PEN Spotlights Digital Freedom and Surveillance before the UN Security Council
PEN American Center appeared at the UN Security Council on Friday to comment on a resolution to protect journalists and end impunity. Among other things, PEN’s statement cites the 92 writers in prison or in detention in the world, 35 percent of whom are imprisoned under charges of subversion, insult, or national security. The statement also adds:
digital technologies have democratized journalism and writing, and nurtured the free flow of ideas, but they also bring about critical security challenges. We are especially concerned about the issue of surveillance technologies. In repressive regimes and conflict zones, surveillance and filtering technologies are used by state and non-state actors to track and monitor journalists as a form of digital repression. Many of these tools are exported by Western technology companies, and a culture of impunity has prevented these companies from being held accountable.
PEN’s statement recommends that the Security Council condemn unchecked state surveillance; take steps to end the proliferation of technologies used to surveil and target individuals; and promote digital security tranings for journalists while not absolving states of the responsbility to investigate and prosecute crimes.
Several state delegations and participants were also concerned about these issues. The delegation of Germany raised objections to government surveillance, and specifically cited PEN’s landmark report Chilling Effects, which documented how NSA spying revelations have caused 25 percent of leading U.S. writers to self-censor. Similarly, the delegation from Brazil highlighted the connection between state surveillance and freedom of expression.
However, a number of state delegates suggested that journalists in conflict zones are endangering themselves or are thrill-seeking by reporting from dangerous areas. This charge was staunchly opposed by journalist David Rohde, who underscored that journalists seek the truth and not danger, and that states are merely implicating the victims instead of confronting the issue of impunity. Rohde himself was kidnapped and spent seven months in captivity in Afghanistan.
The Security Council proceeded under the “Arria” format, which occurs outside the Council chambers and allows NGOs to participate in the proceedings. Unfortunately, the delegations utilized the typical stalling tactic of regularly speaking over their allotted time to squelch contributions by NGO guests. PEN therefore had to meet with delegates in person after the proceedings and submitted our statement to them individually. PEN joined Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and other civil society organizations at the briefing.
Your Excellencies and Distinguished Colleagues:
PEN American Center is the largest branch of the 144 PEN Centers that make up PEN International, an organization that promotes literature and defends free expression worldwide. PEN is deeply committed to the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, and we are grateful to contribute to this session today.
I wish to draw your attention to the effect of digital technologies on the security of journalists and writers. As the PEN Declaration on Digital Freedom states, digital technologies have democratized journalism and writing, and nurtured the free flow of ideas, but they also bring about critical security challenges.
In 2013, 92 writers on PEN’s caselist—or nearly 50 percent—were in prison or in detention for their use of digital technologies, and a further 51 were on trial in 20 countries. 35% of these writers are charged under insult laws, subversion, or violating national security and terrorism laws.
We are especially concerned about the issue of surveillance technologies. In repressive regimes and conflict zones, surveillance and filtering technologies are used by state and non-state actors to track and monitor journalists as a form of digital repression. Many of these tools are exported by Western technology companies, and a culture of impunity has prevented these companies from being held accountable.
This week over 500 leading writers, many of them PEN members, and 145,000 individuals signed the Writers Against Mass Surveillance petition addressed to the UN. Our survey of 528 U.S. writers revealed that one in six writers is self-censoring because of surveillance technologies.
Therefore, we urge the UN Security Council to:
• Call upon states to end the practice of surveiling, filtering, and monitoring the communications of journalists and writers in conflict zones and non-conflict zones
• Develop frameworks to end impunity for the vendors of repressive technologies, and work with a broad coalition of stakeholders to combat their proliferation
• Work with civil society organizations to support the training of journalists and writers in digital security to ensure their protection in conflict zones and non-conflict zones. However, the council should publicly acknowledge that trainings do not absolve states of the responsibility to protect journalists and combat impunity.