January Letter from John Ralston Saul,
International President, to the PEN Membership.
January 26, 2014
Dear PEN Members, Dear Friends,
Last week in Paris I went to the site of the Charlie Hebdo murders with Emmanuel Pierrat of
French PEN, Jarkko Tontti, Carles Torner and Sarah Clarke from our Secretariat. We placed
flowers and a message on your behalf. We then took part in a large emergency meeting of
journalists, editors and others pulled together by UNESCO.
Beyond condemnation of the violence and solidarity, there was already confusion over what
happens next. Can journalists be better protected? How are we to deal with the differences of
culture over the shape of satire, even within Europe. After all, nothing is a local as humour. And
what does local mean in an era of intense communications and immigration?
As one of the opening speakers – and the only one from a grassroots and international
organization of writers – I put forward PEN’s views. These seemed to find a lot of support.
The biggest risk today is that many people – political, security and others – are already trying to
take advantage of the shock and fear; to use the situation to their advantage. Security services are
lined up for more money and power; lobbying for more surveillance powers. Extremists on all
sides are agitating for hatred and various types of violence.
This is exactly the kind of atmosphere that obscures reality. For example, of the 200 or so
journalists killed every year, the vast majority die for reasons that have nothing to do with
religious extremism, Islamic or other. Most journalists and other writers are assassinated or
imprisoned for offending power – state, criminal or corporate, or a combination of the three.
Sometimes power hides behind faith. But corruption – the outcome of alliances between the state,
criminals and corporations – is a bigger problem than religion.
As for hands on protection, journalists aren’t in government. They don’t work in groups or in state
buildings. They don’t travel in protected convoys. Investigation, reporting, stating opinions,
mocking power, is all about being on a risky front line.
The single most important cause of danger to writers is impunity. Most people who kill journalists
are not investigated, tried or imprisoned. Punishment is so rare around the world that impunity
amounts to incitement to murder.
In most countries this situation could be changed – Mexico, Russia, Honduras, Brazil, for example.
When it comes to prison, think of Turkey or China. All these countries have political, economic
and/ or military partners who turn a blind eye when it comes to free expression. That is a
conscious choice. A cynical and, frankly, cowardly choice.
The first way to protect journalists and other writers is through a serious push against impunity.
That means honest and effective police and court systems which follow broad standards of free
expression set by treaties.
As for the obsessing of security forces with the continual expansion of their surveillance rights,
this has more to do with their own power and their discomfort with human rights regulations,
slowly put in place over 150 years, than it does with protecting citizens.There is no reason to be surprised by this sort of posturing. Shocked perhaps, but not surprized.
For example, we all saw the front rows of the massive march in Paris. The march itself was
remarkable for the way in which citizens of all backgrounds and beliefs came together in solidarity.
Many members of French PEN were there, as was Per Wästberg, one of our Presidents Emeritus.
But those first few rows included many representatives of regimes which play a central role in
violence, imprisonment and impunity when it comes to writers.
One example: Saudi Arabia was there, among the most important international missionaries of
religious extremism. And, for precisely anti-free expression reasons, that government is currently
flogging Raif Badawi every Friday, fifty lashes at a time, until 1,000 have been suffered. This
brutality may well be a sentence to death.
Among the more troubling reactions in the West has been the political and populist desire to
declare war on religious extremism. It sounds so simple. So logical. Except that a few decades ago
the same set of countries declared war an organized crime. It was worse than a failure. Then they
declared war on drugs, which turned into a tragicomedy. After the horror of September 11th, they
declared war on terrorism, which has been a counterproductive failure. Perhaps the biggest
outcome has been the explosion in security services everywhere in the world. The practical
outcome has been a continuing reduction in the free speech of citizens living in democracies – a
remarkable victory for the terrorists.
Already there are calls for more laws. More limitations. More money for security walls and
And, as has been noticed throughout Africa, a few days later, there was virtual indifference in the
West to the Baga Massacre of hundreds of innocent people by Boko Haram.
The most encouraging difference this time is that more and more people, including writers, are
asking fundamental questions about causes and about the sort of solutions which involve social
reforms, a rethinking of education structures, the isolation of immigrant communities. All reasons
None of which lessens our sense of tragedy and outrage, our sense of irredeemable loss after the
Paris murders. What we know, from our experience around the world, is that we must insist on a
calm, tough, careful response, which focuses on the reality of causes, on hypocrisy in public policy
and on the large problems – such as impunity – which must be addressed.
* * *
Let me rapidly add that Jarkko, Carles and I have just been in Germany with Regula Venske,
Secretary General of German PEN to see German Foundations. We also had a wonderful evening
in Berlin with members who had belonged to the old East German Centre. German PEN President,
Josef Haslinger was with us.
We were also in The Hague with PEN Nederland for the opening of the Writers Unlimited Winter
Nights literary festival. This was the 20th Anniversary of its founding by Ton van de Langkruis.
He is still very much in charge!
The opening evening is mainly devoted to our Free The Word! theme. It took place in a large and
jammed hall. Karl Ove Knausgård gave the FREE WORD LECTURE. He delivered a balanced and
sophisticated message, examining how the walls of free speech have moved over time. And these
changes come with mayor risks if we do not understand what is happening. I again spoke of the
Paris events. With Farah Karimi of Oxfam Novib, we gave out the Oxfam Novib PEN Awards to Razan al-Maghrabi of Lybia, Abdelmoneim Rahama of Sudan, Jila Bani-Yaghoub and her
husband Bani-Yaghoub of Iran. Razan spoke movingly, as did Manon Uphoff, the new President
of PEN Nederland.
* * *
The last part of 2014 was very intense for PEN. Marian Botsford Fraser and Carles were in Tunis
for a meeting of Maghreb writers. Seven of our African centres (Afrikaans, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi,
Uganda, South Africa and Zambia) gathered in Johannesburg for training sessions at the
University of Witwatersrand. They also used this opportunity to discuss strategy for the PEN
African Network (PAN). Ghanaian PEN President and Chair of PAN, Frankie Asare Donkoh led
this process. There was also a literary event celebrating Masande Ntshanga, winner of our first
PEN International New Voices Award a little over two years ago. He has now published his first
novel – The Reactive – to great reviews. A number of the other finalists from the first two
competitions are also published or soon will be.
* * *
Finally, in late November, early December, I was in Bangladesh to help open the Hay Dhaka
Festival. There are growing freedom of expression problems in this enormous country where there
are elections, but increasing questions about its democracy.
I met a large number of worried writers and academics. They were waiting for the judgment in
the David Bergman case, and I was able to sit down with many of those concerned. PEN is now
involved. The ruling came shortly after I left, and was interpreted by many as warning signal that
worse is to come. I met with our PEN Centre and its President Farida Hossain. Many more writers
are eager to join the centre and to work with them on the country’s situation. A few of us had a
meeting with the country’s Prime Minister.
There is a remarkable writing and journalistic community in this country of 160 million. Virtually
any literate Bangladeshi knows by heart the most famous verse of their national poet, Kazi Nazrul
Islam: “I am a Rebel.” It is curious how authorities can recite these lines without understanding
that they have become part of the same problem Kazi Nazrul Islam was addressing 90 years ago.
Best wishes to you all,
John Ralston Saul
January Letter from John Ralston Saul,