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The 79th PEN International Congress Reykjavik, Iceland: An Overview

Friday 20 September 2013 - 5:20pm

101Last month at PEN International’s 79th Congress, Icelandic PEN were wonderful hosts to more than 200 delegates from 70 Centres, who joined together in Reykjavik to share ideas, discuss new campaigns and initiatives as well as highlight emerging issues and challenges to freedom of expression around the world.

The theme of the 79th International congress; 'Digital Frontiers – Linguistic Rights and Freedom of Speech’ was explored and discussed throughout the week during the main assembly, workshops, panel discussions and literary events. Alongside the passing of resolutions on surveillance and linguistic rights to name a few, this year's Congress saw PEN members march on the Russian Embassy, it saw the inaugural winner of the PEN International/ New Voices, Masande Ntshanga, awarded his US$1,000 prize and enjoyed a successful partnership with the Reykjavik International Literary Festival.

Elections and Centres News

The elections took place over two days and saw the re-election of Hori Takeaki (Japan PEN) as International Secretary, the election of Jarkko Tontti (Finnish PEN) as International Treasurer and the election of board members; Anders Heger (Norweigian PEN), Mohammed Sheriff (Sierra Leone PEN) and Gil Won Lee (South Korean PEN). The establishment of two new PEN Centres; Myanmar PEN Centre and Delhi PEN Centre was confirmed.

It was also unanimously agreed by the assembly of delegates that the next PEN International Congress will be hosted by Central Asian PEN and held in Bishkek.


The Assembly of Delegates of PEN International unanimously passed a resolution denouncing surveillance programmes which violate international human rights norms and the right to privacy. The resolution, proposed by the American PEN Centre and English PEN, affirms that PEN stands with all who seek to expose attacks on fundamental human rights, and deplores efforts by the United States government to prosecute as spies and traitors those who strive to bring this information to light. Read more here.

PEN International also passed resolutions expressing concern about the situation of freedom of expression in a range of countries and regions across the globe, including Belarus, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Hungary, Latin America, Mexico, Russia, Spain, Syria, Tibet, Turkey, and Vietnam. The organisation made specific recommendations to governments and other actors to improve freedom of expression in these countries. Click here to view the resolutions in full.

A number of other resolutions addressing critical linguistic rights concerns were passed which:
- Opposed new measures aimed at standardising the Portuguese language internationally;
- Called for protection of the Kurdish language;
- Urged the ratification of the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in the French Republic;
- Called for recognition of the Arpitan language in Switzerland;
- Demanded the removal of restrictions on the Basque language in the Navarre Region.

On the 11 September, a unanimous decision to pass an emergency resolution on Russia’s continued attempts to smother freedom of expression bought the delegates to their feet to march on the Russian Embassy and deliver the resolution outlining the organisation’s concerns on the country’s increasingly regressive approach to freedom of expression and opinion. John Ralston Saul, International President, lead the procession along with Sjón, president of Icelandic PEN, Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of the WiPC, and English poet James Fenton. The group was met outside the embassy by a senior official who was presented with the resolution and a letter addressed to the Russian Ambassador to Iceland Mr. Andrey V. Tsyganov calling on the Russian Federation to repeal the new laws. For more information click here.

Free the Word! and the Reykjavik Literary Festival

Wednesday September 11 also marked the 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile, in which President Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet. That evening, PEN International’s Free the Word! event series and Reykjavik International Literary Festival joined forces to bring the PEN membership a cultural evening in which Antonio Skármeta, one of Chile’s leading writers, delivered a talk entitled ‘Reflections on the Coup in Chile’; also, to an audience of over 700 guests in Harpa’s magnificent Eldborg concert hall, James Fenton, Þorsteinn frá Hamri, and Gerður Kristný read their poetry, and French-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou presented the first PEN International/New Voices Award to South African Masande Ntshanga.

The following day saw Free the Word! panel discussions and talks by John Ralston Saul, Douglas Coupland, Svetlana Alexievich and James Fenton at Reykjavik’s Nordic House. Other fascinating events during Congress included one on linguistic rights, that featured Émile Martel and former President of Iceland Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and another organised by the Nordic PEN Centres on hate speech.

Read about Antonio Skármeta and James Fenton's talks here.

Throughout the week Tactical Tech, an organisation dedicated to the use of information in activism, provided one-on-one consultation to PEN members on how to secure their online presence and ensure digital privacy.

For more information on the 79th International Congress contact:
Sahar Halaimzai, Communications and Campaigns Manager:
Phone: + 44 (0) 20 7405 0338 | @pen_int