Raymond Louw’s Report on the 2016 Meeting of PEN Africa Network (PAN)

18 May 2016
Raymond Louw’s Report on the 2016 Meeting of PEN Africa Network (PAN)

Photograph of PAN and TLRC meeting members courtesy of PEN International

By Raymond Louw, PEN SA Vice-President

The PAN meeting was held in advance of a meeting by the PEN International Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee under the title: In Dialogue with the World.

The PAN meeting on March 7 began with welcoming remarks by PAN and PEN International representatives followed by the introduction of the Empty Chair symbolically marking the absence of a member who had been silenced by a government or other authority. The Empty Chair ceremony was conducted each morning of the conference. This was followed by a welcome to newly founded Centres, Mali and Mauritania, and newly reconstituted PEN Zimbabwe. Altogether 20 representatives of 17 African PEN Centres attended.

Solomon Hailemariam of Ethiopian PEN sent the meeting a rousing voice message wishing the conference members success in their endeavours. Another message of support came from Khainga O’Okwemba of Kenya who hoped everything was going on well at the PAN meeting and added that he just thought it prudent to share information on PEN Kenya Centre’s upcoming international literary event, Literary Crossroads, Kenya, which was to include conversations with African writers.

In his response to Solomon, who was wearing a heavy overcoat and speaking from Canada where he and some colleagues have sought – and been granted – asylum, Louw thanked him for his rousing message to spur on the PAN deliberations. Louw pointed out that so far the conference had been vibrant with many courageous and often harrowing messages of the challenges facing African PEN centres and writers on the Continent.

The conference also dealt with worthwhile information such as PEN Guinea’s Zeinab Koumanthio Diallo’s introduction to the subject of Growing PEN in Africa and the PAN Anthology. PEN Uganda’s Danson Kahyana introduced the subject of Writers at Risk and Solidarity Work which was expertly dealt with by PEN International’s Africa specialist Lianna Merner and PEN Eritrea’s Eyob Ghilazghy.

The second day was devoted to discussions on the need to scrap the law of criminal defamation and began with a discussion by Lianna Merner about the UNDEF and Commonwealth project which institutes another dimension to the on-going campaign against criminal defamation. The project was further dealt with at a special meeting on the afternoon of March 11 at the offices of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre in Johannesburg.

That was followed by a harrowing account by award-winning Angolan writer Rafael Marques de Morais of his experiences while facing criminal defamation charges and the impact of criminal defamation on democracy and the public interest.

In 2009, he founded the watchdog website Maka, dedicated to exposing corruption and human rights abuses in his country. In 2014, the UCLA Anderson School of Management honoured him and his co-author with the Gerald Loeb Award for International Reporting, for a ground-breaking investigation into how the Angolan President made his daughter a billionaire through official decrees and state looting, published by Forbes Magazine.

The following session featured South African advocate Nobuntu Mbelle, a member of the managing committee of the Freedom of Expression Institute, who presented the legal aspects of criminal defamation and how Africa governments have used it to jail editors, journalists and writers to stifle criticism and how journalists have responded.

She was followed by the head of the Legal Research Unit of the ruling African National Congress, Krish Naidoo who spoke of the ANC’s plans to repeal the criminal defamation law in the current parliamentary session. The law restricted the flow of information and defamation should not be a criminal offence but should be dealt with through civil law, he said.

Members of PEN Centres in Sierra Leon, Uganda, Nigeria and Senegal presented harsh accounts of how the law had been applied in their countries to stop criticism of government policies. The conference then explored strategies of how to combat the law of criminal defamation and the role that PAN could play. The day ended with discussions on ethics and responsible journalism in dealing with information and press regulation to curb ethical lapses by the media.

The final day was devoted to training on research and campaigning. A feature of the media scene in South Africa is the continuing hostility of ruling party politicians to the press though this was moderated to a degree by the Deputy President who had a meeting with journalists and members of the Cabinet to deal with relations between the government and the press. He was very conciliatory and praised the press for its role in holding authorities to account. Because of this there were tensions between the press and politicians but that is healthy, he said.

The In Dialogue with the World conference was held on March 10 and 11 by the PEN International Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee and discussed a range of issues relating to promoting African literature in African languages, the importance of mother tongue education, the challenges of minority language publishing and how to strengthen it, African dialogue with the world, promoting African stories and the role of translators.