PEN International Endorses Declaration of Table Mountain

09 Apr 2009

By Raymond Louw, Vice President, SA PEN Centre

South Africa successfully put forward a resolution and had it adopted by the 200 delegates from the 70 PEN Centres (out of the 144 centres in 101 countries) at the PEN International Congress in Dakar, Senegal, from July 4 to 11. The congress was held in the splendid Le Meridien Hotel, a gift from King Ibn Saud to the Senegalese people, a 30-minute bus ride from the centre of Dakar.

The resolution was accepted as an “in session” motion to which Raymond Louw, Vice President of SA PEN Centre, as the delegate representing South Africa, spoke.

The resolution reads:

The Assembly of Delegates of International PEN, meeting at its 73rd International Congress in Dakar, Senegal, 4 – 11 July 2007 fully endorses the Declaration of Table Mountain issued at the annual conference of the World Association of Newspapers in Cape Town, South Africa, on 3 June 2007, that calls for the elimination of “insult” and criminal defamation laws in Africa and for a review and subsequent repeal of other laws restricting the media;

Takes particular note of the annex accompanying the Declaration that refers to cases where editors, journalists and others engaged in media activities in 27 countries have been harassed, detained, convicted and jailed or physically assaulted under such or associated laws or authoritarian action;

Horrified at the high number of media practitioners listed and at the manner in which press freedom has been under attack in Africa and calls on the United Nations, UNESCO and the African Union to take urgent action to persuade the governments involved to end such practices; and

Draws attention to the fact that International PEN has long campaigned worldwide for the abolition of these laws and takes this opportunity to endorse this call at such an important conference of writers on African soil.

Members of the World Association of Newspapers, totalling 1 600, issued the declaration as a call from the southern tip of Africa to the rest of the Continent to rid themselves of this journalists’ scourge.

Another major point made in the declaration related to the African Union’s contentious African Peer Review Mechanism and called on the AU to have included in the criteria for assessment of the country’s performance in the “good governance” section the important requirement for a country to have a free and independent Press.

In similar fashion to the manner in which WAN President Gavin O’Reilly, Chief Operating Officer of Independent News and Media Ltd, spelled out the main points in the declaration before President Thabo Mbeki at the WAN meeting, Louw declaimed them out to the PEN Congress delegates. There were no dissenters.

This resolution has been passed on to the United Nations, Unesco and the African Union with requests that it be adopted by their general assemblies and other fora. Louw pointed out that in the five months to the end of May, this year, 229 journalists, editors, radio presenters, online editors and bloggers were harassed, beaten, arrested or convicted in 27 African states on “insult” and criminal defamation or similar laws.

There were altogether 12 impressive resolutions and several of them made vigorous calls for the abolition of “insult laws” in the many other countries in the world where they are still applied with in many instances devastating effects on freedom of speech and on the physical well-being of writers who have been imprisoned, beaten or harassed.

The resolutions range over the imprisonment of writers in China, Iran, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Cuba and Vietnam, the killings of journalists in Mexico and Afghanistan and the forced closure of a television station in Venezuela.

There was special focus on Turkey and its use of such “insult” laws as those punishing people who offended against “Turkishness”. Delegates paid tribute to the courageous Hrant Dink, the Armenian Turkish Editor who, while working for reconciliation between the two communities, was killed at his office in Istanbul.

Another journalist praised for her courage and her vigorous promotion of free expression in Russian was investigative journalist and writer Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated at her home in Moscow in October.

The second important decision taken by the delegates was to make a commitment to support and protect languages under threat, on which there had been much discussion. Some of the discussions focussed on the inability of writers to express themselves in their own minority languages because of a lack of markets in those languages and thus having to write in English or French or other European languages for which there were markets.

Fears were expressed that this factor was leading to indigenous languages falling into disuse. Being in an African country, congress-goers applauded the diversity of work of African PEN members and writers. Practical expression of Congress’s support for Africa where there are 18 PEN Centres, 15 active, was the election of Mike Butscher, of the Sierra Leone PEN Centre, as one of the four new members of the PEN Board. SA PEN Centre voted for Butscher.

