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Writers in Prison Committee Chair, Marian Botsford Fraser - From Reykajvik, Seoul, and Tunis

Tuesday 3 December 2013 - 11:36am

Chair’s Notebook # 12

Congress began with good news: The unexpected release of Shi Tao, fifteen months before the end of his sentence. Shi Tao was serving a 10-year sentence, for the crime of distributing information abroad, via email. In 2004, Yahoo released confidential information about Shi Tao’s account to Chinese authorities, resulting in his arrest and sentence. His case was a harbinger of what was to become over the subsequent decade the single greatest challenge to freedom of expression that we have seen, the systemic surveillance by states, in collusion with corporations, of their citizenry, and indeed, as we now know, the citizens of all nations, surveillance bizarrely described by one American NSA official in these terms: in order to find a needle, you must first create a haystack.

Countries like the US, Canada, and Britain recently had their habits of surveillance exposed. We know what happens to the citizens of China, Bahrain and other states, when they are snared in the surveillance web. At a conservative estimate, at least one third of WiPC casebook cases are digital media cases. We’re only just learning what the impact of surveillance by Western governments will be. The only way we’ll find out is through the bravery of individuals daring to expose what governments wish to keep secret.

Our committee meeting at Congress was lively, thoughtful, well-informed; we talked about what we do best, what we think our priorities should be. We heard about freedom of expression issues in parts of the world where we have great difficulty in acquiring accurate information. We brainstormed on new ideas for dealing with intractable situations. Centres had the opportunity to network with one another on shared interests.

In October I attended a seminar in Seoul, at the invitation of Korean PEN, and jointly hosted by North Korean Writers in Exile; in my speech, Time to ask, time to act: how do we address freedom of expression violations in North Korea? I considered how PEN can take a position on this human rights crisis, when we cannot campaign on individual cases, because we cannot verify case information. Please read my blog here, where you’ll also find the speeches of Do Myunghak and Jang Haesung, and a letter from North Korean writers in exile to their colleagues still in North Korea.

In early November I represented PEN at a Euro-Magreb conference in Tunis, with WiPC PD, Ann Harrison. The conference “Les Identités Plurielles” was hosted by the EU ambassador; there were writers from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya and numerous European countries; Magda Carneci, president of Roumanian PEN, Adam Fehti, Tunisian PEN, Youssouf Elalamy, Moroccan PEN were there; Algerian PEN was invited but did not attend. PEN hosted a seminar/workshop on the subject of activism and identity. We created a strong statement of solidarity among writers, and we organized a letter to president of Tunisia, signed by thirty writers, asking for release of Tunisian poet Jabour Medji.

On November 15, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer (with an emphasis on Digital Freedom cases) was marked by many centres around the world; thank you all for sharing with staff the details of your events; we’re compiling a list. I sent the following text to Turkish PEN for their event that day:

One year ago on this day, writers from ten Pen centres sat together in an Istanbul garden in the gathering dusk. As the chill of evening closed in, red-shaded lamps were lit. We came together in recognition of Pen's Day of the Imprisoned Writer, and we each read something that expressed our solidarity with writers who could not sit in a garden with us, because they are in prison, or disappeared, or have been killed. We heard letters from imprisoned family members and Turkish colleagues and the poems of writers in solitary confinement elsewhere in the world. We were grateful to be together, and saddened by the absence of others, those for whom the silence of reflection and camaraderie was not a choice.

One year ago, a PEN International delegation met with President Abdullah Gul to discuss our great concerns about the draconian use of anti-terror legislation against thousands of Turkish people, including more than 100 writers, journalists, publishers and editors who have exercised their right to express their ideas and beliefs, to speak their minds. President Gul acknowledged that restrictions on freedom of expression "cast a shadow" on democracy in Turkey.

One year later, that shadow has deepened to a shocking degree. In the bitter aftermath of "Occupy Gezi" six months ago, there has been a dramatic increase in heavy sentences. More than 60 writers are in prison, and more than 70 are standing trial. The abuse of extended pre-trial detentions, of up to three years, continues. And one week ago, six journalists were sentenced to life in prison. As Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, I am here in spirit today with my Turkish colleagues, demanding that this flagrant, illegal defiance of the freedom of expression rights of the people of Turkey end.

A small committee of centres, with Ann and me, (Norwegian, English and American PEN in consultation with Turkish and Kurdish centres) is collaborating on ongoing Turkey projects: a report on Gezi, in partnership with English PEN (to be published in January) and other research and campaigning, including a major report, co-ordinated and funded by Norwegian PEN.

I spent two days in November in London working with WiPC team. We’re looking closely at our work, our products, such as the Case List, the RANs and our campaign methods. Ann has introduced the principle of “Informed Consent” into case work, meaning that we don’t actively campaign on a case without the expressed agreement of the individual. (There may be exceptions in case of extreme emergencies.)

In the new year, we’ll undertake a strategic plan for 2015 and beyond, in collaboration with other teams, and centres. An important piece of that work will be the promised Centre Questionnaire which we’ve delayed in order to improve, and also translate. We hope to get that out to you in January. And we are starting now to think about where we will be for our next WiPC conference, in 2015.

From my remarks to General Assembly at Congress: I'd like to express my personal gratitude to the staff of the WIPC and PEN International in London. PENs freedom of expression work has become increasingly complex in recent years. We’ve developed new tools, like the DM Declaration. We've published several important reports, such as the China Report and Writing Against Impunity, that embody in unique ways who and what PEN is. freedom of expression, freedom of literature. We have engaged in very sophisticated and important work at the United Nations, specifically the UPR. We respond almost daily to news of a new challenge to freedom of expression somewhere in the world. We issue hundreds of actions, appeals, letters to heads of state, news releases. We are now working in not only our three official languages, but Arabic, Persian, Hungarian, and with the support of our centres we are able to communicate in Chinese, Russian etc. At the same time, every single time ere is news of a writer arrested, charged, murdered, we have to conduct research into such cases. We could not do this without our highly qualified and professional staff, who work together collegially, swiftly indefatigably and effectively, often under great pressure. We the members are volunteers, we are for the most part amateurs who have joined PEN, as I heard the president of PEN Canada say the other day, simply because it is the right thing to do. We could not do what we do without the dedication and skill of our staff.

The end of 2013 approaches. In early December, my mind always returns to the snowy days in Oslo in December, 2010, when many PEN members gathered to honour Liu Xiaobo, as he was given the Nobel Peace Prize, which was placed on an empty chair. This year, I take considerable pride, as a Canadian writer, in the honouring of Alice Munro with the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Canadian writer ever to be so honoured.

T: @mbotsfordfraser

Don’t hesitate to be in touch with me and with WiPC staff.