Americans who write for a living (or for free, for that matter) are still afraid to jot down every thought that comes into their heads, lest the all-seeing icy eye of the government Gorgon be watching them. It's the reptilian chill felt round the world, but the head, or epicenter, of this particular monster is smack dab in Washington, DC -- or more aptly, within the Surveillance State snake-pit located in and around our nation's capitol.
In the latest survey conducted by the PEN American Center, a literary and human rights association, more than half the participating 800 American writers reported that they self-censor. Government surveillance is the culprit, they say, and has "significantly damaged U.S. credibility as a global champion of free expression for the long term."
The polar vortex of this internalized censorship is churning all over the writing world, with other less-free countries all shook up because the United States has been revealed to be not quite the bastion of democracy and free speech its leaders still insist it is. Turns out that the Land of the Free subpoenas reporters, jails reporters' sources, and generally bends over backward to suppress information, like torture reports.
The United States is the all-seeing, crawling eye with global surveillance capabilities. As the One Indispensable Nation, it resides on a high peak of frozen unaccountability.
The PEN survey expands on its findings from last year by not only questioning American writers on the horror they feel, but by comparing the writing habits of Americans with their foreign counterparts.
It found that American writers are just as afraid of creepy-crawly government surveillance as writers in such authoritarian countries as China. Writers in democratic and undemocratic countries are equally worried. And that leads one to believe that the concept of democracy itself needs to be redefined in this Age of Abnormal. All the world's an oligarchy, and all the men and women merely serfs, maybe? From the report:
Vast majorities of writers around the world said they were “very” or “some-what” worried about levels of government surveillance in their countries, including 75% in countries classified as “Free”by Freedom House, 84% in countries classified as “Partly Free”, and 80% in“Not Free” countries.
Writers are so spooked that some of them were even afraid to respond to the PEN survey itself, lest the government take extra steps to monitor the fearful scribes. One writer complained that surveillance has cast a "ghostly and intimidating cloak" over his or her communications. Another woman describing herself as the daughter of Holocaust survivors said that compared to the NSA, the East German Stasi was amateur hour.These levels are consistent with the findings of PEN’s October 2013 survey of U.S. writers, which showed that 85% of American writers were very or somewhat worried about current levels of government surveillance. The high level of concern among U.S. writers mirrors that of writers living in the other four countries that make up the “Five Eyes” surveillance alliance (Australia,Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom), 84% of whom are very or somewhat worried about government surveillance. Writers are not outliers when it comes to their level of concern about government surveillance. Eighty percent of Americans surveyed in a Pew Research Center poll released on Nov.12, 2014, agree that Americans should be worried about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communication.
Writers in both free and not-free countries report avoiding speaking and writing about certain topics in public, as well as in their email and phone conversations, and have either refrained, or considered refraining, from conducting Internet searches on topics which might be considered fraught.
If for no other reason that it damages the US's reputation around the world, PEN is urging that the dragnet surveillance conducted by the NSA and other intelligence agencies cease -- or at the very least, that the government offer more transparency about whom it monitors and why.
I guess they haven't yet swallowed the government propaganda that were it not for Edward Snowden, writers would still be feeling free to write about whatever they want. What we didn't know couldn't possibly hurt us, right? Until it comes out that the government is monitoring reporters, and that somebody like James Risen can get subpoenaed and threatened with prison unless he tells Big Brother what its monitoring of him could never reveal: his inner thoughts and the identity of a whistleblowing source.
It's a coincidence that Risen is in court, refusing to help the government prosecute a CIA whistleblower, the same week that the PEN survey came out. It's a coincidence that the Obama administration is shielding CIA torturers but vindictively prosecuting an agency employee (Jeffrey Sterling) who apparently had the courage to disclose the CIA's messed-up plot to mess with Iran's nuclear program.
Attorney General Eric Holder, while sanctimoniously promising he will not send Risen to jail for failure to comply, is nevertheless vindictively keeping this reporter twisting in the wind anyway, holding him up as an example of how uncomfortable and expensive the US can make life for writers should they write down thoughts and facts not conducive to the oligarchic national security. It's not-so-subtle mind control.
Risen is entering the eighth year of his battle with the Justice Department over a book he wrote that embarrassed the Bush administration. He is only the latest high profile example of Obama's war on whistleblowers. If a famous writer like Risen, protected by the most powerful newspaper on earth, can be persecuted this way, where does that leave others without the financial and legal resources to defend their civil rights?
The Obama administration is sending a definite message to all of us, and to government employees at every level: don't even think about talking trash about us. If you see something, don't say something. As Risen himself put it, Obama is "the greatest threat to press freedom in a generation".
So it's no surprise that the US has fallen a record 13 slots, to 46th place, in Reporters Without Borders' annual report on global press freedoms.
Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it. Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result.
This has been the case in the United States (46th), which fell 13 places, one of the most significant declines, amid increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks. The trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.
US journalists were stunned by the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records without warning in order to identify the source of a CIA leak. It served as a reminder of the urgent need for a “shield law” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources at the federal level. The revival of the legislative process is little consolation for James Risen of The New York Times, who is subject to a court order to testify against a former CIA employee accused of leaking classified information. And less still for Barrett Brown, a young freelance journalist facing 105 years in prison in connection with the posting of information that hackers obtained from Statfor, a private intelligence company with close ties to the federal government.The UK fell a less drastic three spaces, to 33rd place, due to its smashing of Guardian computers in the wake of the Snowden revelations. The UK doesn't even enjoy the same constitutional rights, including a shield law, as Americans supposedly do.
Still, we're not the worst of the worst. In other countries, organized crime and non-state violence severely curtail the freedom of the press. Four Guatemalan journalists were murdered last year, and Egypt has imprisoned Al Jazeera reporters for doing their job. Kuwait fell 13 places because a new law was passed which fines writers $1 million for criticizing the Emir, and sentences them to 10 years in prison for insulting Allah, Mohammed, the prophets and even the prophets' wives. In Greece and Hungary, journalists are at risk for physical attacks by the fast-growing fascist movements being spawned by neoliberal austerity measures.
So whether or not prison and violence against reporters are real or whether they're threatened, writers all over the world are feeling similar levels of fear, and they self-censor accordingly.
It's the globalization of state-sponsored terror and the war against independent thought. Hard, soft, in-between; physical or psychological: terror is still terror.
Meanwhile, there's always propaganda to calm our nerves. This recently-released official White House photo, for example, purports to show some staffers doubled over with hilarity at something mouthed by the Jokester-in-Chief. But the subliminal message -- be sycophantic or be sorry -- comes through loud and clear.