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Digital Dystopia: Truth Vs. Propaganda and Censorship

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The joint PEN International Writers in Prison Committee and The International Cities of Refuge Network meeting will be held both in person and online on the 20th-22nd of May, 2021.

We hope that virtual attendance will permit a higher turnout than ever.

Click here to register:

The registration deadline is May 15, 2021. No last-minute registration will be admitted.

General Information:

Writers in Prison & International Cities of Refuge Network Meeting

20th-22nd May

Platform: Zoom

Working language: English

Time: GMT+1 (London time)

We thought the Internet would liberate us, instead we are speaking to fewer people, mainly to those we agree with. In the meantime, we try silencing, cancelling or opposing those we disagree with, including getting them removed from social media. Companies are deciding matters arbitrarily. Governments cannot be relied upon. NGOs are not absolutist in defending freedom of speech.

In that environment, what is the role of a writer speaking truth to power? Whose truth? Whose power?

Meeting Agenda:

Day I

Thursday, May 20, 2021

13:30 Opening the meeting (practice room and free chat)

13:55 Housekeeping note

14:00 Empty Chair/ICORN check in

PEN programme ICORN programme

14:05 WiPC Chair report + Q&A (20 min) How to deal with Threats

14:25 ELECTIONS: Presentation of candidatures Q&A session Elections opening


15:00 Joint opening session: PEN in hundred – and 15 years with ICORN - PEN 100 years, and what now? Historical introduction by Carles Torner, PEN International Centenary Director 1933, 1960, 1996, 2006… PEN’s history has been shaped by writers in exile and campaigning for imprisoned colleagues - 15 years of cooperation – A success story for the future PEN and ICORN have learned together how to protect and welcome writers and artists at risk, what is next in our common path? Carles Torner in dialogue with Cathy McCann (PEN International Protection Manager) and Helge Lunde (ICORN's Executive Director) - Safe, not Silent: a conversation on persecution, refuge and what comes after, with: Ahmedur Rashid Chowdury; Tutul – writer/editor, former ICORN resident, Skien/Bangladesh) Zamira Abbasova – journalist, peace activist, ICORN resident, Leiden/Azerbaijan Nazeeha Saaed – journalist, cultural activist, former ICORN resident, Paris/Bahrain Moderated by Basim Mardan – writer, playwright and translator from Iraq, Protection Officer for PEN International, former ICORN resident, Skien/Iraq


16:00 Center updates (based on Regional approach) – 3 mins per Center Workshop session for ICORN writers/artists and coordinators

Day II

Friday, May 21, 2021

13:30 Opening the meeting (practice room and free chat) (25 mins)

13:55 Housekeeping note

14:00 Empty Chair/ICORN check in

14:05 Staying Safer Online: Online Abuse Self-Defence and Digital Security 101 Online offered equal opportunity for everyone to access the media – to read what they wish, to speak what they wish. It allowed people who wished to go public to do so and promised anonymity to those who wished it so. But technology now allows unprecedented surveillance capabilities to companies and governments as well as hackers, exposing writers, journalists, and artists to risks. We are vulnerable because our activities on the Internet can be tracked. We are also vulnerable because those who disagree with us can undertake sustained, hostile attacks in the digital space in the hope of intimidating and silencing us. In some instances, those threats have real world consequences. Our panellists will speak about the way the threats have grown, the types of risks that have emerged, steps we can take to protect and secure ourselves, and offer practical tips about the protocol we should follow and protection strategies we can deploy so that we can keep doing what we wish to do while keeping us safe. Viktorya Vilk – program director for digital safety and free expression at PEN America, over a decade of experience working in non-profits to expand access to the arts and defend creative and press freedom. Julie Trébault – director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a project of PEN America that aims to safeguard the right to artistic freedom by connecting threatened artists to support Ela Stapler – digital safety consultant for artists, PEN America Moderated by: Salil Tripathi – an Indian author and editor, contributing editor to The Caravan and Mint, the Chair of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee


15:15 Launching PEN International 2020 Case List PEN International has for a century monitored and documented the case of those who have suffered repression for their opinions expressed in writing, and advocated on their behalf. Since 1961 PEN International has produced a list of cases list of writers around the world who are detained or otherwise persecuted for their peaceful political activities or for the practice of their profession. This year’s annual report provides a global analysis of over 200 cases monitored by PEN International between January to December 2020 and gives a summary of the wider context under which both journalists and writers are challenged. Editor of the case list, Sara Whyatt, is in conversation with PEN International’s team of regional experts to discuss its findings, identify the key challenges in this pandemic year, and what they see as the threats to freedom of expression in the future. The audience will be asked to consider what actions they can take to support their writer colleagues in their struggle for freedom to write. Sara Whyatt, former director of PEN International’s freedom of expression program

In conversation with: Alicia Quiñones, Americas Regional Coordinator Aurélia Dondo, Europe Programme Coordinator Mina Thabet, MENA Regional Coordinator Nduko o’Matigere, Africa Regional Coordinator Ross Holder, Asia Regional Programme Coordinator



