APRIL 8, 2013

Dear PEN members, Dear friends,

This letter covers two months – February and March.  I have been constantly on the road, which is never good for writing.  

The main news I have comes out of a trip back to Mexico and on to Nicaragua.  But first some good news.

If you go to our website, you will find a report by Larry Siems on the move by a handful of OAS member states to gut the independence of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (http://bit.ly/12ALHBZ). Weakening them would have been a disaster for freedom of expression in the Americas.  The attempt was turned back on the 22nd of March at the OAS General Assembly in Washington.  However, like the move to formalize religious defamation at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, it was not clearly rejected.  Instead it was pushed to the side and could well be brought back by its advocates for another round.  

In any case, as in Geneva, PEN engaged itself in the defense of the IACHR and its Special Rapporteur.  It is good to see that such institutions have won the day.  

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I should also mention that Hori Takeaki and I were in London in February to talk strategy with Laura McVeigh and to spend time with our new staff.  Over the same period, Hori-san was part of the hiring committee interviewing for Sara Whyatt’s replacement.  Laura and Marian Botsford Fraser will be writing to you about the outcome very soon.

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Now back to Mexico.  Eight of us returned to Mexico City in a follow-up Delegation, a little over a year after our full Delegation went there.  This time we had Aline Davidoff, the new President of PEN Mexico and Alicia Quinones; Victor Sahuatoba, Vice-President of PEN San Miguel; Ola Larsmo, President of Swedish PEN and Elnaz Baghlanian,; Larry Siems, Director of International Programs of PEN American Centre; Alain Pescador and myself.  

I went to Mexico a few days early to give the opening speech at the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) meeting in Puebla. This was an opportunity to put forward PEN’s position on the situation in Mexico, on impunity in the Americas, and on the then OAS risk.  I had three days to talk about these issues with press leaders from throughout the Americas. 

In addition, I was able to meet with the Cuban blogger, Yoani Sanchez.

The Delegation then worked in Mexico City from March 11th to the 13th.  Our key meetings with officials were with the Attorney General, Jesus Karam Murillo, a central figure in the new government of President Peña Nieto, the Deputy Attorney General, Ricardo García Cervantes, the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, Laura Borbolla, and with the Deputy Minister of Interior in Charge of Human Rights and Legal Affairs, Lia Limon, who was in charge of putting in place the protection mechanism for journalists under threat. 

The position of the government is disconcerting in that it is extremely eager to claim that the situation is worse than we say it is.  Their emphasis was entirely on long-term reforms.  They had little to say about what could be done in the short-term.

The position we developed in these meetings and in public, beyond our official two-pager (http://bit.ly/13PRO93), was focused on two key points:

– That the long-term reforms were all very well, and we were certainly supportive of them.  However they did not deal with the ongoing violence, and could be rendered irrelevant if that violence were allowed to continue.  We insisted that there needed to be immediate emergency programs based on pulling together enough police and lawyers to get investigations, charges, trials and convictions underway.  They have to demonstrate that the justice system can work.

– That although the new President of the Republic has made some comments on freedom of expression, there is no clear sense that he is leading on this issue.  The President needs to take a strong and sustained public stand on the question of freedom of expression and impunity, in order to give direction to his officials.

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The launch of Swedish PEN’s new issue of The Dissident Blog devoted to Mexico at the residence of the Swedish Ambassador drew a large crowd, both of Mexican journalists and NGO figures.  The Dissident Blog is playing an important role in PEN getting out its free expression message.

Through this Follow-up Delegation we were able to reassert PEN International’s concerns and to demonstrate that we will be in Mexico on a regular basis to support our three PEN Centres and writers in general.   The Delegation’s work was reinforced by The Dissident Blog launch and PEN International’s UPR report on Mexico (http://bit.ly/Zt9664) prepared by Tamsin Mitchell and presented in Geneva at the same time.

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I then went on to Managua with Alain Pescador, who as many of you know works with me.  There, we spent three days in intense meetings with leading writers/journalists, NGO’s and government officials. Our program was set up by the Nicaraguan novelist, Sergio Ramirez, one of the founders of Nicaraguan PEN, and Cristiana Chamorro, chair of the Violeta Chamorro Foundation, which works on human rights issues in Nicaragua. We got to know the members of Nicaraguan PEN, and worked with them and other leading Nicaraguan writers on the enlarging of Nicaraguan PEN to include a broad coalition of the country’s writers.

Nicaraguan PEN is eager to move down this road.  It was good to talk with the Centre’s President, Juan-Carlos Vilchez, their Board, members of other writers organizations, and leading journalists about their part in the re-energizing of PEN Centres in Latin America.

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The situation in Nicaragua seems to be more or less the following. There are few, if any, indications of violence or imprisonment related to writers. However, the Ortega government seems to have taken the sophisticated road of limiting freedom of expression through such mechanisms as press ownership; the politicized spending of government money; and virtually no access to information – they are pretty much starving freedom of expression.  Nine of ten television broadcasters are now either in government hands, or in the hands of the government’s friends.

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Finally, as many of you know, two of our most important leaders from the International office have now moved on: Sara Whyatt and Frank Geary.  Sara has played an amazing leadership role in the WiPC over two decades.  Her knowledge and her devotion, her ability and her willingness to work endlessly until we have found some way to help writers in trouble, are all well-known.  Of course, she is still devoted to PEN and we will be seeing her again, but this is an important moment and I want to say thank you to Sara on behalf of all of us.

Frank, has played a key role in the creation of a whole new style of PEN programs.  His role in the education programs, mainly in Africa, is well-known to all of our Centres there.  His Centres’ support work has been invaluable.  He is off to run an NGO in Ireland.  Again, I know we will be doing many things with him in the future.  And again, many thanks Frank, from all of us.  

Best wishes to you all,

John Ralston Saul

February And March Monthly Letter From John Ralston Saul To The PEN Membership