With PEN International’s focus on Impunity through 2012, I attended the UNESCO organised UN inter-agency meeting on the Safety of Journalists and the issue of impunity this week in Vienna.  With Thursday marking the international Day to End Impunity, it was good to meet with other NGOs, UN agencies, the UN Special Rapporteurs Frank La Rue and Christophe Heynes to discuss ways of taking collaborative action globally to combat the freedom of expression issues faced by writers and journalists worldwide.  On Thursday PEN International also launched a new Anthology Write against Impunity – in Spanish and English bringing together a remarkable collection of writings in support of writers and journalists subject to impunity.  The Anthology can be read here: www.pen-international.org

The visit to Vienna also was an opportunity to meet with the Austrian PEN Centre.  Warm thanks to Helmuth A. Niederle and to Jurgen Strasser for their kind hospitality and welcome. The Austrian PEN Centre continues its literary and freedom of expression work with gusto – particular initiatives of note are the current Time to Say: No campaign and the various literary undertakings of the centre which we’ll be featuring on the PEN International website shortly. The  Austrian PEN Centre has a wonderful new home page and there is a write up of our meeting (in German) at: http://www.penclub.at/zz/



This was the challenge I recently set aspiring writers taking part in the Young Journalists’ Academy – to write a short article explaining why they believed that freedom of expression matters. This question is at the heart of PEN International’s work – it is what our members, be they writers, academics, poets, bloggers, publishers, editors or translators, campaign on behalf of constantly. Whether PEN members are speaking out in Geneva at the Human Rights Council on conditions for writers in Bahrain and Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring, or our Writers for Peace Committee is defining a new manifesto to look anew at the global freedom of expression challenges to peace in our world as paradigms shift; or it is our Women Writers’ Committee campaigning on behalf of the rights of women around the world who cannot have their voices heard; or the Writers in Prison Committee campaigning against impunity and running hundreds of campaigns on behalf of individual writers around the world who would be silenced by their governments – at the core of all of this work carried out by thousands of individuals in over 100 countries lies a belief in the power of, and the right of the individual to, freedom of expression.

Without the ability to articulate what we see as challenging in the world around us we become mere ciphers. The richness of our ideas, debates and arguments is reduced to a series of acceptable messages, a narrow range of voice and ‘creative’ output and we all become the poorer for it. If we are to survive and thrive on this small planet we call home, we need to continue to champion values that make our world richer, our relationships deeper and more meaningful, our understanding more alert, broader, inclusive and acknowledging. It was a writer, Virginia Woolf, who described life thus, “behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art….we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” A rejection of the right to freedom of expression and the repression of that freedom is the rejection and repression of our very humanity. Without our humanity there is no music, there is no ‘thing itself’ and that surely is why freedom of expression matters.

Here are extracts from three of the best entrants from the Young Journalists’ Academy to the question of ‘Why freedom of expression matters?’.  Congratulations to winner Benjamin Gibbons for his entry and to runners-up, Amro Nagdy and Stefano Hollis and thanks to all the young writers who participated.

Noo Saro-Wiwa and Drew Campbell in Edinburgh

Where can you find Irvine Welsh, Elif Shafak, Carlos Gamerro and Don Paterson together in one yurt? Well, at Edinburgh International Book Festival of course. PEN International saw all these writers gathered around the breakfast buffet in the Authors’ Tent on Sunday morning, and suspects it will not see the likes again.

PEN International was in Edinburgh to join with Scottish PEN and the Book Festival to assist with their Free the Word! event the same day. Scottish PEN President Drew Campbell was in conversation with Nigerian author Noo Saro-Wiwa, daughter of executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa read from her wonderful travelogue Looking for Transwonderland, in which she returns to Nigeria and writes about such varying issues as corruption, the publishing industry and male prostitution.

Also on stage was Scottish PEN’s Empty Chair, created – under Drew Campbell’s supervision – by art students from Lomond School, Helensburgh, on the west coast of Scotland. This beautiful work features the names of writers on whose behalf Scottish PEN has campaigned, including Ken Saro-Wiwa and Lydia Cacho; on the back is a mounted a plaque carrying a proclamation of Human Rights and Freedom of Expression. The Chair has been exhibited at the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, and has also been sent around the country and abroad to promote Scottish PEN’s important campaigns. A miniature version of the Empty Chair is housed at Waseda University in Tokyo.

The Empty Chair

Since the 1980s PEN International has used the Empty Chair at events or in public spaces to symbolise a writer who could not be present because they were imprisoned, detained, disappeared, threatened or killed. The Empty Chair often represents a specific case, rather than all writers at risk, and regularly takes centre stage at such venues as the Sydney Writers’ Festival, International Festival of Authors in Toronto; a permanent Empty Chair, created by Antony Gormley, was unveiled outside the British Library in 2011 to mark the 90th anniversary of English PEN. PEN Centres worldwide traditionally exhibit an Empty Chair on November 15 – the Day of the Imprisoned Writer.


Free the Word! 27 June 2012