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Scottish Parliament Equalities and Human Rights Committee inquiry: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on equalities and human rights (Scottish PEN response)

Scottish PEN has highlighted the potential impact of the UK and Scottish Government response to coronavirus on writers’ freedom of expression; including the impact of delays to democratic processes and increased surveillance.

May 13, 2020

Scottish PEN has highlighted the potential impact of the UK and Scottish Government response to coronavirus on writers’ freedom of expression; including the impact of delays to democratic processes and increased surveillance.

Below is Scottish PEN’s full response to the Scottish Parliament Equalities and Human Rights Committee inquiry on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on equalities and human rights. You can submit your own views here.

Addressing delays to parliamentary processes

Processes put in place to respond to coronavirus at a Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament level have affected writers in many ways. For example, the Defamation and Malicious Publication (Scotland) Bill, along with all other proposed legislation, has been delayed as a result of parliamentary closure. The Bill aims to reform defamation law to offer effective protection for freedom of expression and to safeguard individuals from having reasonable criticism and comment silenced. In a time of increased state power over the freedoms of its citizens, it is important that these reforms are progressed, and that writers and journalists can operate in an environment that supports the public interest.

The work of journalists has also been impacted by the expansion of timescales for public bodies to respond to freedom of information requests. Particularly now, when the relaying of information of relevance to the public interest is essential, public bodies must be accountable, and the checks and balances that ensure our democracy and rights are upheld must not be jeopardized. The Scottish Government and public authorities should share timely, accessible information about the timescales for these temporary measures to be repealed, and make efforts to ensure that in future, public bodies are better prepared to maintain these functions during times of upheaval.

Scottish PEN is concerned that when temporary powers are granted, precedents are set, and it becomes easier for governments to justify their continuation as necessary to public health or national security. It is important to recognise that writers and journalists have faced a period where their freedom to hold government to account has been greatly inhibited, and that this is a cause for great concern regardless of the context. As climate change impacts and health pandemics are expected to increase in regularity, the Scottish Government should take a long-term view on ensuring transparency and press freedom can be sustained and adapted to suit unpredictable circumstances. The response cannot be to apply and remove extreme restrictions over long periods of time. Instead, alternative solutions which support writers to accurately document events should be developed and promoted.

The creative and journalistic work of writers produced during these unprecedented times should not be underestimated. The Scottish Government should invest in ensuring the resilience of our literary and journalistic sector, addressing challenges faced by the publishing industry and writers themselves. It is crucial that writers are supported to document the circumstances in which they are living, whether in the public interest or as a means of creative expression.

Chilling effect

With respect to both writers as a group and freedom of expression issues more generally, there is much to be concerned about regarding how contact tracing is to be implemented by governments and institutions at both UK and national levels. 

As Scottish PEN understands it, work has been undertaken by the UK Government to develop a contact-tracing app to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. While a different model is being proposed by the Scottish Government, it is important to scrutinize the extent to which clear, accessible, easy-to-understand information about the surveillance and data sharing implications of such technological responses is being developed. It is also important to note that if public pressure mounts to the extent that people feel required to opt-in to these app-based options in order to continue their employment and daily activities, their ability to make a free choice would be limited.

We would echo the concerns of ORG Scotland, who have asked for clarity from the Scottish Government around whether a Data Protection Impact Assessment has been carried out, and how data recorded by any proposed tools would be controlled and processed.

When the impact of this technological response is combined with an increase in police powers and a general culture of fear where the public is being encouraged to unite together (and by implication, avoid criticism or protest that disrupts the current response), the potential for suppressed freedom of expression is clear.

Increased surveillance has a proven impact on the willingness of writers to cover sensitive topics in their work, research and communications with others. In December 2018, Scottish PEN and the University of Strathclyde published a report, Scottish Chilling, which explored this issue. The report included findings from a survey of 118 Scotland-based writers, including novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, publishers and translators and found that:

It is therefore clear that a climate of increased surveillance has ramifications for press freedom, and the wider freedom of expression of artists and writers in Scotland and the UK. For writers from marginalised communities, including imprisoned writers, the combined impact of various responses to the pandemic could result in silencing and suppression of important perspectives. Our rich cultural and literary communities are already living precariously, and if writers feel unable to openly express themselves, it is to the detriment of society as a whole.

The Scottish Government should publicly demonstrate its continued commitment to freedom of expression, privacy rights and press freedom, and assure the public that these values are not negotiable. As extensions of surveillance could also set a dangerous precedent that would be hard to roll back when the crisis is over, the Scottish Government should endeavour to protect the human rights of people living in Scotland against any potential overreach on the part of UK government and UK institutions.

Learn more about Scottish PEN’s work here:

Scottish Chilling

Defamation Reform