Home Page > Monthly letter from John Ralston Saul, International President, to the PEN membership.

Message from International President John Ralston Saul – July 31, 2012

Dear PEN Members, Dear friends,

First, the Board has now finished working on the PEN International Declaration on Free Expression and Digital Technologies and passed it unanimously. It is in translation and will be on its way to you very soon. Please have a close look and show it to any experts you have in your Centre.

As you will remember, at the last two congresses we devoted half of the first day of the Assembly to debating ideas. In Gyeongju we will focus that half day on the Digital Declaration and on the policy and strategy implications. I feel, as does the whole Board, that it is now a strong statement, and carefully limited to freedom of expression issues. Like our Charter and The Girona Manifesto, this Declaration could give us a clear ethical structure with which to enter this complex debate. And we do need to be there. The future of how people will have access to literature and freedom of expression is being played with at this moment in the digital world.

You may have suggestions, disagreements and questions. Please come prepared. I hope that this opening debate will help us to put in place the next stage in our strategy.

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At the beginning of July, I went to the first ever Forum Mondial de la langue francaise to speak during the opening working session. This was an important opportunity to talk about PEN’s view of how to support languages with smaller populations and/or those existing within political limitations. There was also a special session during which Émile Martel and Gilles Pellerin of Quebec PEN and I were able to present The Girona Manifesto.

The Forum was the first ever event of its type and was organized by La Francophonie. It took place in Quebec City and involved 1,300 people from 104 countries. Half of them were under 30. Almost half were from Africa.

What was fascinating about the whole week long gathering was that the international movement for French was focusing on itself as an ally of multilingualism. In particular, there was a strong sense that French could only survive and grow in Africa if it became the friend and advocate of African indigenous languages. There was also quite a bit of talk about the endangered indigenous languages of Canada. Abdou Diouf, the Secretary General of La Francophonie, said that all francophones must become “des indignés linguistiques”; in other words, language is an active not a passive; it is the expression of our lives, far more than mere administration or economic theory.

What I found particularly positive at the Forum was that the atmosphere was very different from that usually surrounding the big international languages (three of which are our official languages). Instead, the atmosphere was one of embracing linguistic complexity, as well as embracing the differences within French and between French and other languages.

As you will see in the resolutions and statements presented at the Gyeongju Congress, there are a number which deal with cases of differences within languages and languages living within minority situations. For example, there is the fascinating case of Portuguese and governmental administrative initiatives aimed at lessening the differences between Portuguese in different countries.

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This has been a particularly difficult month in Ethiopia where Eskinder Nega has been sentenced to 18 years in jail for doing what most of us do on a normal day. 23 other people were sentenced on the same day; three of them were also PEN cases. However, those three had already fled the country. These sorts of convictions are taking place under the umbrella of a terrorist law which has nothing to do with terrorism.

The catastrophic situation in Syria is of course making freedom of expression ever more dangerous. We have just begun a new postcard campaign to draw attention to the state of Syrian poets and bloggers (http://bit.ly/NMaP5d).

Meanwhile, PEN International and a number of Centres are busy preparing for a Delegation to Turkey (November 12th – 18th). And we are putting together a new strategy on Central America, following a bit the model of our ongoing Mexican campaign. Honduras alone is now the single most dangerous place in the world for writers.

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I have just heard that close to 80 Centres have already committed to taking part in the Gyeongju Congress. No doubt a few more of you will sign on. It will be wonderful to see all of you there.

Best wishes to you all,

John Ralston Saul