The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-14312, in the name of Ruth Maguire, on the day of the imprisoned writer. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament recognises 15 November as the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, which is a day when people are invited to stand in solidarity with persecuted, exiled and imprisoned writers across the globe; notes with grave concern what it sees as the international decline in free expression, as documented by organisations such as PEN International, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders; understands that there are global efforts by state and non-state actors to attack and silence journalists; notes the view that governments around the world have a requirement to combat impunity and seek justice for murdered, persecuted, and imprisoned writers; acknowledges initiatives by national and international governmental, intergovernmental and civil society partners to work together to secure protections for persecuted and imprisoned writers; commemorates writers who have been killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and acknowledges the call for the Day of the Imprisoned Writer to be officially recognised by the Parliament.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right. Of course, the need to fight for fundamental rights is not new, as it has always been important to protect people around the world from the threat of violence or state suppression, but, as with so many things this year, that need feels even sharper.
According to Reporters Without Borders, more professional journalists were killed worldwide in connection with their work in the first nine months of 2018 than in all of 2017. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that, since 1992, nearly 2,000 journalists and media workers have been killed. Moving beyond journalists, according to Deutsche Welle, in 2015, 1,054 authors were attacked, imprisoned, tortured or killed. Protection is vital to ensure that people around the world can express themselves free from the threat of violence.
The day of the imprisoned writer is organised by PEN International as a day of solidarity and action for writers who are denied the right to freedom of expression and who are struggling and fighting for it. I am grateful to colleagues from across the chamber for standing in solidarity with persecuted, exiled and imprisoned writers around the globe. I thank all members who signed my motion, which secured the debate, and everyone who is contributing today.
Each year, PEN highlights cases of persecuted writers that are emblematic of the persecution and threats that writers and journalists across the world face. In the debate on the same issue last year, I spoke about Zehra Dogan, and I take no pleasure in seeing that she is one of the highlighted cases again this year, as she is still imprisoned by Turkey, a state that is infamous for its violation of the rights of authors, publishers and academics.
Zehra Dogan, who was born in 1989, is a painter and the founding editor of the all-female Jin news agency, which was closed on 29 October 2016 by statutory decree 675. Jin is one of over 180 media outlets that have been closed in Turkey since the beginning of the state of emergency. Zehra received numerous awards for her work for the agency between 2010 and 2016, including the prestigious Metin Göktepe award for her reporting of Yazidi women escaping from Isis captivity.
On 12 June 2017, Zehra was taken into custody while she was en route to visit her family. She is in prison because the Turkish state deemed her reporting and painting to be terrorist propaganda. The painting at issue is her recreation of a photograph that was taken and distributed by the Turkish military of the Kurdish town of Nusaybin following its destruction by Turkish forces. The picture shows destroyed buildings draped with Turkish flags and surrounded by tanks. In her painting, Zehra turned the army tanks into huge, grotesque creatures consuming innocent civilians. Although the Turkish flags were present in the original photograph, Zehra was found guilty of painting them on the destroyed buildings, and the painting was condemned as anti-Turkish terrorist propaganda. After the ruling, Zehra stated:
“they gave me a prison penalty for taking the photo of destroyed houses and putting Turkish flags on them. But it wasn’t me who did it, it was them. I just painted it.”
The offending news report featured the following quote from a child who was affected by the clashes in the town:
“We are hearing gunfire right now. When the shots intensify we run to our homes. When the tanks go away we take to the street to protest. I think we are right. I know our voices will be heard one day.”
Zehra’s reporting of these five sentences, which were spoken by a child, was also deemed terrorist propaganda.
I wrote to the Turkish Prime Minister last year, expressing my deep concern at the arrest and imprisonment of Zehra Dogan. I never received a response.
Zehra is an inspirational and skilled painter and journalist, not a criminal, and I add my voice to the global calls for her immediate and unconditional release. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and people should not be persecuted for exercising it. It is particularly alarming that this action is being taken against an award-winning journalist and painter whose voice has proven crucial in sharing the stories of underrepresented communities.
