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.