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Manila Hosts 2019 PEN International Congress​

Friday 4 October 2019 - 10:06am

International Secretary Katlin Kaldmaa, International President Jennifer Clement, Executive Director Carles Torner and Treasurer Eric Lax

Manila, Philippines | October 4, 2019

Speaking in Tongues: Literary Freedom and Indigenous Languages

On September 30 to October 3, the 2019 PEN International Congress was hosted by PEN Philippines and held in Manila. It was attended by over 150 writers and PEN members from 65 PEN Centres across the globe, and the first time in the history of PEN International for it to be held in Southeast Asia.

This year’s theme was “Speaking in Tongues: Literary Freedom and Indigenous Languages.” Taking center stage were minority rights as well as indigenous languages, some of which PEN said were in danger of extinction due to globalization and the dominance of a few languages. The theme closely reflects the declaration by the United Nations of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

The extensive public program included events held at the De La Salle University, the Cultural Center of Philippines and the National Museum of Fine Art in Manila.

Prominent keynote speakers including Fernand de Varennes United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, founder of Rappler media, and writers and journalists from more than 65 countries, representing at least 30 languages around the world and 17 Filipino languages.

Elected as Vice Presidents of PEN International during the Congress were Svetlana Alexiévich, who won the Nobel Prize in 2015; Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006; Frankie Sionil José, Elena Poniatowska, and Luisa Valenzuela. All were voted by unanimous decision by the Assembly of Delegates. Francisco Sionil Jose is one of the most acclaimed writers in the Philippines. His novels and short stories, translated into 28 languages, depict the social underpinnings of class struggles and colonialism in Filipino society. He is also founder of the PEN Philippines Center.

During the public events, journalists and writers discussed important themes surrounding the role of women writers in media, crisis in media and hate speech, the free speech crisis in different regions in the world, indigenous language rights, and the role of literature.

As well as other events of the Congress, Public discussions focused on:

  • Indigenous languages under threat
  • Impact of digital media and algorithms in Freedom of Expression.
  • Role of Woman Writers in contemporary media.
  • Hate Speech

As part of its annual routine, PEN International also issued a report on the host country, citing continuing threats to press freedom and literary expression in the Philippines.

Public actions

On 1st of October, PEN members released a statement to demand freedom of expression and assembly in Hong Kong. The statement said:

Alarmed at the events in Hong Kong on the 70th Anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, shortly after the 5th Anniversary of the Umbrella Movement, 72 PEN Centres from all around the world meeting at the 85th PEN International Congress in Manila, Philippines, demand that the Hong Kong government respects the right of free expression of journalists and writers and the right to freedom of assembly. We condemn the excessive use of force by the police, which has accelerated to the point of using live ammunition. On October 1, an eighteen-year-old protestor was shot and five live rounds were fired across different locations.

On October 2, the delegates remembered the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated on 2nd of October 2018 in the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Turkey. All the delegates and writers remembered him with an Empty Chair Memorial.

Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International, Eric Lax, Treasurer of PEN International, Dan Gorman, President of English PEN; Nik Williams of Scottish PEN, and Hayder Alwali, Board Member of PEN Iraq, visited the Saudi Embassy to hand over a letter regarding the murder of Khashoggi, signed by the delegates.

Congress resolutions

The assembly passed a number of resolutions on a number of issues, including situations of freedom of expression, threats to democracy, migration, and displaced writers, and attacks to freedom of expression in places such as Crimea, Iran and, among others.

Jennifer Clement, PEN International President, Per Wästberg, Emeritus PEN International President and Chair of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Eric Lax, Vice President of PEN International, Nayantara Sahgal, Vice President of PEN International, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Vice President of PEN International, and Paul Muldoon, Board Member of PEN America, presented a Resolution regarding The Democracy of the Imagination. An excerpt from the Resolution reads: “PEN believes the imagination allows writers and readers to transcend their own place in the world to include the ideas of others. This place for some writers has been prison where the imagination has meant interior freedom and, often, survival.”

The assembly passed a Resolution on the potential abuse of the United States Espionage Act in the demand of extradition of Julian Assange as an attack on freedom of expression"

The assembly also condemned the "suppression of free speech" by China in Hong Kong and Tibet and "human rights violations" in North Korea and Vietnam. Similarly, another resolution condemned the continued "stigmatization of the Belarusian language in Belarus, where the authorities have been seeking to assert the dominance of the Russian language.

In another broad resolution regarding the "threats to freedom of expression and peace in South and East Asia," the assembly condemned "systematic human rights violations" in North Korea and Vietnam.

PEN said it was "deeply concerned" by the "violent persecution of minority groups" such as the Rohingya of Myanmar and the Uyghur of China by "both state and non-state actors."

The assembly passed the PEN Philippines-proposed "Resolution on the promotion of language justice and the protection of the cultural integrity of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines.

The 85th PEN International Congress in Manila in figures and facts:

  • 146 delegates
  • 65 Countries
  • 67 PEN Centres
  • 4 working languages: English, French, Spanish, Filipino