May Letter from John Ralston Saul
International President, to the PEN membership.
May 13, 2015
Dear PEN members, dear friends,
This spring we undertook an ambitious three country intervention in Latin America. Sixteen PEN centres took part. We called it the PEN Summit of the Americas and it unfolded as we moved from Honduras to Nicaragua to Mexico.
What was this Summit about? In part, it was to focus on the growing violence against writers in parts of Latin America; a violence which is spreading. In part, it was to develop a broad PEN strategy for the Americas – from Argentina and Chile to Canada. Finally, we wanted to mark the growing strength of PEN in Latin America – a remarkable return of engagement and of influence. But we are only part way there and this summit was aimed at focusing on what remains to be done.
A small group of us, including Carles Torner, Tamsin Mitchell, our Latin American expert and Roberto Alvarez, began in Honduras, the most lethal place to practice journalism. We spent a lot of time with the impressive new Honduran PEN Centre, led by Dina Meza. Brendan De Caires, from PEN Canada, Kaitlin Owens from the University of Toronto Law School, were there to follow-up on PEN’s Honduran report. They are also working with PEN Honduras to set up a prize to recognize courage in journalism – Escribir Sin Miedo.
We met with the Minister of Justice, Abraham Alvarenga Urbina, with senior officials, with the Rector of the Universidad Autónoma de Honduras, Julieta Castellanos. Everywhere we insisted on the catastrophic 91% impunity level when it comes to violence against writers. There are a few signs of change – investigative institutions being put in place – but they are so underfunded as to be virtually crippled.
One sign of the atmosphere: on the way out of our final press release conference, there was an attempted kidnapping of one of the participants.
We spent time with Julio Ernesto Alvarado, a well-known Honduran television journalist. Officials have made every effort to silence him by using the criminal libel laws. Multiple interventions by PEN and others, including our appearance before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights on March 25, 2014, led to the issue of precautionary measures from the Court, overriding Honduran law. Nevertheless, he is continuously under threat.
But what the Alvarado case highlights is just how dangerous criminal libel can be. And it remains in place almost everywhere, including throughout most of Europe. In many places it is not being exploited, but at any moment it could be.
The point is that criminal libel is a pre-democratic tool designed to empower those in authority to shut down free expression. Libel laws are necessary, but they should not be under criminal law.
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In Nicaragua we were in the hands of our strong Centre, led by Gioconda Belli. We spent time with them. Gioconda and I also helped to open the Granada International Poetry Festival – a great gathering of writers. The next day, along with Ernesto Cardenal and Gioconda, I took part in a public meeting in Managua on the government’s plans to build a canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Why? This is an enormous project which would change the country. For the better? For the worse? How could anyone know. It could radically change the environment and people’s lives. Yet all decisions have been made without proper debate or examination of the documents. It has been an authoritarian and dubious process. And a practical example of how free expression can be suffocated without violence.
We then sat down with a number of PEN centres, including Honduras, Nicaragua and Karla Olascoaga from Guatemala to develop a strategy for PEN in Central America – The Managua Declaration. Gloria Guardia (Panamanian, PEN International Vice-President, Chair of the PEN Iberoamerican Foundation) was part of the debate.
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The final stage took us to Mexico City – the third PEN delegation there in four years. There were writers from 16 PEN centres. It was a remarkable gathering. You will find the full delegation at the end of this letter. It was particularly important that we had 6 centre Presidents from the region, including Luisa Valenzuela from Argentina, Claudio Aguiar from Brazil, Jean-Euphele Milce from Haiti, along with those of Honduras and Nicaragua and the Guatemala’s centre Vice-President. Robert Wallace came from PEN USA, Pablo Medina and Sandra Cisneros from PEN America, Gaston Bellemare from PEN Quebec, Wayne Grady from PEN Canada. Regula Venske from PEN Germany, Dylan More from Wales PEN Cymru, as well as much of the international leadership (Hori Takeaki, Eric Lax, Marian Botsford Fraser, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman and myself).
We were welcomed by PEN Mexico, its President Aline Davidoff along with Alicia Quiñones and Rose Mary Espinosa. Rita Gracián from PEN Guadalajara and Victor Sahuatoba from PEN San Miguel de Allende were very much involved.
Perhaps most important was a large public event – PEN Pregunta – following up on PEN Protesta in 2012. Fifty writers took part, including Homero Aridjis, Elena Poniatowska and Carmen Aristegui, each speaking for one minute in alphabetical order, mixing the delegation with Mexican writers.
The Mayor of Mexico City formally welcomed the whole delegation to the capital with a public discussion on the role of literature and free expression in the city. We then saw the impressive new Human Rights Commissioner, Luis Raúl González Pérez. This was followed by a series of intense meetings with public officials, including almost two hours with the Minister of the Interior, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, and ending with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Antonio Meade. A group of us testified before the Senate Human Rights Committee.
What is the situation? On the positive side, there have been serious arrests of crime leaders. Also, the State mechanism intended to protect journalists has been strengthened, although it remains not as effective as it needs to be.