I also understand that the imprisonment of Zehra Dogan is unconstitutional, violating articles 26 and 28 of the constitution of the Republic of Turkey, which guarantee freedom of expression and a free press, respectively. Turkey has always been one of the most restrictive countries among the Council of Europe member states in terms of media freedom and freedom of expression, and it is now becoming infamous. It violates globally recognised norms protecting the right to freedom of expression in agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, to which it is a party. According to article 90 of the constitution, international agreements duly put into effect have the force of law.
I again strongly urge Turkey to immediately and unconditionally release the artist and journalist Zehra Dogan. She is guilty of no crime. I say to Zehra and to all those who have been wrongfully imprisoned for simply exercising their fundamental rights that you are not alone. We stand with you, we are proud of your work and your courage and we will continue to advocate for your freedom. [
I say gently to those in the public gallery that we do not permit applause in the gallery. I know that those in the gallery feel it in their hearts; they should please let it stay there and not applaud.
Ruth Maguire may wish to take the opportunity to welcome folk to the public gallery.
I congratulate Ruth Maguire on securing this important debate. It is entirely fitting that the Parliament is marking the occasion of the day of the imprisoned writer. I fully support the calls in Ruth Maguire’s motion for the Parliament to recognise the day of the imprisoned writer officially.
In preparing for today’s debate, I was struck by the information that Ruth Maguire has quoted and the statistics involved. It is worth stressing the shocking information that Reporters Without Borders has reported—that more professional journalists were killed worldwide in connection with their work in the first nine months of 2018 than in all of 2017. That information is worth reiterating, because it puts in stark focus the terrible prevalence of the problem right across the world. That shocking statistic demonstrates the continuing and pressing need for each of us to be vigilant in defending freedom of expression in Scotland and right across the world.
We all have a duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with those writers who are being persecuted simply for speaking out. We must do all that we can to ensure that their voices are heard and not silenced. Marking the day of the imprisoned writer affords us the opportunity to do that by highlighting individual cases around the world. Ruth Maguire has highlighted one particular case. I will raise the case of Behrouz Boochani, which has been flagged up by PEN. I apologise to all concerned if I do not get the pronunciations correct. I will do my best.
Boochani’s country of origin is Iran. He holds a master’s degree in political science, political geography and geopolitics. He is a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, scholar, cultural advocate and film maker. In Iran, he worked as a journalist for several newspapers including national dailies and the monthly Kurdish-language magazine
Boochani claims that he was subject to constant surveillance by the Iranian authorities because of his focus on business and politics. In 2013, he was reportedly arrested, interrogated and threatened by the Iranian intelligence services. Fearing that he would be imprisoned, he fled Iran on 13 May 2013. After he left Iran, he was rescued at sea by the Australian navy and asked Australia for asylum. Due to Australia’s offshore processing policies, Boochani was taken to the regional processing centre at Lobrum on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and in April 2016 he was accorded refugee status in Papua New Guinea.
During his detention, he faced harassment because of his reporting to the Australian media and other organisations about the conditions inside the detention centre and the alleged human rights abuses that were taking place in it. He reports having been the target of beatings as a direct result of his reporting. Following the closure of the Manus Island processing centre, Boochani was relocated to a refugee transit centre where he remains to this day, in a no-man’s-land limbo.
Boochani’s case is just one of those that has been highlighted by PEN. There are obviously many other individuals whom we could talk about, and I am sure that other members will raise specific cases. Although we do not have time to mention all the cases that have been flagged by PEN, it is important to bear witness to such individual cases.
I conclude by stressing that we include in our thoughts and deliberations all writers across the world who have been imprisoned for simply speaking out. I am sure that we all commend the bravery and determination of those writers. It is important that, through today’s debate, our Scottish Parliament is playing its part in ensuring that the voices of those writers are not silenced.
I am pleased to take part in today’s debate and congratulate Ruth Maguire on bringing the debate before Parliament.
