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Scottish writers silenced by surveillance concerns, study suggests

A survey asked 118 writers about their perception of surveillance Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Many writers in Scotland have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic over concerns about digital surveillance, according to a new study.

A survey of 118 writers, including journalists, academics and fiction authors, found more than one in five (22%) stay away from topics such as terrorism and serious crime, both in their work and while researching online.

The study by Scottish PEN and the University of Strathclyde explored whether the perception of surveillance is a driver for writers to self-censor their work.

More than a quarter (28%) also said they had curtailed or avoided social media activities.

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Report author Nik Williams from Scottish PEN, a not-for-profit organisation that champions freedom of speech, 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.

“How are we to know when a writer has decided not to publish something due to unknown risks?

“This survey shows a significant connection between the perception of surveillance and self-censorship that requires further analysis and action to ensure free expression can continue to strengthen democracy and civic participation.”

Co-author David McMenemy, lecturer in computer and information sciences at the University of Strathclyde, said: “The findings of the report indicate that both corporate and government surveillance are having an effect on what Scottish journalists and authors feel free to write about.

“The impact on a democratic society of the article or story that should be, but is never, written is incalculable.”