PEN SA’s Free Expression Resolutions Adopted Unanimously at PEN International Congress

12 Nov 2015
PEN SA’s Free Expression Resolutions Adopted Unanimously at PEN International Congress

Pictured: Raymond Louw, PEN South Africa, and Frankie Asare-Donkoh, PEN Ghana

PEN South Africa’s Vice-President Raymond Louw attended the PEN International 81st Congress in Quebec City, Canada and has written about the resolutions put forward by the Centre

Read Jean, Raymond’s wife’s, impressions of the Congress here and Centre Co-ordinator Lindsay Callaghan’s article on the Congress here.

By Raymond Louw

PEN South Africa’s two delegates at PEN International’s 81st Congress in Quebec City, Canada, from October 13 to 16 were pleased to see the two resolutions the centre submitted on the issue of freedom of expression were endorsed unanimously by congress delegates and that its nominees for office in the international organisation were also supported by majority votes. The SA delegates were Vice President Raymond Louw and Centre Co-ordinator Lindsay Callaghan.

Altogether 25 resolutions were submitted by centres to the congress with a further two “In Congress Resolutions” being added in Quebec. One of the South African resolutions which was submitted jointly with PEN Ghana has been the subject of much discussion by journalists and writers for some years.

It calls for governments to

repeal criminal defamation and “insult” laws;

drop existing charges against writers and journalists under these laws; and

release writers and journalists currently detained or imprisoned on charges under those laws.

It also directed a special appeal to African Union member states to abide by a ruling of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights in the Konate vs Burkino Faso case by amending their criminal defamation and insult laws.

South African writers and journalists have been in the forefront in the campaign against these laws. Louw persuaded the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) at its annual conference in Cape Town in 2007 to adopt the Declaration of Table Mountain which calls for the abolition of criminal defamation and “insult” laws and other restrictions on press freedom. WAN-IFRA used it as the keynote of its campaign against laws restricting the press that it started the following year.

The resolution pointed out that “despite the growing international consensus that criminal defamation infringes the fundamental right to freedom of expression as expressed by international and regional human rights bodies and mechanisms, prosecutions of journalists and other writers under criminal defamation and insult laws continue in a wide range of countries.

“These pernicious laws, which carry severe penalties including imprisonment, are widely used by those in positions of power to silence critics….They are frequently used to target journalists who uncover corruption or malfeasance and abuse of power by political leaders and state officials.”

The resolution stated that the laws can have a chilling effect on investigative reporters who are conscious of the possibility of serving lengthy prison sentences and leaving them with a criminal record. This results in the stifling of reporting and public debate and difficulty in holding people to account.

The resolution referred to countries where there have been positive moves by the partial decriminalisation of defamation and noted that there are countries which have introduced new penalties for defamation.

A telling feature of the resolution is the listing of editors, journalists and writers who have, or are being, prosecuted under criminal defamation laws.

The South African Centre’s resolution which was seconded by PEN Afrikaans and PEN Kenya dealt with control of the internet and online media. It stated that PEN South Africa was greatly concerned about plans by SA’s Film and Publication Board (FPB) to control statements, messages and other views expressed on the internet and in online media because such plans could result in restraints on freedom of expression by the public at large.

The FPB’s move is described as part of a world-wide appraisal of the effects of an uncontrolled internet environment and is aimed at regulating the online views of bloggers and users of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media.

The FPB relate its proposals to the need to protect children from exposure to disturbing and harmful content and to curb the advocacy of racist ideologies but PEN South Africa and many SA non-governmental organisations regard the proposed FPB regulations as draconian and call for their withdrawal.

PEN South Africa’s fear is that governments in Africa and elsewhere may wish to adopt the FPB proposals in their attempts to deal with an uncontrolled internet environment and put forward the resolution to prevent this controlling action with its serious potential for restricting freedom of expression.

The resolution calls on the SA Film and Publication Board to withdraw its proposals to regulate the internet and online media. It also calls on governments generally to

refrain from any conduct that can restrict, or lead to the restriction of, freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas, when appraising an unregulated international internet and online media;

counter all restriction on freedom of expression on the internet and online media;

remove all legal and other restraints on freedom of expression on the internet and online media; and

not to copy or adopt South Africa’s attempts to regulate its online media.

PEN South Africa supported the adoption by PEN International of all the other 25 resolutions. The resolutions protested at inroads on media freedom and freedom of expression by countries, the prosecution and imprisonment of writers and journalists, the introduction of laws against terrorism and other evils which also resulted in restrictions on freedom of expression, attacks on journalists and writers, the closure of publications and broadcasters by governments acting under draconian laws and other attacks on freedom of expression.

The resolutions constitute a brutal chronicle of authoritarian rule by governments, savage treatment of journalists and writers, the application of censorship, the abuse of power and flagrant breaches of international standards of free expression.

PEN South Africa’s nominations for PEN International’s office were for the following people: Jennifer Clement, Mexican PEN, as International President; Regula Venske, German PEN, as Member of the Board at Large and Salil Tripathi, English PEN, as Chairperson of the Writers in Prison Committee.

(Image courtesy of Danie Marais, PEN Afrikaans manager)