The Writers and Free Expression project explores the role writers play in defending free expression in today’s globally interconnected world. Focusing on writers organisations, most significantly International PEN, the project considers the history of writers’ activism since 1921 and the current challenges writers face in defending free expression. The project brings together scholars, writers and activists with particular expertise in three geo-political areas, the UK, South Africa and India, to investigate these questions in their international dimensions.
In the second half of her interview with Professor Peter McDonald, PEN South Africa President Margie Orford discusses the limits of free expression, violence against women and why the PEN Charter is largely unchanged to this day…
For Margie Orford freedom of expression can be a very complex balance. Whilst describing the fourth article of the PEN Charter, which defends free expression and the ‘free transmission of ideas’, as the most important to her, Orford is very aware of the exploitation of these ideas in the world outside PEN.
She is very proud of PEN and South African PEN’s record and recent campaigns around free expression in South Africa.
In particular PEN’s activism around South Africa’s “Secrecy Bill”:‘[A]t the time I thought what can we do a little organisation of scribblers – that bill has never been passed.
‘It was part of a, we were part of a sustained and collected action of people with a lot of activism, there was people with more specialist organisations like us doing the kind of talking and writing stuff around it, interestingly that bill has not passed.
‘It’s through that collective action and its through what we did, and it’s a collaboration between PEN America, PEN South Africa and PEN International.’
Yet she knows only too well that with speech comes responsibility, as Timothy Garton Ash calls it, ‘robust stability’.
She said: ‘What is harm? Yes, you have the right to free expression, how does one measure insult and hurt, within that? What is the purpose of it?’
In particular, she sees free speech used as something to attack women, in some circles: ‘The issues were a bit blurred until we have seen what’s happened in the U.S. with people like that Milo Yiannopoulos…these very far right [people]. [This is] what a lot of men on the internet have used to troll women or minorities, you know, they use the claim to free speech for unrestrained insult.’
For Orford: ‘That idea of self-restraint, which is different to self-censorship, that’s a very dangerous and pernicious thing – where you self-censor because of fear of attack or for a number of reasons, fear of ostracism, whatever.
‘But the idea of restraint is what creates what Timothy Garton Ash calls that idea of robust stability, you can behave with good manners.’
She admits that with PEN ‘the criteria that I’ve set for myself is that maximum of free speech is desirable’ but she is only to aware of the limits of this approach.
Recently, her feminism has led her to try – with President Jennifer Clement – to embed some recognition of gender inequality into the PEN Charter.
This was, as she describes, ‘based on the thinking that violence against women is an extreme form of censorship.
‘It’s systemic, it happens, you know, there’s a kind of spectrum of it that happens from trolling on the internet to the murder of Jo Cox the MP, for instance.
‘I would read into that the women who leave their houses and can never go to school’.
For her all of these processes are linked.
‘And Jennifer’s from Mexico I’m from South Africa – and both of us have dealt for years with violence against women and violence against women as a form of censorship.’
Unfortunately, it proved far more complex to get the legislation through but she and Clement will try again, this time with a Women’s Manifesto later this year.
Listen to the second half of our interview to hear Margie discuss PEN South Africa’s successes, the Women’s Manifesto and her desire to create a space where literature can flourish.
Tune in to hear our very own Professor Rachel Potter talking about the history – and contemporary issues around – free speech and free expression in this short video.
It was filmed at an event at the University of East Anglia and also features Dr Alex Brown talking about hate speech and Professor Lee Marsden talking about faith speech – both of which are highly relevant to our project.
We talk to the Turkish author about her own experiences of censorship, her gratitude to the PEN Club and her ongoing commitment to free expression.
Speaking of her own experiences of PEN’s defence of free expression she said: ‘I personally, have experienced the importance of that solidarity when I was put on trial in 2006) [over her novel The Bastard of Instanbul] I will never forget representatives of English PEN had come to Istanbul at the time.
‘They were constantly following the trial, the case, and it felt so important to know that I was not alone.
‘I have huge respect and love for International PEN, English PEN and various PEN organisations across the world because I think that they are all branches of the same tree working together.’
The winners of the 2017 Freedom of Expression Awards, run by Index on Censorship have been announced and include a Chinese cartoonist, a Russian LGBT campaigner and a brave journalistic team from the Maldives.
Red Pepper (AKA Wang Liming) won in the Arts category, in recognition of his struggles as a political, cartoonist, satirising and criticising China’s government.