Mike Butscher commented, “I feel very proud to be elected to such a prestigious Board of writers. My election demonstrates that PEN is committed to work in Africa and will inspire African Centres. It unites people from diverse backgrounds into one union promoting literature and culture and defending freedom of expression. I will strive to uphold the ideals of PEN”.

The other three elected were Haroon Siddiqui (Canadian PEN Centre), Takeaki Hori (Japanese PEN Centre), and Kristin T. Schnider (Swiss-German PEN Centre).

Three new centres were welcomed, an Afar-Speaking Centre and Iraqi and Jordanian Centres. War-wracked Iraq came in for special attention, especially from the Writers in Exile Network, which spoke of the extreme situation for Iraqi writers, many of whom were forced into hiding or exile. The Congress called upon the US Government to take responsibility for refugees, their protection and resettlement.

Eugene Schoulgin (Norwegian PEN Centre) was elected the new International Secretary, succeeding the indefatigable Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, who is anxious to resume her writing career. He said “…. it is my ambition to make our voice louder and clearer, to promote literature from every continent and to further the work of International PEN that defends freedom of expression”.

Eric Lax, of the USA Pen Centre, was elected International Treasurer and Margaret Atwood, of the Canadian PEN Centre, was elected to the PEN Board for services to literature together with Niels Barford, of the Danish PEN Centre, for services to PEN. They join existing Vice Presidents, South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison, Boris A Novak and others.

Delegates also expressed their concern about Salman Rushdie whose recent Knighthood bestowed by the Queen of the United Kingdom has sparked a resurgence of threats against him.

SA PEN Centre was the only SA representative. Dan Roodt from the Pretoria PEN Centre, though scheduled to attend, failed to arrive. Louw told the congress that the formation of a third SA centre was being contemplated with its base being situated in Durban and its language being Zulu. He mentioned that the project had the support of Inkatha Freedom Party leader Dr Mangosutho Buthelezi.

International PEN officials spoke about developing and further consolidating programmatic work with the 15 active African PEN Centres. They spoke of funding being secured for the next five years for the continuation of these programmes from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

The African projects spoken about range from promoting reading in rural agricultural communities and writing and reading in schools, staging seminars and presentations supporting local languages and using literature to champion the rights of women and girls.

PEN International’s Programmes Director Karen Efford spoke of the Innovations Fund which was design ed to stimulate new campaigns and other activity on a pilot basis with funding ranging from $500 (R3 500) to $1 300 (R9 100). The funding comes from Unesco while International PEN has also received additional funding from the Swedish Sida funding organisation which would be used by headquarters to aid and support the programmes initiated by African centres, but not financially.

PEN International made it clear that this funding was not intended to fund centres in their core costs. There was also a presentation by TrustAfrica, a new African foundation that promotes peace, economic development and social justice, on its plans to develop the next generation of African writers.

This will be done through its African Writers’ Fund, which will invite PEN worldwide to contribute to “this unique and innovative approach to writing and development”. The foundation funded five delegates to attend Congress and stated that it will begin collaborating with African Centres to encourage and support activity and writing, facilitated by International PEN.

It funded on the night of July 7 “Freedoms”, a night of African literature, which was hosted by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. The evening celebrated some of the established and emerging voices in Africa — including Jack Mapanje (Malawi), Maliya Mzyece-Sililo (Zambia) and Ekbal Baraka (Egypt) — who read from their work, some of which will be published in the next edition of Pen International, International PEN’s bi-annual magazine.

TrustAfrica’s Director, Mohamed Magani, plans fellowships tenable in Africa which will provide accommodation and meals as well as health assurance aimed at encouraging creative writing and providing security for independent writers.

TrustAfrica’s sources of funding include the Ford Foundation and it was looking to African airlines to provide long-term support. At present he was distributing US $100 000 (R700 000) to $150 000 (R1 050 000) a year, which some delegates regarded as less than adequate.

He did not respond to a question from Louw whether his foundation would consider funding literary competitions as SA PEN Centre has done in the last few years.

South African PEN Centre had been hoping that these new initiatives by International PEN on the African continent would include some form of funding that would aid small organisations such as the SA PEN Centre to develop its work, but this is not the intention of International PEN, which expects centres to raise their funding needs.