The reality is that the number of writers killed has worsened under President Peña Nieto. And I must admit that I did not sense any real understanding or acceptance among those in power that this is a serious problem which can only be dealt with by attacking what could be called an unholy trinity of corruption, violence and impunity. Impunity is the measurement of change. In Mexico it is at 90%. There has been no change. Corruption is the key. Nothing will change if senior public officials – civil, political and military – as well as mainstream businessmen leaders are not investigated and tried.
One minister expressed his exasperation, as we insisted on the problem, by commenting that 103 writers killed and 25 disappeared wasn’t that many. He then said they ought to be able to get the impunity rate down to 70% within one year. It is hard to comment on such comments.
One element which has changed the atmosphere is the murder of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa on September 26, 2014. Whatever the real cause of the killings, we must not forget that they were on their way to Mexico City to speak at a protest – to use their freedom of expression. We were able to sit down with Omar García, one of those who managed to escape. He is a remarkable young man. Constantly speaking out. Constantly under threat. The Mexican government should be assuring his safety, not worrying about whose side he is on.
Finally, we held a second session of our PEN summit of the Americas with all the centres participating. The result is a draft strategy of the PEN Summit of the Americas Declaration, which we hope to finalize in October at the Quebec Congress.
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Before Latin America I was in Macedonia, in Ohrid, for reasons unrelated to PEN. Later, in Skopje, I used the opportunity to spend time with Macedonian PEN, now led by Ermis Lafazanovski and Vladimir Martinovski. Plus, of course, one of our International Vice-Presidents, Katica Kulavkova is Macedonian. We all spent time with the members and discussed the already worsening situation in Macedonia. Vida Ognjenovic, another one of our International Vice-Presidents, was also with us.
At that time, one of Macedonia’s leading journalists, Tomislav Kezarovski, was in jail. PEN can see no justification for the charges against him. It turned out that a large part of the cultural community was going to risk a protest march on the day I was in Skopje. Katica Kulavkova, Vladimir Martinovski, Natasha Avramovska and I took part. Halfway through the march, Tomislav was ejected from prison and himself joined the marchers. The next morning I went with Vladimir and Natasha to call on him and his family.
Since then, as you know, the situation has worsened. Following the revelation of the surveillance of more than 20,000 people, including many writers, over the last four years, there have been ever larger demonstrations.
This is one of those peculiar cases in which a country trying to function as a democracy discovers that some of its senior authorities have been caught up in undermining the democracy that brought them to power.
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There are two impressive PEN centres in the United States. A few weeks ago, Eric Lax and I spent time with PEN Center USA, based in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. Their Vice-President, Jamie Wolf and Treasurer, Robert Wallace, were very helpful. Robert was the centre’s delegate on the Mexico mission. And I was deeply impressed by their staff under their Executive Director, Michelle Franke.
The Centre has some great programs. Eleven different literary awards. They organize writing workshops in shelters, in indigenous communities, in classrooms. Perhaps most impressive is their Emerging Voices program. It is aimed at those who want to be writers but lack access. Those who successfully apply get an 8 month fellowship including professional mentorship, classes at UCLA, Master classes, voice instruction, evenings with publishers and editors. It is a remarkable program.
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Some of you will have read about an intense debate inside the other U.S. based centre – PEN American Center – which is headquartered in New York. This debate was about whether to give an award to Charlie Hebdo. It was an important moment, because debates like these are central to healthy free expression. There are always several of them going on at any one time on different issues inside different PEN centres around the world.
And in each case they are a reminder that free speech requires a thick skin. It amazes me, when I see heads of state or heads of government or cabinet ministers, how many of them are touchy, almost childish; how fragile their self-esteem; how they detest public debate because it exposes them to criticism.
I always tell them that they need thicker skins; that they should follow the example of writers. We have gotten used to unfair and unpleasant criticisms – of course it is unfair! – from the moment our first book is published.
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On April 14th and 15th, Jarkko Tontti, Josef Haslinger, President of German PEN, Carles Torner, Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN and I were in Brussels at the European Parliament to deliver a remarkable document on the refugees/asylum seekers crisis on the Mediterranean. This was an initiative of German PEN. The document lays out how Europe could move from a defensive and reactive position to a positive position based on policy. It was signed by 1200 European writers. Günter Grass was the first to sign. It was his last public act. You can still add your name. We presented the document to Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament at a Press Conference and then sat down with him in private to discuss the situation in detail.
The next day, we held a public debate inside the European Parliament on Freedom of Expression in a Time of Crisis, adding to our group three more writers; Tahmima Anam, Bangladeshi novelist and journalist; Kamila Shamsie, British-Pakistani novelist; and Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Turkish-German writer.
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In my last letter I wrote about the situation in Bangladesh. We have a growing PEN centre there, but the situation in the country is in rapid decline. There were already ample signs of trouble in November 2014 when I was there, but now bloggers are being murdered one after the other, most recently Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman Babu and Avijit Roy.
Please add your name to an important public letter here.
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Finally, as you know, PEN has been working hard to oppose the growing number of policies which limit the free expression rights of the LGBTQI community in an increasing number of countries. We have just launched a new website, PEN OutWrite focused on this, which includes contributions from Pablo Simonetti and Colm Tóibín.
Have a look and contribute.
All best wishes,
John Ralston Saul