As the motion acknowledges, today is known in literary circles as the day of the imprisoned writer. It is a day when people are invited to stand up and support persecuted, imprisoned and exiled writers across the globe and to acknowledge what they see as an international decline in freedom of expression. Many examples of that have been documented recently by the organisation PEN International, and I am delighted that representatives of that organisation are in the gallery this afternoon.
The many examples of Government or religiously motivated acts against writers and journalists—however harrowing and cruel they are—must be remembered, condemned and acted on.
I remember, as a youngster, hearing about the writings of Salman Rushdie and taking on board the difficulties that he was experiencing as a result of having expressed his views and opinions. He is a British-Indian novelist and essay writer and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His second novel, “Midnight’s Children”, won the Booker prize back in 1981 and it was deemed to be the best novel of all the prize winners on two separate occasions—the 25th and the 40th anniversaries of that prize. His fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses”, which was published in 1988, generated a particular reaction from some individuals. That was the first time that I started to think about how writers express themselves and the individual circumstances in which they find themselves.
PEN International has been campaigning for writers’ freedom since 1921 and has campaigned prominently on behalf of many individuals, because it knew that what was occurring in certain parts of the world should be recognised and condemned.
Today also serves as a commemoration of those who have been killed since the previous year’s day of imprisoned writers. Over the years, dozens of writers and journalists around the world have been killed in circumstances that appear to be related only to their profession. That is totally and utterly unacceptable. Individuals should have the right to express their views and opinions without facing persecution, imprisonment or even death. Amnesty International has played a major role in the work to help imprisoned writers, and it should be commended for the work that it has done to ensure that imprisoned writers receive acknowledgement.
All over the world, people are persecuted, tortured or imprisoned in their own country for writing about individuals or the Government. That is a freedom that we would expect to have, but many people round the world do not have the right to exercise that freedom. Many well-known writers and journalists have stood up for and backed writers who have found themselves in that position, and, in doing so, have put themselves in the line of danger. Topics such as children’s rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex equality, Syria, Russia, the United States and the global refugee crisis have all been highlighted. People have put themselves in harm’s way just by contemplating, discussing and writing about those issues.
I commend Ruth Maguire and congratulate her on bringing this emotive subject to the chamber for debate. It is vital that, as politicians, we make our voices heard and that we stand up and be counted in ensuring that individuals have the right to express their views and opinions in verbal or written form. Democracy is the cornerstone of our nation. We have the privilege to serve, but we also have the responsibility to ensure that other nations that do not have the same beliefs, standards and liberties as we have are challenged on their lack of understanding and held to account for their actions. It is vital that we do that. Writers have a right to be heard, and it is right that we support them.
I, too, thank
Ruth Maguire for securing the debate, and I am grateful to Scottish PEN and Amnesty International for providing material to support it. It is right that we are having such a debate, and it is right that, as parliamentarians in Scotland, we think about how we can work with those organisations to continue to put pressure on Governments and to highlight the issues that are being raised.
“seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
At the turn of the 21st century, nearly half the world’s population still lack access to free information, so it is very fitting that today—15 November—alongside PEN International and other PEN centres, Scottish PEN is marking the day of the imprisoned writer by promoting and celebrating the freedom to write, and calling for justice and freedom for persecuted, imprisoned and murdered writers across the world.
Today, it is more important than ever that we raise awareness of the issue because, as Ruth Maguire and others have said, according to Reporters Without Borders,
“more professional journalists were killed worldwide in connection with their work in the first nine months of 2018 than in all of 2017”.
That is scandalous. It is important to make the point that the United Kingdom continues to work and trade with and be a partner of many countries where such persecution takes place. That persecution and murder goes beyond journalists and affects authors and media workers.
The motion and the information that it provides make for chilling reading. It is clear that the attempts to silence journalists are being made by states and powerful bodies within states. Power is being abused through imprisonment, physical attacks, torture and death to protect vested interests and to sustain a state apparatus that dominates society and monopolises most of its wealth. On the face of it, the events that are set out in the motion and the briefing appear to be far removed from our relatively safe and secure democratic society in Scotland, but to ignore the threat to free speech and to continue as if it was only happening in another place is to disrespect the memory of those who have lost their lives in defence of free speech and to ignore the courage that is being shown and the sacrifices that are being made every day around the world to fight for free speech.