Liming said: ‘Since 2010, I have been adhering to the use of cartoons as a weapon against the Communist Party of China’s totalitarianism. The CPC’s blockade and crackdown on freedom of expression has never ceased. Their persecution against me has not stopped.’
He has refused to be silenced by the regime and will continue his work as a a fellow of the Index on Censorship Scheme.
Ildar Dadin is a Russian opposition and LGBT campaigner, jailed for staging a number of silent, one-man protests against Putin’s latest election victory.
Unable to attend the awards due to travel restrictions imposed upon him by the security services in Russia, Dadin may have been released from jail but remains imprisoned in his own home and his own country.
He refuses to stop speaking out and hopes that the award and fellowship will allow him to continue and promote his work worldwide.
Anastasia Zotova accepted the 2017 Campaigning Award on behalf of her husband Ildar Dadin. (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)
Turkey Blocks, led by Turkish British Technologist Alp Toker, won the digital activism award for their work monitoring restriction on free expression online in Turkey.
The organisation use software to track black outs and other censorship practices online and have reported 14 instances of online censorship links to Turkish authorities since 2016.
‘Our alerts, issued within minutes of detection, have helped Turkish citizens to stay online when shutdowns get implemented and provided the media with enough confidence to report assertively on digital censorship in Turkey.’ — Alp Toker
Maldives Independent won the Media fellow award, battling an increasingly oppressive regime in the Maldives. Following increasing crackdowns on ‘defamation’, which have allowed the government to heavily fine and even shut down media outlets, Maldives Independent is one of the only remaining independent media outlets.
Editor Zahenna Rasheed, who herself had to flee a violent police raid on the Maldives Independent offices this year said: ‘“Journalists in the Maldives have taken unprecedented risks in reporting on human rights, business corruption and abuse of authority. I believe a free press is crucial, essential in protecting human rights.’
SAGE Publishing’s Ziyad Marar, 2017 Freedom of Expression Award Journalism Fellow Zaheena Rasheed, Maldives Independent’s Ahmed Naish, CNN London bureau chief Tommy Evans (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)
Writers and artists fighting for freedom of expression worldwide have been honoured in the shortlist for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards.
A Zimbabwean pastor who was arrested by authorities for his #ThisFlag campaign, an Iranian Kurdish journalist covering his life as an interned Australian asylum seeker, one of China’s most notorious political cartoonists, and an imprisoned Russian human rights activist are among those shortlisted.
The awards are crucial for drawing attention to the causes of artists, writer, journalists and campaigners facing persecution all over the world for their work.
Sixteen people have been shortlisted, some of whom face violence, imprisonment and even death at the hands of authorities and extremist groups.
Nominees include Pastor Evan Mawarire whose frustration with Zimbabwe’s government led him to the #ThisFlag campaign; Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish journalist who documents the life of indefinitely-interned in Papua New Guinea as they seek asylum in Papua New Guinea; China’s Wang Liming, better known as Rebel Pepper, a political cartoonist who lampoons the country’s leaders; Ildar Dadin, an imprisoned Russian opposition activist, who became the first person convicted under the country’s public assembly law; Daptar, a Dagestani initiative tackling women’s issues like female genital mutilation and domestic violence; and Serbia’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), which was founded by a group of journalists to combat pervasive corruption and organised crime.
Other nominees include Hungary’s Two-tail Dog Party, a group of satirists who parody the country’s political discourse; Honduran LGBT rights organisation Arcoiris, which has had six activists murdered in the past year for providing support to the LGBT community and lobbying the country’s government; Luaty Beirão, a rapper from Angola, who uses his music to unmask the country’s political corruption; and Maldives Independent, a website involved in revealing endemic corruption at the highest levels in the country despite repeated intimidation.
One of last year’s winners Charlie Smith of GreatFire said:’The GreatFire team works anonymously and independently but after we were awarded a fellowship from Index it felt like we had real world colleagues. Index helped us make improvements to our overall operations, consulted with us on strategy and were always there for us, through the good times and the pain.’
“The creativity and bravery of the shortlist nominees in challenging restrictions on freedom of expression reminds us that a small act — from a picture to a poem — can have a big impact. Our nominees have faced severe penalties for standing up for their beliefs. These awards recognise their courage and commitment to free speech,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of campaigning nonprofit Index on Censorship.
Index on Censorship was set up by the poet Stephen Spender in 1972, to help to advocate for writers and free expression.
