PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee Meeting – Brussels March 2011

12 May 2011

By Margie Orford

PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee conference is held every two years. This year PEN Vlaanderen in Brussels hosted it. The conference took place over the weekend of the 24th to the 27th of March. I represented South African PEN at this meeting. I wished to find out in more detail what the WiPC does and to see how South African PEN can use the structures of this committee to further our work here on freedom of expression.

There were a number of frontline reports from countries in which the lives of writers are under threat, for example Belarus, Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, and Zimbabwe. Irish PEN also presented their work on new Irish blasphemy laws. Reports from Independent Chinese PEN attested to the ongoing persecution of writers and bloggers in China.

There was, however, much celebration of the Arab spring. The Tunisian writer, Naziha Rejiba, spoke about the revolution in Tunisia, the release of writers and journalists.

The conference took place at the same time as the Passaporta Literary Festival in Brussels. This focused on writing and exile and showcased a wide variety of writers living and writing in Europe because they faced persecution at home. The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) held a parallel conference. This organisation partners with particular cities to provide refuge to persecuted writers and their families. They expressed an interest in partnering with either Cape Town or Johannesburg.

The WiPC committee does the most visible work of PEN International as it monitors where writers are being imprisoned and persecuted. The main focus of work is PEN International’s tracking of the cases of imprisoned writers. This information is sent to all the PEN centres that have Writers in Prison Committees who in turn use that information to lobby their governments and to be in direct contact with imprisoned writers.

After the very busy Brussels meeting I spent a couple of weeks in London, a guest of English PEN who hosted a Free the Word! Festival. This afforded me the opportunity to discuss how South African PEN and English PEN could look at ways of working together in the future. Gillian Slovo is the current president of English PEN so there are, of course, many areas of overlap and interest. This is a relationship that will, I hope, flourish over the next couple of years.

South Africa has no imprisoned writers and freedom of expression is expressly protected in our constitution. However, we have a very recent history of the banning of books and the imprisonment of writers and journalists. South African PEN is in a good position to monitor the imprisonment and persecution of writers in Africa. It is for these reasons that South African PEN is establishing a Writers in Prison Committee. The South African WiPC will, I hope, act as a focal point for our planned work on freedom of expression.