Scottish PEN in 2018: A Year In Review

Here is a snapshot of Scottish PEN’s 2018, outlining our work protecting free expression in Scotland and across the globe.

December 19, 2018

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists have been killed in 2018 than in the last three years. At least 53 journalists were killed worldwide, with at least 34 being killed because of their work. This is compared with 18 last year. It has been a hard year from free expression with misinformation spreading and being used to target marginalised communities and manipulate public and political opinion, a distrust in journalism enabling fiction to parade as fact and writers around the world being attacked, killed, imprisoned or censored solely from express themselves and empowering their readers.

It is no surprise that as a result, Scottish PEN has been incredibly busy protecting free expression both in Scotland and across the globe. Here is a month-by-month snapshot of what we have got up to in 2018.


On 29th January, Scottish PEN Project Manager, Nik Williams joined Lynne Williams, an expert in cyber-security and Diane Pennington, a lecturer in Information Science for a guest lecture at the University of Strathclyde to share Scottish PEN’s work to protect digital human rights in libraries, ensuring users and writers can protect their digital security and privacy when faced with government and corporate surveillance.



In partnership with Flint & Pitch, on 2nd February at the Grassmarket Community Project, Scottish PEN celebrated the culmination of our Many Voices project, which sought to amplify the voices and experiences of marginalised communities across Scotland. At this final event, writers including Karen Campbell, Marjorie Lotfi-Gill, Nat Raha and Alison Miller introduced participants who have experienced homelessness and addiction, refugees and asylum seekers, speakers of minority languages (Orcadian) and LGBT young people. Pieces written by women and young men in prison were read by Drew Campbell and Jane Archer, and this event was a fitting tribute to the power and poignancy of the work produced over 18 months.

A participant from the Many Voices project reads her work with Karen Campbell watching from the side of the stage


On the 8th March, Jackie Kay, Sim Bajwa, Caroline Bowditch, Beth Banjeree-Richards, Afshan D’souza-Lodhi and Alice Tarbuck joined Elizabeth Reeder, the Women Writers’ Committee and the Institute for the Advanced Studies in Humanities (IASH) for our annual symposium to mark International Women’s Day. On the theme of Resistence, this was a bold discussion on Resistance as a way of exploring and fighting for change around the boundaries of gender, womenhood, the limits of language and experiences of misogyny, violence and power.

On 11th March, Scottish PEN and the Writers At Risk Committee joined Brian Johnstone and leading Scottish writers at StAnza to stand in solidarity with imprisoned writers across the globe by reading their work and keeping their voices alive.



On 16th April to mark the 6 month anniversary of the killing of leading Maltese journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Scottish PEN Writers At Risk Committee held a vigil outside Scottish Parliament, alongside James Dornan MSP and Maltese anti-corruption organisation, Il Kenniesa.

A vigil for Daphne Caruana Galizia outside Scottish Parliament

As part of our partnership with the University of Glasgow, on 20th April we held our annual symposium, this year on the theme of hate speech. Entitled A Precarious Balance: Hate Speech and Free Expression, the session, chaired by Andrew Tickell, brought together Pauline Kelly of Amnesty International Scotland, Becky Kaufmann of the Scottish Trans Alliance and David Scott of Nil By Mouth to explore the tension between protecting free expression and ensuring everyone can express themselves freely. While technical difficulties prohibited Nighat Dad of Digital Rights Foundation from taking part, this was an important first step in a conversation that has defined and continues to define free expression in Scotland and around the world.



Over the past two years, Scottish PEN has worked with libraries across Scotland to build the capacity of library staff, volunteers and users to understand digital surveillance and protect themselves to ensure they can continue to express themselves free from the threat of pervasive surveillance. On 28th May, we led a workshop at the Central Library in Aberdeen on these topics, showing library staff and representatives how they can support their users creating and storing strong passphrases, browse the internet anonymously, use encrypted communications platforms and avoid online ads and trackers.



Scottish PEN launched our Libraries for Privacy toolkit, a resource developed in collaboration with the Chartered Institute for Librarians and Information Professionals Scotland (CILIPS), the Scottish Libraries and Information Council and the Library Freedom Project, alongside librarians, technologists and activists from the UK, France and the US. Read the toolkit by clicking here.

Later in the month, Scottish PEN Project Manager, Nik Williams was invited to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee about Scottish PEN’s campaign to reform defamation law. He joined representatives of the Law Society Scotland, BBC Scotland, Bannatyne Kirkwood France & Co. and Queen Mary University. You can rewatch the session here:



As part of the extended Scottish PEN 90th Anniversary tour, the exhibition charting the 90-year history of Scottish PEN was displayed at the Birnam Arts Centre and was the centrepiece of an event featuring Carl MacDougall, Jamie Jauncey, Fiona Valpy and David Manderson.

On 27th July, Scottish PEN sent the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon a letter signed by over 140 writers including Scottish PEN members and writers including Phillipe Sands, Val McDermid, A.L. Kennedy, Matthew Caruana Galizia, Ian Rankin, Louise Welsh, Zoe Strachan and Christopher Brookmyre, calling on her to include defamation reform in the upcoming Programme for Government. For a copy of the final and full letter click here.



