SEPTEMBER 30, 2012

Dear PEN members, Dear friends,

Those of you who were in Gyeongju for the Congress are now home, those who were not able to come have had a good description of it from our Executive Director, Laura McVeigh, or from your Delegates.  Wole Soyinka, in one of the debates, said “literature is an international language”.  During our complex sessions, although we were constantly moving from language to language, you could sense how right he is.

First, many thanks to all of you for the confidence you have shown in re-electing me.  I feel we have all done a great deal together over the last three years and can only assure you that I will keep on working to advance our cause.

Korean PEN and Gil-won Lee with all his members did a wonderful job.  It was a particularly well organized Congress.  One detail worth mentioning was the role of the young, multilingual local volunteers.  We started doing this seriously in Belgrade.  In Korea there were 77 volunteers, many university students studying literature.  It was a great experience for them.  

For the third year in a row, almost 90 Centres sent delegates.  In other words, there was a pretty good representation from all regions.  

This was possible because 38 Centres received support from either Korean PEN or from sources developed by PEN International.  But this was not easy.  We still need to find a way to build this kind of support into our standard systems.

One particularly positive point is that after several years of dealing with the same financial challenges facing every civil society organization, along with most governments and individuals, PEN is now solidly on track, thanks to both the finance Committee led by Eric Lax and the international office.  Of course, we have to work at it every day and we have to keep on developing programs to help Centres develop. 

But let me go back to the Congress.  We tried again to make the Assembly less bureaucratic and more about ideas, with more groups of Delegates coming forward in groups to discuss issues.  The result was more creative and inclusive, but we are not yet there.  And some people missed the open discussion on the first morning which was introduced three years ago.

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The approval of the Gyeongju declaration on digital freedom of expression was the historic event of the 78th Congress.  It came out of a year’s worth of hard work by Hori Takeaki’s Committee.  Some details were raised from the floor of the Assembly over the text and we are busy working on the final wording.  But the Declaration is conceptually finished, approved by the Assembly, and is now PEN International policy. The finalized wording will soon be sent out to you, so that we can all start using it.

The Declaration must take on a life of its own as the Girona Manifesto has.  It is only one year old, yet I hear it being referred to and used around the world.

The digital world grows in importance every day and it is a world in which Free Expression is at risk.  Governments everywhere see this as an area to be controlled; corporations everywhere as an area to be owned.  The Gyeongju Declaration gives us a rulebook with which to defend free expression.

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The approval of the North Korean Writers in Exile Centre was an important initiative.

And the re-launching of the Lebanese Centre, with a broad coalition of Lebanon’s writers showed that it is entirely possible to re-energize Centres.  We believe the new Lebanese Centre can play an important regional role.

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There was a complex sometimes difficult discussion on the floor over the situation in Turkey.  I felt that this debate was particularly helpful.  It is a complex situation and we all need to try to understand better.  This discussion will have helped us as we develop the right strategy for our November Delegation to Turkey.

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There are always disappointments and we must admit that the situation in China remains very much the same.  This was highlighted when the house of Dr. Jiao, one of the ICPC Delegates, was surrounded by police, preventing him from leaving for Korea.  He was eventually taken away, and in some obscure manner arrested. Once the Congress was over he was released.  This sort of transparent manipulation of a citizen’s right to free expression is simply beneath the dignity expected of a great civilization such as that of China.

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Finally, a word on the constant challenge of keeping in touch with all of you.  We have been gradually introducing new elements: this monthly letter; then Laura’s; then the weekly summary of international interventions and activities.  The new website is another element.  I keep asking all of you to write to Sahar Halaimzai with news of your challenges or your new activities so that it can go on the site.  Sahar will help pull these entries into shape if that helps.

Now we are introducing a quarterly report; one after each Board meeting.  This is to keep you up to date on Board discussions and decisions.

Immediately after the Congress, the Board and the Committee Chairs spent two days together as Typhoon Maemi approached.  We held our meetings in a very beautiful, traditional-style Korean building, with wood and paper windows, and so you can imagine that our papers started blowing around a bit. We went over the Assembly’s decisions and worked out strategies.  And we left Gyeongju few hours before the storm actually hit the area. There was a lot of wind and horizontal rain, but it wasn’t as dramatic as predicted.

In any case, this Board report will come to you shortly.

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Again, many thanks to Korean PEN, and to Icelandic PEN in advance for taking on the 79th Congress.

All best wishes,

John Ralston Sau

September Monthly Letter From John Ralston Saul To The PEN Membership