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Writers against Mass Surveillance: An International Grassroots Protest

By Isabel Fargo Cole

One month ago today, the anti-surveillance appeal “A Stand for Democracy in the Digital Age” was launched; it has since has been signed by more than 195,000 people on Initiated by a small group of European writers and one American translator, it began with a manifesto signed by nearly 600 prominent writers from 83 countriesincluding six Nobel laureatesand was publicly launched on December 10, 2013.

For me, the American translator, the past two months have been a hectic and exhilarating time. I live in Berlin, where the repercussions of Edward Snowden’s revelations are keenly felt. The ever-fraught “German-American friendship” has been tested by an issue about which Germans are especially sensitive. Still coping with the legacy of two dictatorships and the Cold War, Germans have been passionately discussing privacy and surveillance for decades, and German media coverage of the NSA scandal has been especially critical and sophisticated.

In July 2013, German novelist Juli Zeh wrote an open letter to Angela Merkel protesting her tepid reaction to the NSA affair and demanding that she do more to protect German citizens from surveillance. It was signed by more than sixty other prominent writersone of the largest joint actions by German intellectuals in yearsand subsequently garnered nearly 80,000 more signatures as a petition on The signatures were presented in a “March on the Chancellery” on September 18, shortly before the German election, but Merkel declined to receive the writers, and German concerns about surveillance were ultimately not enough to decide the election against her. (Just a few weeks laterto the schadenfreude of Angela Merkel’s criticsdebate was revived by the revelation that Merkel’s cell phone had been tapped by the NSA.)

In early October, Ilija Trojanov, a politically-outspoken German writer who had collaborated with Juli Zeh on a book about surveillance, was denied a visa to enter the US to attend a German Studies conference. The case became a cause célèbre; the US offered no explanation for his visa problems, leading to speculation that the true reason was Trojanov’s criticism of the NSA. One way or the other, for many it was an especially crass example of something that has rankled with America’s friends abroad: our unwelcoming and often arbitrary treatment of foreign visitors in the post-9/11 era. For me, embarrassed to see my country reduced to Soviet-style tactics, it gave the impetus to finally contact the anti-surveillance writers’ initiative to see if I could contribute to a German-American dialogue on the issue.

Quickly a new organizing group crystallized: Zeh and Trojanov, joined by Josef Haslinger (President of the German PEN Center); Austrian writer Eva Menasse; Janne Teller from Denmark; British, Berlin-based Priya Basil; and me. The focus became international; early on we decided to move beyond Trojanov’s individual case (under pressure from the PEN American Center and others, he was ultimately granted a visa), and make a broader, international statement against surveillance. It would be a more universal version of the summer’s “open letter,” signed by writers around the world. In drafting the manifesto, we purposely avoided singling out any specific state or spying programnot only to respect sensitivities and avoid, as far as possible, the misuse of our statement for political ends, but from the conviction that the problem of state and corporate surveillance knows no national boundaries.

Then we set about the main task: gathering writers’ signatures. Our aim was to keep the project under wraps until we could go public with an impressive list of signatories, and so we had to work discreetly, through personal networks and web research. It was astonishing how many prominent writers around the world could be reached through the “six degrees of separation” principle. And Words without Borders proved an invaluable resource for identifying writers from smaller countries when we found that our list had gaps; I contacted many of them directly via their websites. We often reflected on the “irony” of the fact that our campaign against internet surveillance was unfolding almost entirely in the digital realmthough several of the initiators knew each other personally, we communicated entirely by e-mail, and our “digital gang” of seven didn’t meet face to face until the press launch on December 10. It was a reminder of how empowering digital communication can beand how important it is to keep it that way.

Another irony lay in the necessity of approaching hundreds of total strangers, writers, no less, who are notoriously jealous of their privacy. But the response was overwhelmingly positive, even more so as the campaign snowballed. Never in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that we would reach, much less surpass the mark of 500 signatures, or win over six Nobel laureatesOrhan Pamuk, J.M. Coetzee, Elfriede Jelinek, Günter Grass, Tomas Tranströmer, and Nadine Gorimer. Most rewarding of all, perhaps, is the great range of voices, bringing home the dizzying diversity of the world’s literatures, and the personal messages of concern and encouragement we received.

On December 10, 2013, the appeal appeared simultaneously in the major newspapers of more than 30 countriesincluding the Guardian and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungas the initiative was launched with a press conference in Berlin. The international media response has been immense, though unfortunately muted in the U.S. However, we enjoy the support of the PEN American Center, and in the new year will explore ways of taking the project further. In the meantime, the petition can be signed by all on, and our list of writer signatories is being continually updated on Priya Basil’s Authors for Peace website.

For me the crowning touch came from cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who signed in inimitable fashion.

We’re deeply grateful to all who have supported our initiative and offered their encouragements and criticism. And as the surveillance debate shows no sign of waning, we look forward to what the new year will bring.

Published Jan 10, 2014   Copyright 2014 Isabel Fargo Cole

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