News: Monthly letter from John Ralston Saul, International President – February 2012
17 February 2012
Dear PEN Members, Dear friends,
By now many of you will have read about our PEN International mission to Mexico. There is a great deal on the website. Please have a look.
This mission was important for two reasons. First, the situation in Mexico is getting worse, with over eighty writers killed already. Newspapers and broadcaster offices are being bombed. In several states freedom of expression has effectively been shut down. Writers know the consequences of speaking up in many circumstances. And this cannot help but have a chilling effect on the ability of publishers to publish what they wish.
Second, we took a new approach to the mission itself. The idea is to develop a flexible model that can be adjusted and applied to future missions – Turkey and China, to take just two possibilities. We were a large delegation: fourteen , including the three Mexico PEC participants. The organizational strategy was to include the full international executive – probably a first; and all seven of the North American PEN Centres – again probably a first. We had hoped to have some Latin American centres, but that didn’t work out. In any case, the approach was both international and regional. With the chair of WiPC, as well as Japan PEN and English PEN added to the group, plus a legal expert, it was a very strong delegation. We had a legal expert – again a new initiative – because we have been working on Mexico with a leading law school (the University of Toronto). We developed a very succinct policy position, easy to distribute and communicate. (Read the paper here).
We also took an approach which reflects the reality of PEN. That is, we made full use of our expertise and put forward a clear program for change. But we equally spoke and acted from the full reality of PEN. We are writers – writers of every sort and publishers and lovers of the word. We are people of the word. Our greatest strength lies in our ability to use those words and to do so publicly. We are thousands of writers around the world with an uncountable public. We can go to meetings with ministers and officials and argue our case for free expression very effectively. We do this and must continue to do it. But our weight, our force, our influence, comes from our voice and our readers and listeners and viewers. As the Delegation began its work on the ground, we published a full page ad in Mexico City – a letter to Mexican writers from writers around the world. It is on the website and we want all of you to add your names. Meanwhile, several members of the delegation have already written publicly about what they saw and heard and what they sense can be done. I am attaching them. More are coming. Please write your own articles or republish those already written; place them where you can, including on your website.
Finally, PEN Mexico, led by Jennifer Clement, organized a remarkable public event in which fifty-two writers spoke – Mexicans and the Delegation, famous novelists, leading columnists and small town journalists at risk. Each person spoke for one minute. It was beautiful, disturbing, moving. There was a large audience and every form off coverage. The message passed to the broad public and to the officials. It was a moment when our existence as a great literary organization and a freedom of expression leader produced a perfectly integrated voice
The outcome is that we have succeeded in putting the issue of writer/journalist safety on the public agenda. Now we have to help keep it there. But we also helped to push the public policy agenda in the right direction. Again, we must now be persistent, all of us, in supporting our friends in Mexico and the other organizations that work in this area.
By the time you read this I’ll be in Korea with Gil-won Lee and our Centre there. Hori Takeaki is also coming, as are Markéta Hejkalová and Laura McVeigh. We’ll be talking about the upcoming congress. After that I will go on to Addis Ababa for the first national meeting of Ethiopian PEN, and then to Djibouti with both Afar and Somali speaking PEN Centres.
I can’t help but add that we seem to be entering into an unpredictable period. You will see from the website that there is a developing situation in India which raises serious questions about the legal system and the political will; there are new difficulties in Saudi Arabia; all of this adding to the already long list of threats to free expression and, yes, to the full expression of literature.
Please do follow up on the Mexico situation.
And do translate the Girona Manifesto into your language so that we can all make use of it.
Best to all of you,
John Ralston Saul
Read John Ralston Saul’s article in The Globe and Mail here.
Read Gillian Slovo’s article in the Guardian here.
Read Renu Mandhane’s article from the University of Toronto’s website here.