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Anti-surveillance crusade

Gero Schliess / lbhNovember 23, 2013

Previously denied entry to the US, German-Bulgarian writer Ilija Trojanow has finally been allowed into the country. It's only the most recent chapter in his struggle against the state of continual surveillance.

Ilija Trojanow in New York.
Image: DW

For many, the revelations of worldwide mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA) were a new twist in the long history of state encroachment on personal privacy. But not for writer Ilija Trojanow, who became familiar with a lack of privacy from the day he was born.

"Our house was bugged when I was a baby in Bulgaria," he told DW while in New York for a talk entitled "Surveillance and the Naked New World" for the German international cultural mission, the Goethe-Institut.

Campaign against the 'police state'

Trojanow's parents' home was completely bugged. The Bulgarian-born writer, whose parents received political asylum in Germany in 1971, has read the intelligence files of the conversations his parents and relatives had in the family living room.

For years he has campaigned against those he's identified as "police states." Most recently, after the revelations brought to light by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, he and several other intellectuals wrote an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in which they made accusations of inaction, "in lieu of the historic attack on our constitutional state."

Critics need not apply

Close up shot of Ilija Trojanow in New York. Trojanow Photo: DW
Trojanow suspects he was initially denied entry into the US due to his criticism of the governmentImage: DW

At the end of September Trojanow was denied entry into the United States, and while he asked to know the reason behind the initial refusal to allow him into the country, the embassy in Berlin, citing "privacy laws," would not give any answers.

In 2009, Trojanow positioned himself as a staunch critic of the state in a book, "Attack on Freedom," which he co-authored with lawyer Juli Zeh. Trojanow said he suspects the reason for his denial of entry into the US is his criticism of the NSA after recent revelations.

But he added that he doesn't want to restrict his criticism to the Americans and their intelligence service. "The NSA is not alone. It's a paradigm shift, and as a society we haven't understood yet that we need to take radical measures to protect our citizens from this development."

Time for German action

Trojanow said the German government's current grand coalition had the chance, based on its broad base of power, to set new terms "in which they monitor intelligence agencies more closely, as well as to create new forms of civil rights and digital self-determination." Trojanow said he finds it "astonishing and appalling that in coalition discussions the topic is not discussed at all."

Ilija Trojanow, Juli Zeh Angriff auf die Freiheit Sicherheitswahn, Überwachungsstaat und der Abbau bürgerlicher Rechte 176 Seiten, Flexibler Einband ISBN-10: 3-446-23418-7 ISBN-13: 978-3-446-23418-5 € 14,90 (D) € 15,40 (A) CHF 26,90 (CH) Unverbindliche Preisempfehlung Erscheint am: 17.08.2009
Trojanow and lawyer Juli Zeh co-wrote the book, "Attack on Freedom"

He thanked the PEN American Center for its solidarity and said he felt abandoned by the German government. But Trojanow's sentiments inspired Germany's UN ambassador, Peter Wittig, who was in attendance, to offer a response. Wittig said that the German federal government was well-informed of Trojanow's case and was working with Brazil to enact a UN resolution against spying.

Freedom of expression in danger

When asked how they would respond to expanded surveillance, the majority of PEN members said they see their privacy threatened like never before. Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the PEN American Center, said she was alarmed to learn that the writers alter their work behavior.

"Not the majority, but a significant number limit their activities in social media. And they limit the topics that they research and write about. They don't address certain topics out of fear they'll attract the attention of the government," she said.

Certainly this self-imposed restraint could be a result of the administration of President Barack Obama and its ruthless actions against the so-called "leakers" and the journalists who are in touch with them. To an extent never before seen under any previous administration, they have been targeted by Obama and his people with numerous criminal proceedings.

Surveillance camera in New York Photo: DW
Smile for the camera: surveillance is on the rise in the United States and elsewhereImage: DW

"For writers, freedom of expression is essential," Nossel told DW. "When they start to exclude certain topics, then you can be sure that these topics remain hidden from all Americans. This has implications on the freedom of speech we all enjoy."

At the end of the discussion, even battle-hardened Trojanow was slightly melancholic, speaking with a sense of resignation. "The big question is whether we can ever again have untouched privacy as it once existed. There is even the so-called post-privacy movement, which assumes privacy is a thing of the past. There will be no more privacy."