In a world in which having a point of view means body-swerving through an increasingly complex maze of table-thumping rhetoric, tweet-rage, fake news and, somewhere, evidence-based reason, it’s easy to fall foul of the power-brokers who want to control everything. Writers, whether of fiction, news, magazines columns and editorials, social comment, blogs, analytical essays, tweets, rants and whatever other forms are developing as I write, are, by the very fact of using words publicly, at risk of offending someone, somewhere. Where you are in the world determines just how much at risk, and what the consequences might be of getting it wrong. In some powerful watchers’ eyes – which are many because thousands are paid to be their eyes – consequences might include losing your job, or home, imprisonment, harassment of your family members, flogging, ‘disappearance’, death.
In Saudia Arabia, for example, Palestinian born poet Ashraf Fayadh is languishing in gaol following his conviction on a charge of apostasy. He was originally sentenced to death, but world-wide protest in January 2016, organised by PEN International, involving readings of his work at locations throughout the world including 3 in Scotland (one in Aberdeen), took place a week before his appeal and is widely viewed as influencing the dropping of the death sentence. This still leaves him facing 800 lashes, and an 8 year prison sentence. And in China internationally renowned artist and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo who stood up to the government by advocating freedom of expression has disappeared in the prison system there, and his wife is under house arrest, and again International PEN is one of many organizations and individuals actively trying to achieve his release.
Scottish PEN, as part of International PEN, is in its 90th year of fighting for freedom of expression for writers, and, therefore freedom of choice for readers too. As well as being involved in campaigns to highlight individual writers oppressed in many parts of the world, it is increasingly active in pressuring our own government on issues where freedom of speech is threatened. In recent months Scottish PEN has made formal written representations to government consultations re defamation law, and also the question of surveillance which is included in the 2015 Investigatory Powers Bill – which includes proposals, for example, giving the government powers to store all details of your internet connection records (ICRs), and in some circumstances to ‘interfere with’ equipment ie intelligence services to hack into your computer. A recent survey asks Scottish PEN members about the effects of this kind of surveillance on their own writing – do you, as a writer, hesitate about expressing some views for fear of how they might be viewed by your employer, or the government, and what consequences they could have for you? Is this kind of often unacknowledged self-censorship a significant damper on freedom of written expression already?
Alongside these campaigns, and contributions to thinking about the route legislation is taking regarding individuals’ freedoms of expression, Scottish PEN is taking a proactive approach to encouraging those who are generally unheard to speak out. The new MANY VOICES project will link people in minority groups – women in prisons, refugees, troubled teenagers – with both locally based and international writers to encourage the development of writing and performance skills, and the confidence that all writers gain from being taken seriously and achieving. Women in HMP Grampian prison are amongst those taking part.
So, Scottish PEN’s activities are a kind of bridge spanning the whole gamut of efforts to protect and encourage freedom of expression in writing, from local action groups through national events to co-ordinated international campaigns on behalf of oppressed writers, and from the under-valued and represented through well-known national writers to internationally famous artists. The huge majority of those doing this work are volunteers, writers who are passionate about the freedoms of their fellow writers when these are abused, as well as about protecting their own. If you’re a writer yourself, it’s pretty much an essential part of raising your own writerly awareness of the social context in which you and others are writing. If you’re a reader, knowing what pressures many writers face from their own governments and others in order to bring their words to you is itself an essential part of appreciating the work. OK, in this country, now, the consequences of writing the ‘wrong’ thing might not yet include “losing your job, or home, imprisonment, harassment of your family members, flogging, ‘disappearance’, death”, but with government by tweet no longer some crazy fiction, who knows what’s next?
Both writers and readers can be members of Scottish PEN. Find out more on scottishpen.org/