding might make me suspect in the eyes of the American security apparatus.

"Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it," the authors lament. "We will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution."

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