May/June letter from John Ralston Saul, International President, to the PEN membership.


3 July, 2013

Dear PEN members, Dear friends,

This letter comes a few days after the Turkish government forced the peaceful protesters off Taksim Square in Istanbul. I have been speaking regularly with Turkish PEN President, Tarik Günersel, who said that some people – including writers – have been injured by the police. He also feels that there is a great deal of misinformation from the government and provocations from its supporters. The writers are deeply disturbed by the situation and concerned by what appears to be a new level and focus of police activity, as well as governmental attitudes towards public debate. All of us at PEN International are equally disturbed and are ready to give any support we can. We have a small international working group concentrating on the issue to ensure that we are able to intervene in very precise ways.

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This is also a time in Western countries when we are discovering how far democratically elected governments have gone in cutting back on each citizen’s right to privacy in their own country. There is no reason to assume that this problem is limited to one or two democracies or, of course, to non-democracies. And this is not a new threat to free expression, but the radical expansion through technology of a longstanding threat. Privacy is one of the key elements of free speech. Citizens do not simply have the right to speak publically. They need and have the right to speak privately. Those private conversations and debates are meant to be exactly that – private. They are also central to the development of public ideas.

This growing reduction of private rights needs to be put together with the shrinking levels of government transparency, which in turn are tied to the growing governmental addiction to secrecy. Each year millions of secrets are created and the numbers keep growing. It is hard to imagine what most of these secrets are, except information that ought to be in the public domain.

All of this takes the form of legalized infringements on free expression. In other words, when it comes to citizens using language, our elected governments are resorting to the letter of the law rather than its spirit or intent.

There is great controversy over one aspect of this collapsing spectrum of rights: whether the individuals who have revealed some of this information have broken the law. Much less is said about whether the growing infringements of the state on citizens’ rights are legal by the normal standards of healthy democracies.

The central issue is whether authorities are infringing on essential rights. Their constantly repeated justification is that they are doing this for our own good. Why? Because they say that public safety is at risk. But public safety is always at risk, from one source or another. And citizen rights, such as free expression, were put in place with political drama and painstaking care over a good century and a half. What is more, it all happened in the context of great risks to public safety. Those risks of violence, murder, organized crime, corruption and so on, continue to involve thousands of deaths and violent incidents.

What we have learnt over the last 150 years is that free expression, governmental transparency, minimal state secrecy, clear and fair laws seeking justice not retribution, carefully controlled agencies of law enforcement, carefully balanced justice systems are our best protection against all risks, all threats. And the most dangerous enemies of all, when it comes to public safety, are public officials who try to govern by making us afraid in general and therefore afraid to defend our rights.

This is the context in which PEN’s Digital Declaration is beginning to play its role. Yes, we are living a technological revolution. But at no time have citizens agreed that this new technology creates a justification for removing rights. There has not even been a broad public discussion on this issue.

With our Digital Declaration in hand, PEN is beginning to play an important role in encouraging such a debate. There were discussions about the digital situation at both the Writers for Peace Committee in Bled and the Writers in Prison Committee in Krakow in May.

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Also, for the first time, the Peace Committee brought together the chairs of the four standing committees to discuss how they should work together. Hori Takeaki, Eric Lax and I took part in this discussion, along with the Board. This was Edvard Kovac’s last annual gathering as chair of the Peace Committee and we should all thank him for the initiative.

As you know, we also held our semi-annual face to face Board meeting in Bled, just before the Peace Committee meeting.

I then went briefly to Zagreb, to meet with our Croatian Centre – led by Nadežda Čačinović – and took part in a PEN discussion at the new Subversive Literary Festival which included David Van Reybrouck, President of Flanders PEN. It was a little after the fact, but we also celebrated the 80th birthday of our International Vice-President, Predrag Matvejević, who is as unflinching in his ideas of the public good as ever. I have always thought of him as a great model of ethical independence.

There were two official meeting – one with the President of the Republic, Ivo Josipović and another with Andrea Zlatar Violić, the Minister of Culture.

From there I went to Vienna on the way to Poland and had two good meetings; one with Austria’s Secretary of State, Reinhold Lopatka, and the other with the people at the International Press Institute.

Then to the WiPC in Krakow, which was combined with the Milosz Literary Festival and again with our friends at ICORN. It was a very good gathering and you will hear more about it from Marian Botsford Fraser, the WiPC Chair.

From there to London where Hori Takeaki, Eric Lax and I met with Laura McVeigh and the staff on issues such as centre development and fundraising.

Finally, at the Hay on Wye Festival, I chaired an event with the wonderful Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, during which we talked a great deal about linguistic rights and Kurdish linguistic rights in particular.

It was a long bit of traveling. But each of these events and meetings was an opportunity to talk about and seek support for the issues raised in our recent China Report, freedom of expression in Turkey and the impunity crisis in the Americas. One of the worrying themes to come out of it all was the sense in many places that populism is indeed burgeoning in its negative form.

Finally, back in Toronto, Haroon Siddiqui from the international Board, Charlie Foran, PEN Canada’s President and myself were able to spend time with the Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan and the Palestinian-American poet and translator, Fady Joudah, to discuss the situation for writers and books in Palestine. Ghassan and Fady as his translator were shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and subsequently won. It was wonderful to be with them.

Best wishes to you all,

John Ralston Saul