Self-Censorship in Democratic Countries Approaching Authoritarian Levels

NEW YORK—Ripple effects of mass surveillance are reverberating worldwide, driving writers to self-censor, according to a new report by PEN American Center released today. Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers, a survey of nearly 800 writers worldwide, demonstrates the damaging impact of surveillance by the United States and other governments on free expression and creative freedom around the world.

The report reveals that concern about surveillance is now nearly as high among writers living in liberal democracies (75%) as among those living in non-democracies (80%). The levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in liberal democratic countries (34%) is substantial, even when compared to the levels reported by writers living in authoritarian or semi-democratic countries (61% and 44%, respectively). And more than half (53%) of the writers worldwide who responded to PEN’s survey think that mass surveillance has significantly damaged U.S. credibility as a global champion of free expression for the long term.

“Fear of government surveillance is prompting many writers living in democratic countries to engage in the kind of self-censorship associated with police states,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN American Center. “We’re all well aware of writers in places like China and Russia who must live life knowing they are always being watched—it’s disturbing to recognize that those in the U.S., Canada, and Australia are now coming to adopt similar behavior.”

Global Chilling provides an international perspective on the concerns documented in PEN’s 2013 Chilling Effects report showing that one in six American writers had begun self-censoring just months after revelations of the United States’ sweeping surveillance programs. That report provided the first concrete piece of evidence of the harms of mass surveillance on free expression.

“Surveillance is insidious,” said Nossel. “While governments may intend these bulk collection programs to be used only to detect terrorist wrongdoing, people under surveillance change their behavior to avoid triggering scrutiny. Because the programs are so broad, they could affect billions of people whose sense of privacy and creative freedom is curtailed.”

Launched just as the new Congress convenes, the report will feed into renewed debate on surveillance reform legislation, which President Obama and both Democratic and Republican Members of Congress have said they support. “The new Congress must put reform of surveillance programs that violate constitutional and international human rights at the top of its to-do list,” Nossel said.


Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 3,700 American writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide.

Katy Glenn Bass, Deputy Director of Free Expression Programs: [email protected], (212) 334.1660 x 109
Sarah Edkins, Communications Manager: [email protected], m. (347) 927.9505