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PEN condemns GCHQ spying on journalists’ communications

January 20, 2015 IN WIP
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(Monday 19 January 2015) Today’s revelations that a GCHQ programme ‘harvested’ correspondence between journalists and editors at news organisations such as the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post, is a clear threat to free speech and journalism in the public interest, PEN International, English PEN and PEN American Center said today.

In 2013, the NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed that the GCHQ TEMPORA programme had accessed undersea fibre-optic cables, gaining access to vast amounts of private communications data.  Recent analysis of the Snowden documents has revealed that thousands of pieces of journalists’ correspondence were swept up when the data was processed. Spies designated investigative journalists as ‘a potential threat to security’.

The protection of journalistic sources has long been recognised as one of the basic necessities for a free press. Without a guaranteed protection, whistle-blowers will be deterred from coming forward, the press cannot report facts accurately, and citizens are denied an informed discussion on matters of public interest.

This invasion of private e-mail correspondence is just the latest example of the British security services’ abuse of surveillances laws to undermine the principles of press freedom.  Last year it was revealed that the police had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to access the communications of the Sun political editor Tom Newton-Dunn, and reporters from the Mail on Sunday.

Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International said:

The work of investigative journalists – be it in uncovering corruption or abuse – is central to a free society, not a threat to national security. By designating journalists as ‘threats’ alongside terrorists it is governments which are threatening free expression.

Jo Glanville, Executive Director of English PEN said:

It’s now 18 months since Snowden’s revelations and still the shocks keep coming. Over the past two weeks, world leaders, including David Cameron, have recognised the cardinal importance of freedom of expression. Yet in practice, they undermine it on a regular basis. Spying on journalists is the most serious possible assault on that freedom. Without confidentiality, without protection of sources, journalists cannot do their job and democracy is in danger.

Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of the PEN American Center said:

The spectre of governments nosing into journalists’ private emails evokes all that is worst and most dangerous about the surveillance state. Reports that GCHQ has collected journalists’ emails, and considers investigative journalists a ‘threat’, underscore how urgently we need to rein in these programmes with stronger oversight, greater transparency, and better protection for freedom of expression.

Jean-Luc Despax, President of French PEN Centre said:

Free press guarantees democracy because it defends values through journalistic investigations. Investigation is not a threat. Informing citizens neither. French PEN is against all governmental intrusion into the work of  a democratic press.

-PEN American Center’s recent report on the impact of surveillance on writers revealed that concerns 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).

-Protection of journalistic sources has long been acknowledged as an essential component of a free press.  This principle has been affirmed by the European Parliament (Resolution on the Confidentiality of Journalists’ Sources, 18 January 1994); the Council of Europe (Resolution on Journalistic Freedoms and Human Rights, 7-8 December 1994); and by the European Court of Human Rights (Goodwin v UK, 1996).

Via our friends at English PEN

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People say that (writers) are pretty powerless: we don’t have an army, we don’t have a bureaucracy. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested?... Because the spoken word is powerful.

— John Ralston Saul on the work of PEN International