Fully 16% of American professional writers in a recent survey say they have avoided writing or speaking on a political topic or other controversial topic because they fear it will provoke government surveillance. An additional 11% have seriously considered doing so.
The survey was conducted in October and results were released in November by the PEN American Center, an organization of professional writers that defends freedom of expression and whose membership includes some of America’s most distinguished writers.
The survey questioned 528 PEN members, and allowed them to make personal statements as well. (It should be noted that PEN strongly promotes free speech, and members may therefore be more concerned about censorship issues than other writers.)
1. PEN writers now assume their communications are monitored.
2. The assumption they are under surveillance is harming freedom of expression by prompting writers to self-censor their work in multiple ways, including:
a) reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects;
b) reluctance to pursue research about certain subjects; and
c) reluctance to communicate with sources, or with friends abroad, for fear that they will endanger their counterparts by doing so.
Among the survey findings:
- 28% of writers surveyed have curtailed or avoided social media activities, and another 12% have seriously considered doing so;
- 24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations, and another 9% have seriously considered it;
- 16% have avoided writing 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;
- 13% have taken extra steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints, and another 11% have seriously considered it;
Quotes from writers in the survey are disturbing. A few samples:
“I have dropped stories… and avoided research on the company telephone
due to concerns over wiretapping or eavesdropping.”
“As a writer and journalist who deals with the Middle East and the Iraq War in particular, I suspect I am being monitored.”
“I have made a conscious, deliberate choice to avoid certain conversation topics in electronic emails out of concern that those communications may be surveilled.”
“I have felt that even to comment on the Snowden case in an email would flag my email as worthy of being looked at.”
The PEN report concludes: “73% of writers have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today. …
“Writers are self-censoring their work and their online activity due to their fears that commenting on, researching, or writing about certain issues will cause them harm.
“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.
“The fear of surveillance — and doubt over the way in which the government intends to use the data it gathers — has prompted PEN writers to change their behavior in numerous ways that curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information.”