August brought international writers together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Writers At Risk Committee joined the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers series to raise awareness and read the work of imprisoned and at-risk writers from across the globe including Qatar, Iran, Turkey, Eritrea, China and Russia. As well as this, the Scottish PEN 90th Anniversary travelling exhibition was hosted in the festival bookshop so festival goers could learn more about our history and explore ways they could get involved.

On 14th August, PEN International and the Edinburgh International Book Festival hosted a reception for the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon to present her with a copy of the PEN International Women’s Manifesto. PEN International President, Jennifer Clement, Scottish PEN trustees and members, alongside leading Scottish writers joined them at Bute House to launch this important document to support, protect and celebrate women writers around the world. The manifesto can be read by clicking here.

As part of the unofficial fringe to the festival, on 21st August, Lighthouse Bookshop hosted The Battle for Peace, an event organised by the Writers For Peace Committee featuring Ruth Aylett, Colin Donati and Finola Scott.

In August the Scottish PEN Writers In Exile Committee published the Smeddum issue of PENning, the committee’s biannual online journal, presenting work by Scottish PEN’s members alongside people living in Scotland who are from other parts of the world. This issue was guest edited by Heather McDaid and can be read here:



After we sent the letter to her, signed by over 140 writers and activists, on 4th September the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon announced that defamation reform would be included in the upcoming Programme for Government, stating “I can also announce today that in the year ahead we will consult on reforms to the law of defamation with a view to bringing forward legislation later in this parliament.” This was a significant step towards reform that has been 22 years in the making!

On 11th September, at an event in Scottish Parliament, sponsored by Ruth Maguire MSP, we brought together Professor James Chalmers of University of Glasgow, Dr Kim Barker of Stirling Law School, Stephen Blythe of Automattic, Adam Ramsay of openDemocracy and Andrew Tickell to continue the discussion around hate speech at the event, Where to draw the line: Hate Speech, Free Expression and Censorship.

Hate Speech

On the same day the Scottish PEN Writers For Peace Committee held an event entitled Peace in our Divided Times at the Project Café in Glasgow, featuring Jenni Calder, Tracy Patrick, David Manderson and Graham Fulton.

At the end of the month, Jane Archer and Nik Williams represented Scottish PEN at the 84th PEN International Congress held in Pune, India. For more information please read the blogpost Jane Archer wrote about the experience that you can read here



On 10th October, Nik Williams was invited to speak to the team at the Scottish Book Trust about our work to work with libraries across Scotland to protect the digital security, privacy and human rights of their staff, volunteers and users as part of our Libraries for Privacy project.

Later in the month, Nik presented a lecture to media law students at Glasgow Caledonian University about the campaign to reform defamation reform to ensure everyone, irrespective of wealth or power, can express themselves free from the threats of legal action.

On 23rd October, the Writers For Peace Committee returned to the Project Café in Glasgow for another reading of work tied to the ongoing fight for peace across the globe. Readers included David Manderson, Nalini Paul and Colin Donati.



Every year the Writers At Risk Committee marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer and in 2018 we delivered perhaps our most prominent event to date. On 15th November, sponsored by Ruth Maguire MSP and in partnership with Amnesty International Scotland we held a series of readings of at-risk or imprisoned writers from Eritrea, Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Palestine at Scottish Parliament. Their work was read by leading Scotland-based writers including Louise Welsh, Nadine Aisha Jassat, James Robertson, Chitra Ramaswamy, Jenni Fagan and Aimee Ottroh. The event was chaired by Sara Sheridan and featured an introduction by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon who spoke on the power of the spoken and written word and the importance for her as a policy-maker and reader that writers everywhere are protected.

Jane Archer presented Nicola Sturgeon with a copy of Behrouz Boochani’s account of his imprisonment on Manus Island

Earlier in the day, Ruth Maguire MSP sponsored a Parliamentary debate on the day that featured MSPs from a number of parties showcase individual at-risk writers and commit to protecting them and defending free expression in Scotland and across the globe. The debate can be watched here:



In December the 2nd PENning issue of 2018 was published. Guest edited by Jemma Neville it was on the theme of Letters and featured short stories and poems from Scottish PEN members and people living in Scotland who are from other parts of the world. To read this issue click here:

Our last event of the year was the culmination of a year-long study into the impact of surveillance on the willingness of Scotland-based writers to express themselves. On 14th December at the University of Strathclyde, we launched our report, Scottish Chilling: Impact of Government and Corporate Surveillance on Writer, which, authored alongside researchers at the University of Strathclyde, outlined that the perception of surveillance encouraged many writers to avoid certain topics in their research, writing and communication with others. At the event, Nik Williams was joined by David McMenemy of the University of Strathclyde, Dr Jennifer Jones of Hacks/Hackers Scotland and via Skype, James Tager of PEN America. The report gained a great deal of press coverage from the Times, the National, Daily Mail Online and ITV to name a few outlets and can be read here:


This is only a snapshot of what we have accomplished this year, but as you can tell it has been a busy year for us. And while in 2019, Scottish PEN will be 92 years old we will not be slowing down. We have the prospect of reforming our antiquated defamation laws and our ongoing fight to protect the rights of writers and readers in Scotland and around the world to build on the achievements of 2018. But these successes are not wholly our own. Without your commitment, support and energy we have made this progress so thank you for continuing to support our important work – it would be impossible without you.

TAGS: 2018 International Women Writers Committee Writers At Risk Committee writers for peace committee writers in exile