17:15 PUBLIC PANEL #1: GLOBAL OVERVIEW 2020/2021 – REFLECTIONS FROM CUBA, BELARUS, ERITREA, EGYPT, and NICARAGUA Country indicators of the challenges to freedom of expression in 2020 – voices from Cuba, Belarus, Eritrea, Egypt, and Nicaragua will speak about these challenges, and how the current Covid-19 pandemic has provided a cover for governments to overuse and abuse their powers. Experts will reflect on patterns and trends that can inform future campaigning actions and advocacy for free expression. Panellists: Daniel Pedreira – PhD candidate in Political Science, Secretary of the PEN Cuban Writers in Exile Pedro X Molina – political cartoonist, ICORN resident, Ithaca NY/Nicaragua Mina Thabet – Egyptian Human Rights Defender, researcher, and expert on minorities issues, and MENA Regional coordinator at PEN international Taciana Niadbaj – writer, human rights defender, manager of cultural and media projects, PEN Belarus Vice President Siba Kidane – Eritrean journalist, poet, and political activist, PEN Eritrea Moderated by: Nduko o’Matigere – human rights activist and civil society specialist, with more than two decades of program development and management experience in Africa; Africa Regional Coordinator for PEN International


17:20 Closing note


Saturday, May 22, 2021

13:30 Opening the meeting (practice room and free chat) (25 mins)

13:55 Housekeeping note

14:00 Empty Chair

14:05 Session on informed consent Informed consent in theory and practice: what does it mean for human rights research and advocacy? By Ross Holder, Asia Regional Programme Coordinator and Cathy McCann, Protection Manager, PEN International


15:00 PUBLIC PANEL #2 MYANMAR – FOCUS OF THE WORLD Security forces in Myanmar have killed more than 500 civilians protesting the military coup which have prevented a civilian government to take office in February. The coup is having a devastating impact on freedom of expression, with scores of writers and journalists targeted, jailed and killed. How do writers create when the nation is in a state of siege? How do they try to regain the freedoms they had fought so hard to secure? How do young writers, mostly tuned to the digital world, publish literature and create arts in the midst of the current turmoil? How can literature be truly inclusive so that ethnic minorities' languages are promoted? In this panel, writers will discuss how they have used words and speech to understand and interpret their own reality. Panellists: Ma Thida – member of the PEN International Board, PEN Myanmar, award-winning writer;, International Writing Program, Iowa, 2005 James Byrne – poet and editor, co-editor of Bones will Crow and I am Rohingya, anthology of poetry from refugee camps Aye Lei Tin – writer and journalist, Myanmar – International Writing Program, Iowa, 2019 Bones will Crow, anthology of Burmese poetryrow, anthology of Burmese poetry Moderated by: Salil Tripathi – an Indian author and editor, contributing editor to The Caravan and Mint, the Chair of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee



17:15 PUBLIC PANEL #3 DIGITAL DISTOPIA Internet was meant to expand our horizons and frontiers, giving voice to the powerless.. However, as this network has democratised communication, the anonymity it offered has allowed human rights defenders, women, minorities, and journalists to be intimidated, harassed, and in some cases silenced. Today, companies increasingly control data, trading it for profit and violating privacy, and acquiescing with governments by suppressing critical voices. Wider access also means wider surveillance, and the sheer noise of armies of trolls is crowding out dissent. Is the digital future a sharper, harsher, and more dangerous mirror of our reality? Can Internet's original promise be fulfilled? What strategies can writers and artists develop to secure their freedoms? Panellists: Matt Bailey – PEN America’s digital freedom program director, focusing on issues ranging from surveillance and disinformation, and digital inclusion Angelo (Sarge) R. Lacuesta – fictionist, writer for film, publisher, member of the Board of PEN Philippines Rishi Majumder – journalist with the focus on culture and politics, based out of Mumbai and Delhi, PEN Delhi member Khalid Albaih – political cartoonist, culture activist, ICORN resident, Copenhagen/Sudan) Supriti Dhar – writer/woman activist, former ICORN resident, Norrköping/Bangladesh)

Moderated by: Hossam Fazulla – researcher and Digital Artist with a focus on cultural policies and new media, based in London, Digital Consultant at PEN International


17:20 Closing note

Practical Information:

Sessions will be held online, partly as a closed, invitation-only meeting. Further details and technical information will be shared with participants closer to the time of the event. Sessions will be recorded by the Secretariat for reporting purposes only and will not be broadcast or published later.

The public portion will be streamed on YouTube and PEN International Facebook page and recordings can be used for promotional purposes.

Chatham House Rule will apply, and participants will not be allowed to record.

Sessions will be held in English only. Unfortunately, no language interpretation can be provided. We apologise for this inconvenience.

We will resend the invitation link to participants 24 hours before the event.