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Coetzee, Grunberg, Liao Speak Out Against Surveillance

Friday 17 January 2014 - 5:32pm

PEN American Center joins Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee, award-winning Dutch novelist Arnon Grunberg, and exiled Chinese writer Liao Yiwu in expressing profound disappointment today at the limited reach of President Obama’s newly announced measures on surveillance reform that leave the future of dragnet surveillance in the hands of Congress and the Justice Department. As the world’s leading human rights and literary organization, PEN calls particular attention to the president’s failure to adequately address the concerns of writers in the U.S. and abroad who rely on the expectation of privacy for their craft and livelihood.

The President’s announcement today leave crucial unanswered questions about the future of the right to privacy and free expression eroded by mass collection of private communications,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN American Center. In November 2013, PEN released Chilling Effects documenting the first tangible evidence that writers are engaging in self-censorship as a result of NSA surveillance. “The whole world loses out if writers, intellectuals, and ordinary individuals lack the freedom to imagine, argue, and debate without worrying that their unpublished words may someday be held against them.

The president’s reforms leave intact two of three primary sources of authority used to surveil individuals overseas: FISA Act Section 702, which confers nearly boundless authority for surveillance pertaining to loosely defined “foreign intelligence information,” and Executive Order 12333, which accords the President blanket authority to carry out surveillance free of Congressional or court oversight. His announced changes to the third, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, have far-reaching potential, but their impact lies in the hands of future reports, proposals, and legislation that offer no firm guarantees.

A decent government should know the difference between surveillance that is necessary to provide its citizens some security, and industrial espionage and frivolous peeping into other people’s lives,” said novelist Arnon Grunberg of the Netherlands. “It’s questionable whether the NSA is aware of this difference.”

President Obama’s announcement of reforms directed at the communications of foreign leaders offer no protection to ordinary citizens outside the U.S. Even the extension of the Privacy Act provides no right to legal recourse for non-U.S. persons.

Mass, untargeted surveillance is a clear attack on the creative freedoms guaranteed across the globe by innumerable international conventions,” said J.M. Coetzee, 2003 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature. “Assurances that ongoing surveillance will not target a ‘person’s political views or religious convictions’ ring hollow when not subject to legal action or review.”

"With the President having punted on the shape a reformed NSA surveillance program will take, it is now up to the Congress and the courts to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t forfeit its position as the global champion of free expression and a beacon to dissidents worldwide,” said Nossel.

Exiled Chinese poet Liao Yiwu was especially disheartened. “For the better part of my life, I lived under the constant surveillance of the Chinese government,” Liao said. “I escaped to the West because of its promise of a free society that guarantees a citizen’s right of free expression. I was apparently wrong.”

To view PEN International's Declaration on Digital Freedom click here.