In a climate of surveillance, does self-censorship threaten Scottish journalism?


As 2018 comes to a close, the CPJ reports that jailing journalists has become the ‘new normal’, while Scottish PEN finds that self-censorship threatens freedom of speech.

A study produced by Scottish PEN and the University of Strathclyde shows the alarming impact of pervasive surveillance on writers in Scotland.

The report, ‘Scottish Chilling: Impact of Government and Corporate Surveillance on Writers’, is based on survey findings from fiction writers, poets, academics, journalists, editors and publishers across Scotland. It found that 21.5 per cent had avoided certain topics due to the perception of surveillance, while 17.2 per cent had seriously considered doing so. More than one-quarter (27.6 per cent) have curtailed or avoided activities on social media because of surveillance, with 12.9 per cent seriously considered doing so. 



Nik Williams, report author and Project Manager at Scottish PEN said: “If writers are avoiding sensitive topics like terrorism, national security and serious crime as this study suggests, society and democracy suffers with the public less able to access independent information from diverse points of view.

“While censorship can be crudely measured by number of writers attacked, intimidated or in prison, the closures of media outlets and publishing houses or the bureaucratic hurdles put in place to restrict different people from expressing themselves, self-censorship is far harder to track.”

The Investigatory Powers Act was introduced in 2016 to expand and consolidate of all digital surveillance powers in the UK. Nicknamed the ‘Snoopers charter, it gives the state powers to store web browsing history and app usage data, hack devices, networks and servers to bypass encyption, turn on webcams and microphones, access data, monitor internet usage, amongst other measures. It has been described by civil rights campaigners as authoritarian and in April, the UK High Court ruled that it violated EU law.

READ MORE: “Our privacy is under threat”: Campaigners urge action after Snooper’s Charter ruling

Dr. Lauren Smith, report author and researcher previously based at the University of Strathclyde, said: “This report highlights a gap between people’s concerns and their digital and technological skills; although people may have concerns about surveillance, they do not necessarily know how they can change their behaviour to increase their privacy and security. A range of technological, legal and academic issues relating to writers’ self-censorship are identified, pointing to the need for a multi-agency approach to protecting freedom of expression.”

The report makes a number of preliminary recommendations, including that the UK Government:

  • Reconsider the human rights implications of the powers contained within the Investigatory Powers Act, including a broader focus on the impact of surveillance on a wide variety of human rights, beyond privacy alone;
  • Make the right to be free of unwarranted surveillance a cornerstone of surveillance polcy and practice;
  • Develop a robust human rights analysis of all surveillance reforms that involves engagement with the public, academics and civil society more broadly;


Its recommendations to civil society organisations include:

  • Develop and deliver educational programmes on digital human rights and ways users can protect their rights online;
  • Encourage a multi-disciplinary approach that incorporates a range of viewpoints and expertise to further develop and support public understanding of this complex issue;
  • Interrogate and analyse the deployment of state and corporate surveillance processes and offer necessary support to the public

Read the Scottish Chilling report in full here.

Also this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a report showing that the crackdown on free media internationally continues unabated. 

The past three years have recorded the highest number of jailed journalists since CPJ began its monitoring with 251 journalists behind bars worldwide. 

READ MORE: Where and why are journalists killed?

While Turkey remains the world’s biggest journalist jailer, numbers have increased in China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia –  as authoritarian leaders crackdown on free media in attempts to silence dissent. 53 journalists were killed this year worldwide, with the highest profile case being that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. The hypocricy of the condemnation of the murder by Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, the person responsible for the purge of Turkish opposition journalists, has been noted by many.

READ MORE: Analysis: Despite the release of Hanifi Barış, Turkish oppression continues

There has also been an increase in imprisoning journalists on charges of printing ‘false news’. This follows the rise of ‘fake news’ rhetoric commonly associated with US President Donald Trump, who routinely levels accusations of ‘fake news’ at what he perceives to be critical media. 

And just this week, there has been an outcry in Spain after a court ruled that two investigative journalists in Mallorca had to hand in their laptops and phones to find the source of an infomation leak. Critics say that this confiscation violates their right to the source confidentiality enshirined in the Spanish Constitution and sets a worrying precedent.

There is an additional threat faced by women journalists, highlighted in a new documentary by the Office of the Representative of Freedom of the Media and International Press Institute. ‘A Dark Place’ reveals the extent and impact of online abuse hurled at women journalists, who regularly receive sexualised verbal abuse, threats of rape and death, and smear campaigns on top of general attacks upon the media.

Between the overt oppression identified worldwide, sexist abuse targetting women journalists online and the more insiduous creep of self-censorship in the face of increased state surveillance, 2018 has been a chilling year for journalists.