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In Praise of the Nameless

You’re a writer, and if not, you’re a reader. In all likelihood, you’ve written or read online today. What essay did you publish? What outrages did you tweet? What idea did you blog? Which picture did you share? What subversive thought did you post? If you are lucky, as I am, you exercised your freedom of expression without interference by the state. It is everyone’s right, protected by international law – but in a liberal democratic state, we as citizens rarely have cause to consider.Among the eight hundred and fifty recipients of Hellman-Hammett grants, one hundred and sixty-five required anonymity.The annual award announcements hint at what lies behind the need for anonymity: “Some of this year’s recipients have asked to remain anonymous because of possible continuing danger to them and their families… Other recipients will remain anonymous because of the dangerous circumstances in which they are living… Of the 48 winners this year, seven asked to remain anonymous to prevent further persecution.”

Sometimes we choose to escape into obscurity, unseen and unrecognized. But when anonymity comes by necessity, the celebration ends.

A few grantees from 2012:

  • Anonymous (Burundi): A radio journalist and editor who has been harassed and threatened by Burundi government authorities as a result of his work.
  • Anonymous (Rwanda). A journalist and editor who was repeatedly threatened by Rwandan state authorities, labeled an enemy of the state, and convicted of defamation.”
  • Four anonymous Tibetans (China): Four writers imprisoned for writing about protests in Tibet.

“Anonymity,” the US Supreme Court has held, “is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.” It allows a young adult to explore her sexuality online, an atheist in a religious state to search for like-minded thinkers, an activist to organize. Anonymity is the tool by which millions around the world form opinions in the face of hostile social mores. Anonymity “allows individuals to express themselves freely without fear of retribution or condemnation.” It is to be celebrated, legitimized, and protected.

Technologies provide the state with an almost endless amount of data about our lives, but sometimes we also need to escape into obscurity. We choose to do so. We download privacy-protection software and go explore, unseen and unrecognized.

Yet when anonymity comes by necessity, the celebration ends. The four Tibetan writers haunt me, because I know so little. Who are they? How and why did they come to be writers? What abuse did they witness that led the government to arrest them? What protests did they cover? Was this the first, the second, the forty-second protest they had seen in Tibet?

We don’t know the answers. The four writers remain anonymous (though, of course, only to me and you – not to their friends, families). We fight to protect the right to anonymity, but we must also denounce the obscurity that is forced upon writers by a repressive state.


David Kaye is the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and a professor of law at the University of California-Irvine.

What is to be done? Stop criminalizing defamation: that should be a civil matter. Raise the cases of writers behind bars: pressure from abroad matters. Shun governments who shut down their critics. Fight overly vague laws that open the way to criminalizing almost any activity if those in power feel threatened. Agitate against odious laws that make the discussion of some subjects – like LGBT issues – a crime. Reinforce, in all places, at all times, that people have a right to express themselves. That’s the essence of what it means to be human. Help Defend Human Rights & Save Lives. Donate at HRW.org.
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