Freedom of expression: Eleven questions for the Norwegian government

How much surveillance are we subject to? And why? The uncertainty of the current situation is far from satisfactory and in itself harms freedom of expression in Norway.

How can we secure freedom of expression in the age of surveillance? The question is crucial in ensuring the quality of our public debate, and unfortunately it remains unanswered – two and a half years after Edward Snowden exposed extensive and uncontrolled American surveillance.

The knowledge of USA’s and Great Britain’s extensive surveillance and cataloguing of us all, the knowledge that it happens regardless of national borders – and not least, the information that Norway is part of the designated group collaborating closely in this, the so-called «Nine Eyes», is a reason for legitimate concern for many – but this is met with disturbing silence by leading politicians.

How can we all be sure that we can communicate in confidence, for instance as source and journalist, without it being registered and stored, in case it would someday become useful?

Former chief of intelligence Kjell Grandhagen has been praised for his frankness in wishing to control all telephone and data traffic to and from Norway. One can also say that it provides further reason for concern that the intelligence services ask for such boundless surveillance.

We find that the freedom of expression, that is, the actual sense of freedom to express oneself, will suffer as a result of such statements from the intelligence services and from the uncertain state of surveillance after Snowden’s exposures.

The Norwegian government’s authorisation of secret communication control has also been expanded significantly in Norway during the past decade. We find that because of this there is a need for a principal examination of the state of surveillance.

Further we find that the debate about the actual conditions for freedom of expression has been overshadowed by the wish for progressively increasing surveillance caused by the fear of terrorism. Due of this, Monday January 18 we gathered Norwegian politicians to meet with UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Danny Kaye, and OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, among others, to a seminar at The House of Literature (Litteraturhuset) in Oslo to further this important debate, concerning us all. As part of this context we would like to address the following questions to the Norwegian government:

  1. Is the current control and surveillance regime compatible with an open and informed public discussion, as granted by The Norwegian Constitution?
    2. Can the media guarantee their sources actual source protection, when the room for confidential communication is restricted further?
  2. Which legal limitations exist against surveillance of journalists’ communication with sources?
  3. The chief of intelligence wishes to monitor all border-crossing data traffic. Will this be implemented?
  4. How many Norwegians were subject to electronic communication control last year – and how high was the increase as compared to earlier years?
    6. Can Norwegians feel certain that e-mails with sensitive keywords will not be registered?
  5. Which are the initiatives the Norwegian government has introduced to USA after NSA’s surveillance of Norwegians became known, as the Prime Minister referred to in October 2013 – and has USA responded to these?
    8. The UN has appointed a Special Rapporteur to secure the right to a private life in the digital age. Will Norway give out all the material this Special Rapporteur asks for, as all member countries are encouraged to do?
    9. The UN underlines that nobody is to be subject to random and illegal surveillance. Will Norway accept the UN Special Rapporteur and implement the efforts the Special Rapporteur may recommend to end such random surveillance?
    10. In its report on a national strategy for cybercrime, The National Police Directorate of Norway writes that «A greater extent of data storage will have a preventive effect. It is important to secure digital evidence continuously, preferably before cybercrime has taken place». Does the Norwegian government find such a «to be on the safe side»-approach appropriate?

 We – like many others – see clear parallels between the current undetermined conditions for surveillance and the time when the so-called Lund Commission was established to expose the extent of the illegal surveillance of Norwegians during the 1970es. Because of this we include a final question: Will the Norwegian government consider to establish a commission in 2016, examining the role and limitations of surveillance and its consequences for freedom of expression and thus for our democracy?

Jon Wessel-Aas
William Nygaard,
Elisabeth Eide
Reidun Kjelling Nybø
Thomas Spence
Knut Olav Åmås
Kjersti Løken Stavrum

The article writers are the leader of the Norwegian section of International Commission of Jurists, president and vice president of Norwegian PEN, secretary general (interim) of The Association of Norwegian Editors, leader of The Norwegian Union of Journalists, director of The Fritt Ord Foundation and secretary general of The Norwegian Press Association, respectively.