Therefore, it is very important that we stand here in Scotland in solidarity with oppressed and imprisoned writers to ensure that their voices cannot be silenced. There are PEN centres in more than 100 countries; their aims include defending freedom of speech and writing against the many threats to its survival that the modern world poses. I am pleased to stand with them today with members of all parties here in the Scottish Parliament on the day of the imprisoned writer.
I thank Ruth Maguire for bringing this important debate to Parliament. I declare an interest as a member of Scottish PEN.
This summer, I was pleased to attend a performance in Edinburgh by Pussy Riot and afterwards to get the chance to speak to a band member, Maria Alyokhina. I discussed with her the state of Russian democracy, in particular the plight of the imprisoned Ukrainian film maker and writer Oleg Sentsov. Maria has campaigned loudly and clearly for his release, and she knows a thing or two about Russian persecution of artists, having been imprisoned for two years for singing a song that was critical of Vladimir Putin. She asked me to raise his case in the Parliament and I am pleased to do so today.
Oleg was born in 1976 in Simferopol, a city on the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, which is now the capital of Russian-occupied Crimea. He has two children, Alina, aged 15, and Vladislav, who is 14. He is a film maker and writer, and after participating in the Euromaidan protest in Ukraine in late 2013, he was arrested on 10 May 2014 at his home by members of the Russian federal security service, the FSB. According to Amnesty International, his arrest was a barbaric affair. The officers placed a plastic bag over his head and suffocated him until he passed out. They then threatened him with rape and murder to force him to confess to organised bombing, possessing illegal firearms and other terrorist acts including membership of the Ukrainian right-wing group Pravyi Sektor.
A fortnight later, he was transferred to Moscow, more than 1,400km away, where he was placed in pre-trial detention for one year. Oleg denies all his charges but, after a show trial before a military court, at which not one piece of evidence was presented, he was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The verdict has been condemned by political figures and civil society in the European Union and the US, including his network of peers at the European Film Academy, from which famous film makers including Pedro Almodóvar, Ken Loach and Wim Wenders have vociferously objected to his detention.
After a succession of prison transfers, Oleg is now held in what international observers report as “inhumane conditions” at a penal colony in Labytnangi, a small Siberian town above the Arctic circle, 5,000km from his home. In May this year, four years after his arrest, Oleg began a hunger strike to seek the release of all Ukrainian nationals who are currently imprisoned in Russia on politically motivated grounds. After suffering from excruciating heart and kidney problems, he ended his hunger strike after 145 days in which he lost 30kg in weight and now has irreparable damage to his health.
Despite the authorities’ routine denial of access to appropriate medical care and contact with the outside world, Oleg has been a critical and persuasive force. The European Union, for example, commended him for actions that have
“shown incredible courage, determination and selflessness” in his fight for freedom for all those who have been unfairly convicted on politically motivated grounds.
Oleg Sentsov is an innocent man. Just a few weeks ago, he was awarded the prestigious European Parliament Sakharov prize for freedom of thought, and it is fitting that he is being honoured that way in 2018, which is the 30th anniversary of the Sakharov prize and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Russian Federation ranks 148th in the latest world press freedom index and more bloggers and journalists are detained now than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
We must keep Oleg Sentsov and all those who are suffering unjust imprisonment and detention in the public eye. As public figures, we have special responsibilities in not giving succour to repressive regimes such as the Russian Federation.
I want to thank my friend and colleague, Ruth Maguire, for once again bringing our attention to the important work of Scottish PEN and Amnesty International and for giving us all a chance to air the stories of those whose voices are silenced.
As we have today’s debate in the Scottish Parliament, 29-year-old Abbad Yahya is stranded in Doha in Qatar and is unable to return home to Palestine. Abbad is a fiction writer and it was ordered that all copies of his novel, “Crime in Ramallah”, be confiscated, because of what was deemed to be offensive language. He has been the victim of a hate campaign on social media, he has suffered death threats and copies of his novel were reportedly burned on the Gaza strip.
