November 13, 2013
Writers are censoring themselves for fear of the NSA, PEN study finds
by Kirsten Reach
In a study conducted by PEN American Center and the FDR Group last month, 528 PEN members were asked whether they avoid controversial topics in their work out of fear of government surveillance. The results were released yesterday: “Fully 85% of writers responding to PEN’s survey are worried about government surveillance of Americans, and 73% of writers have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.”
What is everyone so worked up about? As long as you’re not using words like “sex,” “lacrosse,” “quiche,” “subway,” or any other of the thousands of words on the watch list, using a telephone on a regular basis, corresponding with business or personal associates via email, buying or, God forbid, publishing books, you should be fine!
PEN says this substantiates the organization’s concern that “writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” In one writer’s words, “I assume everything I do electronically is subject to monitoring.”
They allowed members to write additional responses to the survey, and summed them up as follows:
- PEN writers now assume that their communications are monitored.
- The assumption that 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;c) reluctance to communicate with sources, or with friends abroad, for fear that they will endanger them by doing so.
Writers have struggled particularly with their desire to address issues such as “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 person surveyed said he was afraid to talk to his local librarians:
“What would be the perception if I Googled ‘nuclear blast,’ ‘bomb shelters,’ ‘radiation,’ ‘secret plans,’ ‘weaponry,’ and so on? And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don’t know.”
“In preparing for the Translation Slam at this year’s [PEN] World Voices Festival, I Skyped [a] writer, a Palestinian who lives on the West Bank. I was tempted to ‘talk politics,’ since the West Bank was so much in the news, but I deliberately steered clear of the topic, figuring that our conversation was being monitored. I normally wouldn’t have skirted such an obvious topic, but I was concerned about keeping him out of trouble—thinking any controversial remark might make it harder for him to travel.”
Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.