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Net, Exile Writers, War Zones Journos Top Concens

Internet Writers, Journalists in War Zones, Writers in Exile Top Concerns at 71st World Congress of International PEN


Bled, Slovenia, June 20, 2005 - International PEN, the world association of writers, today called for global compliance with international agreements guaranteeing freedom of expression over the internet; condemned attacks against journalists in conflict zones including Iraq, where 62 media workers have been killed since March 2003; and issued an urgent letter to Iranian authorities urging the immediate release of writer and lawyer Nasser Zarafshan, who is reported to be near death as the result of a hunger strike in prison.

The appeals came at the end of the 71st World Congress of PEN, where over 275 writers from 80 PEN centers around the world also addressed threats to freedom of expression and literatures in more than two dozen countries, expanded an international network of cities of asylum for refugee writers, applauded the appointment of Caroline Whitaker to the newly-created post of Executive Director of International PEN, and participated in readings, panel discussions, and literary programs celebrating Slovenian and international literature.

International PEN President Jiri Grusa opened the Congress on June 18 by invoking the "common sense" of PEN. "PEN means common goals and similar souls," he said. "It means values, fellowship, and credibility." Demonstrating the international reach of the organization and its values, Mr. Grusa welcomed Wang Yi, a writer and representative of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, as the first writer from the People's Republic of China to attend a PEN Congress since 1989. Mr. Wang spoke at the end of the annual meeting, telling the assembly, "To me and my colleagues, writing is a rescue plan for hostages. Writing means dignity and freedom; it is a kind of belief. For the past 16 years, 56 years, 2000 years, we have not been able to rescue ourselves. Our salvation depends upon that higher community, depends upon the common universal values that we share as writers, as free people and as intellectuals."

Looming large over the meeting was the memory of Arthur Miller, who was elected to the presidency of International PEN the last time PEN convened a congress in Bled in 1965 and who once described PEN as "a fellowship moved by the hope that one day the work it tries and often manages to do will no longer be necessary." At the closing press conference of the Congress, Mr. Grusa lamented the fact that the organization may in fact be more necessary than ever, with writers who promote civil values encountering strong nationalistic, religious and political pressures around the world. "While our colleagues in countries such as Myanmar, Cuba, China, and Belarus continue to struggle against conventional governmental
censorship and repression, writers also face the threat of mortal violence in countries from Mexico to Iraq and new pressures associated with writing and publishing on the internet."

Ten years after Nigerian novelist and PEN member Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha in Nigeria, the Assembly of Delegates condemned impunity for those who kill writers and journalists, issuing resolutions deploring the deaths of journalists in war zones and continuing assassinations of journalists in Mexico. A worldwide PEN campaign commemorating Saro-Wiwa's execution and calling for an end to impunity will take place in more than 30 cities around the world in November of this year. Among more than 20 other resolutions targeting abuses against writers and violations of the freedom to read and to write, the Assembly condemned a threat by the government of Turkmenistan to close all the libraries in that country. It also condemned controls on internet use in Tunisia, which is hosting the World Information Society conference this fall and challenged and long-terms imprisonments in Iran, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

During the week, PEN also solidified a growing international network of PEN Centers working to provide temporary residences and assistance to writers forced to leave their home countries. PEN now partners with organizations and municipalities on two continents to offers writers residencies in nearly 20 cities of refuge in Norway, Germany, and North America and academic placements in another 20 universities and colleges in Europe and Canada. It also intervenes on behalf of writers in immigration detention, efforts that recently won the release of Ardeshir Gholipour, an Iranian asylum seeker in Australia, and contributed to a change in detention policy in that country.

At today's press conference, International Secretary Joanne Leedom-Ackerman called this work for refugees and exiles "the newest example of PEN's long-standing commitment to support writers and build bridges between cultures," work that in the past included the invitation of a group of Soviet writers to attend the 1965 PEN Congress in Bled as observers and the efforts of the Peace Committee of International PEN, which is based in Bled, to deliver support to writers endangered by conflicts in the Balkans. Noting that it is not only writers in exile or in war zones who feel isolated from the international literary community, Ms. Leedom-Ackerman highlighted a number of initiatives currently underway to extend PEN's reach around the world.

"The presence of Wang Yi is the result of PEN's commitment to engage independent writers in the People's Republic of China, and we look forward to the presence of many more writers from the mainland at future Congresses," Ms. Leedom-Ackerman said. "At the same time, we are working to establish active PEN centers in places where writers can play a particularly important role in shaping civil society, concentrating especially on the Arab World, Central Asia, and Africa. Next week, the recently-established Bishkek PEN center will host a historic conference on Women and Censorship, and in 2007, PEN centers throughout Africa will jointly host our annual Congress in Dakar, Senegal. The murder of our colleague Deyda Hydara, a brave independent journalist who was in the process of establishing a PEN center in the neighboring country of the Gambia when he was assassinated in December, has only increased our determination, and the determination of our African centers, to make sure that Gambian writers are able to join in this effort."

Throughout the week, the Slovenian PEN Center hosted a series of discussions, performances, and celebrations that showcased both Slovenian and international literature. Congress participants gave readings in small towns outside of Bled, attended the premiere of the Slovene-language version of former International President Ronald Harwood's play Taking Notes in Ljubljana, and debated conference themes in three major round tables. World-renowned Slovene poet Dane Zajc and actor and accordianist Janez Skof gave a special performance for Congress delegates.

The growth of PEN on the ground on all six continents sparked a period of restructuring and strategic planning for the International Secretariat of PEN that is now coming to a close, Ms. Leedom-Ackerman added. That process culminated in the announcement this week that Ms. Whitaker has been named the organization's first-ever Executive Director.


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