Writers feel the fear

This year, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified documents about American digital spying, we’ve come to learn that big brother is definitely watching. As revelations about the NSA and the U.S.’ massive digital spying regime continue to surface it’s become increasingly clear that the majority of digital communications are anything but private.

A common analogy is that one should think of emails as “postcards” that can be read by anyone instead of letters sealed in envelopes that only the recipient can view.

The reality of digital surveillance and its scope is starting to hit American writers who, according to a new report by PEN America, are beginning to censor themselves, either through being reluctant to write about certain topics or being reluctant to contact sources they believe they will put in danger.

As the report (based on a survey of 520 writers) highlights, 1 in 6 of the writers surveyed avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance. 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.”

One respondent explained how the extra precautions taken to protect sources, like meeting in person instead of talking over the phone, “remind me of my days as Moscow Bureau Chief of [a major news outlet] under Communism, when to communicate with dissidents and refuseniks we had to avoid substantive phone conversations, meet in person in public, etc.”

Censorship strangles intellectual thought and limits oppositional viewpoints. When journalists and writers start to steer clear of sensitive topics, either for fear of their own safety or that of their sources, public understanding suffers.
As the PEN report notes: “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.”

While it’s clear that digital communication is easy to intercept, and this reality is frightening to those who value privacy, there are tools, such as email encryption, that journalists and others who care about their right to freedom of expression can use to make their communications more secure. In the age of digital surveillance, writers have a responsibility – to themselves, their readers and their sources – to be informed of ways to stay secure and private online.

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