#7 Fear of Government Spying is “Chilling” Writers’ Freedom of Expression

by Project Censored
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Mass surveillance has “badly shaken writers’ faith that democratic governments will respect their rights to privacy and freedom of expression,” according to a January 2015 PEN America report based on the responses of 772 writers from fifty countries. Reporting for Common Dreams, Lauren McCauley covered not only the PEN America report, but also a July 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch indicating that US journalists and lawyers increasingly avoid work on potentially controversial topics due to fear of government spying.

McCauley’s January 2015 Common Dreams story quoted one of the conclusions from the PEN America report: “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.”

According to the PEN America survey, 34 percent of writers in liberal democracies reported some degree of self-censorship (compared with 61 percent of writers living in authoritarian countries, and 44 percent in semi-democratic countries). Nearly 60 percent of the writers from Western Europe, the US, and the latter’s “Five Eyes” surveillance partners (Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand) indicated that US credibility “has been significantly damaged for the long term” by revelations of the US government surveillance programs.

In the few instances when corporate news media covered the PEN America report, that coverage downplayed the scope of the report’s implications. For instance, while the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler filed a substantive story on the PEN America report, the Times ran her article in its arts section. A second Times article based on the PEN America report focused specifically on press freedom in Hong Kong, effectively ignoring the forty-nine other countries that the report addressed.

Lauren McCauley, “Fear of Government Spying ‘Chilling’ Writers’ Speech Worldwide,” Common Dreams, January 5, 2015, http://commondreams.org/news/2015/01/05/fear-government-spying-chilling-writers-speech-worldwide.

Lauren McCauley, “Government Surveillance Threatens Journalism, Law and Thus Democracy: Report,” Common Dreams, July 28, 2014, http://commondreams.org/news/2014/07/28/government-surveillance-threatens-journalism-law-and-thus-democracy-report.

Student Researcher: Shelby Meyers (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)