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2020: Freedom of Expression in the Time of Pandemic

86th Pen Congress

PEN International held its 86th Annual Congress, its first-ever digital Congress and marked the beginning of our one-year journey towards PEN’s Centenary in 2021.

2020 has been a challenging year in many respects, particularly for freedom of expression as the global COVID-19 pandemic locked borders, restricted travel, with many governments taking advantage of the situation to impose further limits on free expression.

From 2 to 6 November 2020, 296 participants from 90 PEN Centres gathered on line to examine and debate the challenges to free expression around the world.


➔ 295 participants
➔ 91 PEN Centres + special guests: International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) and PEN Emergency Found (PEF)
➔ 3 New Centres: PEN Ecuador, PEN Greece and the very first indigenous Centre: PEN Chiapas Multicultural
➔ Gender balance in representation: F – 50.9%, M – 48.4%, NB – 0.7%
➔ 2 Congress resolutions passed
➔ 9 hours of live sessions
➔ 104 hours of web development work
➔Digital reach and engagement: Empty Chairs – 1,5 to 3,5k people reached; President’s Welcome Speech – 1k people reached; Public events – 7k people reached, 39 shares, 2,3k views.


Jennifer Clement, PEN International President, opened the 86th Annual Congress with a welcome speech. The whole speech can be watched here.


PEN International paid tribute to five prominent cases which were recognised as our Empty Chairs: Chimengül Awut, Osman Kavala, Sedigeh Vasmaghi, María Elena Ferral and Abdel Wahab Yousif.

Jens Lohmann, Danish writer and journalist, was elected Vice President of PEN International for his journalistic achievements and for his dedicated and tireless commitment to the fight for freedom of expression.


The Assembly of Delegates adopted two resolutions:

  • PEN Resolution on Freedom of Expression in the Time of COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented global challenge requiring monumental governmental responses. There is a risk, however, that the current pandemic may be exploited to constrain freedom of expression. The resolution calls for public access to sound medical and scientific information about the virus, which must not be limited to suit political or economic interests. It also calls for the context of this emergency not to be used by governments to further silence voices of opposition. Read the full resolution.
  • PEN Resolution on China. The Resolution highlights the widespread persecution of writers, poets and public intellectuals across the country, from the systematic detention of over a million Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, to the promulgation of the national security law in Hong Kong and the profound chilling effect it has had on the territory. Read the full resolution.


PEN Chiapas Multicultural, representing writers from some of Mexico’s largest indigenous populations, with many indigenous languages and dialects. PEN Ecuador and PEN Greece were also welcomed as new centres, bringing the total to 143 PEN Centres representing writers across the world. For more information about the NEW Centres, please check the videos below:





Centre Updates

53 Centres shared updates on their prominent achievements, the most urgent cases of writers in peril and their pressing concerns with regard to freedom of expression in their own country. List of centres as follows:

PEN America, PEN Argentina, PEN Bangladesh, PEN Basque, PEN Belarus, PEN Bosnia-Herzegovina, PEN Cambodia, PEN Canada, PEN Chinese Writers Abroad, PEN Croatia, PEN Cuban Writers in Exile, PEN Danish, proposed PEN Ecuador, English PEN, PEN Eritrea in Exile, PEN France, PEN German, PEN German-speaking Writers Abroad, PEN Ghana, PEN Guatemala, PEN Guinea Bissau, PEN Honduras, PEN Iranian in exile, PEN Iraq, PEN Japan, PEN Kazakh, PEN Kurdish, PEN Macedonian, PEN Malawi, PEN Melbourne, PEN Moscow, PEN Myanmar, PEN Nepal, PEN Netherlands, PEN Norway, PEN Paraguay, PEN Perth, PEN Philippines, PEN Puerto Rico, PEN Quebec, PEN Russian, PEN Saint Petersburg, PEN San Miguel, PEN Suisse Romand, PEN Svizzera Italiana e Retoromancia, PEN Swiss German, PEN Sweden, PEN Tibet, PEN Turkey, PEN Ukraine, PEN Venezuela, PEN Wales Cymru, PEN Zimbabwe.

Public panels

PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee hosted two live discussion panels: “Who Writes for Whom?” and “Freedom of Expression in the Time of Pandemic”. The panel on “Who Writes for Whom?” included reflections on PEN’s Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, and on writing as a creative process. Panellists Ayad Akhtar, Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, Sisonke Msimanga, and Tara June Winch explored whether there are limits to the imagination and whether writers can appropriate others' experiences and make them their own. Other ideas discussed included: Who owns stories? Do marginalised communities have a claim over their representation? How does power influence the shape of stories? What can writers do to express themselves while ensuring that others, too, have the right to express their version of reality? Click here to watch this panel.

The panel on “Freedom of Expression in the Time of Pandemic” examined how many governments have imposed sweeping regulations that track and trace people's movements, creating a surveillance state. Panellists PJ Thum, Gioconda Belli, Ahdaf Soueif and Kakwenza Rukirabashaij shared their experiences on new legislation framed to restrict freedoms, and what writers can do to challenge such tyranny. They also reflected on whether we are experiencing more of the same, or whether the situation has worsened. Other questions raised included: are more writers being jailed, more journalists facing prosecution, more intellectuals being sent to or kept in overcrowded jails? Click here to watch this panel.

Matching Centres

PEN Centres were invited to take part in a Matching Centre pilot project. Centres who agreed to participate were randomly connected to work together throughout 2021 and report back on their activities at Centenary Congress. This concept was inspired by Centres who have partnered to jointly achieve positive impact. This includes PEN Ukraine and PEN Belarus, PEN Ukraine and PEN America, as well as PEN Myanmar and PEN America.


  • Safety for all our participants
  • Establishment of new protocols for online events
  • Development of an environmentally friendly Main Assembly model
  • Wise management of expectations: no need to review decisions in rapidly changing circumstances and very limited travel
  • Digital participation: this gave voice to Centres who could not afford to join Congresses in previous years, including younger participants and more staff members
  • Costs savings for support of the Centre’s digital capacity
  • Relief on risk assessment
  • Enormous learnings in developing new standards and procedures for digital events
  • Strengthening of PEN’s environment and spirit during online events.