“Crime in Ramallah” tells the story of three Palestinian men who work in a bar where the murder of a young woman takes place. It charts how the murder affects each man’s life and explores the themes of politics, religion and homosexuality through its protagonists. The language that is used to explore those important themes has been used against him in order to silence him and remove his rights.
Abbad Yahya received a summons from the Attorney General, as did the book’s publisher and distributor, Fuad al-Akleek, who was reportedly arrested and held for six hours. Abbad’s right to freedom of speech has been taken and he is left fearing for his life.
“It is appalling that Abbad Yahya cannot return home because he fears he may be arrested over a novel he has written. The response to his novel is not only disproportionate; it is entirely out of place. Abbad Yahya’s novel may have challenged political and religious orthodoxy, but he has the right to express his thoughts. The Palestinian Authority should take immediate steps to overturn the ban and ensure that he will be able to return home safely and protected from any threats.”
Abbad Yahya should be able to return home without fear of prosecution and danger. His book should be allowed to be read once more and the charges against him should be dropped.
As we know from history, banning books and novels and imprisoning their writers is a sure sign that a society has gone very wrong. All of us sitting in the chamber reserve the right to question and criticise our political system—it is our job and it is our right, and I would always argue vociferously that it is also the job and the right of every Scottish citizen. As many people have said, when we see those rights being taken away from other people across the world, we must use our voices to defend them and argue for their rights.
We are fortunate to be able to express our views in writing without any fear of arrest, because we live in a democracy. Ruth Maguire talked about Zehra Dogan in her excellent speech, and she has mentioned her before. The first time that I heard of Zerah Dogan was when Banksy created a mural in her defence and asked for her conviction to be overturned. He produced a piece of street art showing her behind bars. Acts such as that and today’s debate are important, as they draw attention to the injustice of silencing artistic expression and freedom of speech.
I am not a great artist by any means but, as some members will know, I have in the past created political art. In 2014 and 2015, the art that I created around the Scottish independence question was highly critical of the UK Tory-led Government and the Labour Party’s campaign to deny Scotland its independence. My sister and I established a touring art show in 2014, with art that represented the call for independence from more than 50 artists. If we had been in Turkey, we would all have faced conviction. It is important that we recognise that we have freedoms that others do not.
I commend the work of PEN in giving us a chance to hear the stories of the injustices perpetrated on writers, artists, journalists and film makers throughout the world and, again, I thank Ruth Maguire for securing this debate.
I thank Ruth Maguire for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject and I thank members for their contributions. I join the previous speakers in expressing my support for the day of the imprisoned writer.
I also want to thank Scottish PEN, Amnesty International and others for all the work that they do to raise awareness of the persecution faced by many writers throughout the world. It is essential that we call for freedom and justice for imprisoned and murdered writers.
In Scotland, we defend fiercely the right to say what we think, and we do that often. Like most of our rights, we take that one for granted and it is only when it comes under threat that we realise how important it is. As Scottish PEN, Amnesty and others have highlighted, journalists, poets, bloggers, novelists, artists and film-makers in Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and the Middle East have suffered threats, attacks, imprisonment, been exiled and even killed for their activities. Despite the United Nations declaring 2 November the international day to end impunity for crimes against journalists, many of those violations go unchallenged and, more important, unpunished.
Let us look at some of the people I want to highlight in response to Ruth Maguire’s debate. Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered by a car bomb in October 2017 following her work exposing corruption connected to the Panama papers.
Dawit Isaak, a poet, playwright and journalist, was arrested in 2001 and is reported to have been tortured and kept in solitary confinement in Eritrea for the past 17 years.
In Turkey, about which we have heard much today, writers and journalists like Zehra Dogan remain in prison, having been caught up in the wave of repression that followed the failed coup attempt in 2016.
In Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison for reporting on military violence against Rohingya people.
None of us could have been any more horrified, as the whole world was, by the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, just over a month ago.
I turn to someone whom I have met: Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf. Raif Badawi remains in prison in Saudi Arabia having been sentenced to 10 years and 1,000 lashes for daring to write a blog. The barbarity of the treatment he has been subjected to is appalling.
