Survey: 85 percent of US writers concerned about government surveillance

According to a PEN American Center and FDR Group survey, 33 percent of US writers have avoided certain topics in phone conversations or e-mail or have considered doing so and 27 percent have censored their ideas on topics to write or speak about.

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Chilling news for readers and writers alike: A new report has found that large numbers of American writers are concerned about government surveillance and are self-censoring their writing as a result.

Some 85 percent of writers are worried about government surveillance of Americans, with 73 percent responding they have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today, according to a survey by the PEN American Center and the FDR Group.

“Freedom of expression is under threat and, as a result, freedom of information is imperiled as well,” the report stated.

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The report, which surveyed 528 PEN members in October, found that government spying, including surveillance by the National Security Agency, has had a serious chilling effect on writers, some of whom are avoiding speaking about or writing on controversial topics as a result.

The report found:

• 76 percent of PEN writers surveyed think increased government surveillance is especially harmful to writers because it impinges upon the privacy they need to create freely 

• 81 percent of writers are very concerned about government efforts to compel journalists to reveal sources of classified information, while another 15 percent are somewhat concerned 

• 33 percent have steered clear of certain topics in personal phone conversations or email correspondence or have seriously considered doing so

• 27 percent of writers – or one in four – have avoided writing or speaking about a certain topics or have seriously considered doing so for fear of being subject to surveillance 

• 28 percent have refrained from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious, or have seriously considered doing so

Taken together, the study paints an alarming portrait of a writing community stifled by fear of government spying, and who consider freedom of expression to be under threat in the US.

According to the report, “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.”

The topics considered “controversial” include military affairs, the Middle East and North Africa, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the US government.

In June 2013, former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents detailing National Security Agency surveillance on American citizens and media organizations. We now know the NSA has collected phone records of millions of Verizon, AT&T and Sprint subscribers and that NSA analysts can search through vast databases of emails, online chats, and browsing histories of millions of individuals with no prior authorization.

The survey results offer “signs of a chilling effect” PEN American Center’s executive director Suzanne Nossel told the New York Times. “Writers are kind of the canary in the coal mine in that they depend on free expression for their craft and livelihood,” she said.

As such, the report should be alarming news for all Americans – writers, readers, and informed citizens alike.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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