Writers’ freedoms and the silencing of dissent

The latest Publishing Research Seminar featured a talk from Ophelia Field, Acting Director of the Writers in Prison Programme - English PEN.

On March 10, 2008, Ophelia gave a fascinating, chilling and passionate talk to students and staff of the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies about the history and work of English PEN and the Writers in Prison Programme, as well as the writers for whom English PEN is active.

From its apolitical beginnings in London in 1917 as a dining club for writers, International PEN has developed into an organisation with autonomous centres around the world, whose aims include the formation of a community of writers across cultures and the public upholding of human rights. In 1960 the Writers in Prison programme, which campaigns for writers imprisoned because of their work, was born. Since the late 1990s, English PEN has initiated new programmes building relationships between writers and communities and in 2004, the Writers in Translation programme was initiated, which provides grants to publishers to help them promote works in translation that they publish here in the UK.

A guiding principle of English PEN (which first gained clarity during the Second World War when, under the Presidency of H.G.Wells, PEN was forced to expel the German PEN centre as it followed Nazi policies), is to stand up and speak out for issues of conscience and, along with a number of other national PEN centres, English PEN is directly engaged in campaigns for human rights and freedom of expression.

International PEN operates with a structure broadly similar to Amnesty International. It maintains a case list of writers (including publishers, translators, journalists, bloggers and others) who have been imprisoned, harassed or persecuted so that its centres, including English PEN, can campaign on behalf of those writers, through letters to governments and embassies, information on the websites, petitioning and writing articles. English PEN sends financial aid to persecuted writers or their families in certain selected cases, books and letters are sent to imprisoned writers, and English PEN organises demonstrations and events and tries to publish the work of writers who have been silenced in their own countries. Occasionally, where the circumstances are appropriate, English PEN also sends investigative missions to see how imprisoned writers are treated, support other PEN centres, or organise debates.

Ophelia spoke of the methods governments use to silence writers in countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Uzbekistan and China. These intimidatory methods can vary from physical attacks to trials, imprisonment and torture. English PEN is concerned with censorship and the suppression of writings, but most specifically with the physical wellbeing and safety of the writers themselves. It calls upon British writers who enjoy a relatively large degree of freedom, as well as publishers and others engaged in the literary industry, to protest these attacks on their colleagues overseas in a spirit of solidarity.

Lisa Appignanesi has edited Free Expression Is No Offence for English PEN on the subject of free speech, and English PEN has also produced an anthology of writings from imprisoned writers, Another Sky, edited by Lucy Popsecu and Carole Seymour-Jones. Both books are available on http://www.amazon.co.uk/.

To join English PEN and/or to support their programmes, including Writers in Prison, visit http://www.englishpen.org/membership/.

Ophelia Field runs the English PEN Writers in Prison Programme and is also a freelance writer and author of two non-fiction historical books. She has worked for over a decade as an advocate for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and has been an expert consultant to various organisations, including the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

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Filed Under Publishing | European Publishing