The PEN Pod: On Spyware Scandals, Olympic Protests, and Tackling Disinformation
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression in our weekly “Tough Questions” segment on The PEN Pod. In this week’s installment, we spoke with Summer Lopez, PEN America’s senior director of Free Expression Programs, to ask her some tough questions about the dissidents and activists impacted by the Pegasus spyware scandal; the rights of Olympic athletes to protest at the games; and on the heels of President Biden’s walkback of his comments regarding Facebook, how the government should approach disinformation. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Summer begins at the 16:51 mark).
On the Implications of the Pegasus Spyware Scandal for Dissidents
“Khadija Ismayilova, who’s a fierce investigative journalist in Azerbaijan, has been one of the names most prominently mentioned in a lot of the coverage. In 2015, we honored Khadija with our Freedom to Write Award. She was in prison at the time on politically motivated charges, and although she was released in 2016, she’s been under a travel ban ever since. And of course, one of the 2019 recipients of our Freedom to Write Award, Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi writer and women’s rights activist, is also on the list. She actually is in a pretty similar situation as Khadija right now. She was released earlier this year, but she still can’t travel and she can’t really work or speak freely without threat of rearrest.
“I really think these two cases in particular demonstrate how these governments are essentially using this spyware as one more tool in their toolkit for how to exert total control over the people who are there to challenge the powers that be. They can get away with looking like they let these people out of prison—getting some positive reaction from the international community from that—but actually, they’ve just created a different prison for them.”
On Athletes Protesting at the Olympics
“I really always take issue with the idea that the Olympics are nonpolitical. . . . The Olympics are an event built on the notion of national identity and national pride, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s inherently political. . . . You can go back to the very first ancient Olympic Games—they were really intended to bring together the disparate city-states of Greece, they had a political goal. They have continued to be a venue for political statements and actions, whether it’s countries boycotting in protest against the actions of other countries, or individual acts of protests by athletes, the exclusion of South Africa for decades as a statement against apartheid, even hosting the Olympics itself and the choice of host always has a political edge. But it really only seems to be the athletes’ politics that the IOC has a problem with, and I think that’s problematic.
“We have said a number of times in a number of contexts that athletes don’t lose their right to free expression when they put on their uniform—whether they’re in college, or the NFL, or part of an Olympic team. I think it’s been good to see a little bit of a rethink on this, both from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which has gone a bit farther and basically said protests or demonstrations are okay, so long as they do not denigrate others, and a little bit from the IOC. I think there’s no question that this is coming as a direct result of the protests and activism that we’ve seen in the last year in the U.S. and around the world, particularly since George Floyd’s murder.”
On Biden’s Walkback of His Comments Regarding Facebook’s Role in Propagating COVID Misinformation
“There are very legitimate concerns here, but I think we have to be pretty clear that the answer is not to have any part of government trying to dictate to private companies what content they should or shouldn’t take down. Obviously, that’s something we see happening in very problematic ways around the world. We’ve seen some pretty alarming examples of that in India and Nigeria recently, for very different motivations. In those cases, it was basically that the government didn’t like what was being said about them on social media, so the concern in this case is much more legitimate.
“There’s every reason to be alarmed about the spread of disinformation on social media and its public health implications in the context of this pandemic. But we have to be very thoughtful about what the response to that is. . . . There’s a lot that the platforms can do to be more transparent, to be clear about how they’re adhering to human rights principles. There’s a way to think about disinformation coming from a free expression perspective, and that’s something we’ve actually pushed the administration on. We released an open letter a couple months ago with about a dozen other organizations calling on the administration to establish a task force on disinformation and free expression, because we recognize this is a serious problem, but we really have to approach it in a way that doesn’t risk infringing on free expression or encouraging the platforms to be overly aggressive in terms of the content that they’re taking down.”