The winners will be announced at a ceremony on 19th April and will each recieve an Index on Censorship fellowship which provides support and training in areas such as advocacy and communications.
Awards are offered in four categories: arts, campaigning, digital activism and journalism.
Judges for this year’s awards, now in its 17th year, are Harry Potter actor Noma Dumezweni, Hillsborough lawyer Caiolfhionn Gallagher, former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, designer Anab Jain and music producer Stephen Budd.
Winners, who will be announced at a gala ceremony in London tomorrow.
In Part One of our interview, Peter McDonald talks to Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa, talks about why she is sensitive about the topic of banned books, why she joined PEN and why freedom of expression is a global concern…
Inspired in her politics and in her writing by her experiences growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, Orford first came to PEN as an activist:
‘I was educated in South Africa in the eighties and all the books were banned.’
‘I did economic history, half the books were banned – my shaping of the world was having restricted access to books.’
‘Most of the African writers and the criticism I wanted to read, were banned.’
As a result, she has a real resistance to the censorship of books and the curtailment of freedom of expression for writers more generally: ‘I have a sensitive spot about what you can read, and what you can’t.’
She describes how, later, with the new South African constitution in 1994 it seemed that ‘the right to free expression is constitutionally protected’.
‘There was such a sense of liberation and opening that sort of space that had been closed off so completely under Apartheid – no light, no oxygen – it really opened and expanded and into that came so much publishing and writing.’
She describes how, despite its difficult history in terms of free expression she has always found South Africa ‘an extremely outspoken country even under the worst of Apartheid there was, people might be banned or detained but there was a determination that the truth would be told.’
It was later, under the Zuma government, that she realised she needed to join PEN: ‘My interest with PEN was very specifically around the Secrecy Bill, this was legislation that put people I know and know well into prison.’
Since then she’s never looked back: ‘I like international work, I think that freedom of expression issues are global.’
Echoing the words of the PEN Charter itself, she adds: ‘If you’ve grown up as a reader, national borders are irrelevant.’
Listen to the first part of Margie’s interview with Peter McDonald, to hear her discuss Danish cartoonists, absolutes in free expression and why speech is always political.
The holdings, which relate mainly to International and English PEN but also contain letters and reports from writers and Centers around the world constitute perhaps the largest archive of PEN material in the world, dating back to 1912.
As well as details of meetings and regular newsletters, the archive also contains more than 100,000 pieces of correspondence revealing exchanges between members and documenting the association’s major issues and priorities.
Some of the represented writers include Chinua Achebe, Elizabeth Bowen, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Nadine Gordimer, Günter Grass, James Joyce, Arthur Miller, Octavio Paz, Salman Rushdie, Aung San Suu Kyi, Virginia Woolf and W. B. Yeats.
The important holdings illustrate PEN’s place at the centre of debates not only around writing, censorship and freedom of expression, but also around refugees and asylum, human rights and international cooperation.
The NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) funding, for the project entitled “Writers Without Borders: Creating Global Access to the PEN International and English PEN Records”, includes cataloging and creating an online finding aid for the records.
While the HRC has long held this crucial and fascinating archive, large parts of it have remained uncatalogued, leaving many of its treasures and much of PEN’s history as an international organisation undiscovered.
This grant will allow archivists to properly log all of its contents, to digitise particularly interesting elements for public use and even to use materials to teach students about PEN’s history.
In this fascinating new interview, hear novelist and Director of International PEN, Jennifer Clement share her thoughts with Peter McDonald on the current challenges facing writers.
She discusses her role in PEN Mexico and Cuban writers in exile, the success of her ‘campaign of shame’ and her desire to use the fame of celebrity writers to help further the causes of their colleagues around the world.
Of her time as President of PEN Mexico she said: ‘As I said in Turkey just now, you know you have 151 journalists in jail, I have 151 journalists in graves.
‘I mean we kill journalists in Mexico, we don’t jail them.
‘So to me I felt like it was such a critical time, so I agreed to be President [of PEN Mexico] and the decision I made was, one, that I had to get back the prestige of the Centre, re-build it, because it had gone through this bad moment, then I also wanted to bring, create, a campaign of shame, that was very clear in my mind.’
She also discusses her views on PEN’s collaboration with other organisations in their action in Turkey, revising the PEN charter and being the first female International PEN President.
Of being PEN’s first female President, she said: ‘I think the organisation was, felt very strongly that it was time for a woman.
‘I think because there was this sense and so they were looking around the panorama to see which woman might fit the profile.’