I highlight those people because none of them are criminals. They have been attacked, oppressed and murdered because they have worked to expose unwelcome truths. They have suffered for daring to challenge and to question. Yet their work is doing something that we in Scotland consider to be a public service. Their “crime” is to have worked to promote informed debate and to support the exchange of facts and opinions.
Reading and hearing such accounts forces us to reflect on the difference that human rights make in our lives. Ruth Maguire painted a vivid picture of that in her opening speech. I had a similar experience when I spoke to the three human rights defenders participating in the Scottish human rights defender fellowship at the University of Dundee. I hope that the fellowship will go some way towards reassuring Alex Rowley that the Scottish Government is taking seriously its responsibility to international solidarity against human rights violations.
In the year of the 20th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders, the fellowship is one good example of how we in Scotland can stand shoulder to shoulder with people who put themselves and their families at considerable risk to defend the human rights that they are entitled to.
Let us look at human rights in Scotland. The rights that the fellows and the writers whom we have heard about today are working to uphold, often in the face of incredible difficulties and powerful opposition, are rights that we are fortunate to hold and they should be protected internationally and in Scotland. This year, we mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights it contains belong to all of us in equal measure, no matter who we are or where we come from.
A lot has been said about freedom of expression. The rights to freedom of expression and opinion are contained in the European convention on human rights, and the European Court of Human Rights has consistently described them as essential foundations of a democratic society. Those rights have been given practical effect in Scotland through the Human Rights Act 1998.
Alexander Stewart reminded us of the right to freedom of expression when he spoke about the world’s reaction to the writings of Salman Rushdie, and the right of people to express their feelings about that. It is a powerful example indeed.
We have heard much about art, culture, poetry, writing and books, so I want to talk about what we are doing for culture and literature in Scotland that I hope will add to our international solidarity. Alongside the Government’s responsibility to uphold and protect human rights and the freedom of expression, it has a duty to promote cultural activity—and we really enjoy that, do we not?—including in ways that enable literature and writing to flourish.
In highlighting the songs of Pussy Riot, Andy Wightman demonstrated the power of culture and the risks that creative people take every single day in expressing their rights. I hope that Oleg Sentsov’s story tells us clearly how important it is to maintain and uphold that creativity.
We all have a right to participation in cultural life and a responsibility to support and protect literary and artistic endeavour, and we are proud to help to support Scotland’s world-class cultural system. Gillian Martin mentioned Abbad Yahya, the right to freedom of thought and the book that he wrote. Next week will be the seventh annual book week in Scotland, which demonstrates the Scottish Government’s commitment to literature and ensuring that more people can enjoy reading. We hope that people will also be inspired to write, just like Abbad.
As well as protecting core grant funding, we have made an additional £6.6 million available to Creative Scotland and guaranteed it for the next three financial years to support artistic endeavour across Scotland.
This is just one aspect of the Scotland that we are trying to create—a Scotland where human rights, dignity and equality are embedded at the heart of everything that we do. As we mark the importance of the written word in today’s debate, I affirm that, as a Government, we intend to put our words into practice and take the action that is necessary to make human rights real for each and every one of us. For example, we are building dignity, fairness and respect into our social security system. The Scottish Government has also been clear in its insistence that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union be retained in UK law following the withdrawal from the European Union, although that might have all changed while we have been in the chamber.
Annabelle Ewing said that we bear witness to the persecution and that we raise our voices in solidarity in our Parliament today, and she is absolutely right.
Joseph Conrad described the written word as having the
“power ... to make you hear, to make you feel” and
“to make you see.”
As we mark the day of the imprisoned writer and reflect on the individuals who have been highlighted by Scottish PEN and others, their stories give us insights into the acute importance of human rights and the terrible consequences when they are ignored and neglected. The only appropriate response that we can make is to stand with those who suffer for raising their voices and make it our ambition to do all that we can to ensure that freedom of expression is maintained throughout the world. I lend my support to Ruth Maguire’s motion.
13:27 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—