Tag Archives: English PEN

Putin is sanitising the voice of ordinary Russians

Vladimir Putin has this week signed into a law some measures to ban swearing in films, books and music.  Films with obscene content will not be granted a distribution certificate and exisiting books and music with foul language will have to be sold in special wrapping.

I spoke to Alison Flood of the Guardian about the new law, and what it says about the state of Russian politics:

Writers’ group English PEN has already condemned the move. Robert Sharp, its head of campaigns, says: “Swear words exist in every language and are part of everyday speech. Russian artists will no longer be able reflect genuine, everyday speech. Instead, they will have to sacrifice authenticity in order to please a committee of censors. This new law sends the signal that law-makers want to sanitise and silence the voice of ordinary Russians.”

In recent years, Sharp adds, we have witnessed Russia’s slow slide into authoritarianism, with impunity for the killers of Anna Politkovskaya, the prosecution of Pussy Riot, and the ban on discussing homosexuality. “These things have all squeezed the space for free speech in Russia. The government claims it is ‘protecting and developing culture’, but the effect will be to ensure that culture becomes staid, uniform and boring.”

Discussing #BooksForPrisoners on Good Cause TV

Today I was interviewed by Pete Woods for Good Cause TV.  We discussed English PEN’s campaign to reverse the Ministry of Justice’s ridiculous restrictions on sending books into prisons.  We discussed the ‘Catch-22′ aspects to the policy, and the idea that literature should be a human right.

You can watch the video below, or on Spreecast. Continue reading

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Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison

The latest act of literary campaigning from English PEN is to publish Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison by Enoh Meyomesse.

Enoh has been an opposition activist in Cameroon for decades. In 2012 he stood in the presidential elections against authoritarian strong-man Paul Biya. Soon after he was arrested for apparently trying to organise a coup. The authorities later dropped that accusation, and instead manufactured trumped up charges of robbery.  There were no witnesses to this alleged crime, yet he was convicted anyway.  PEN International consider the conviction and imprisonment to be a violation of Enoh Meyomesse’s right to freedom of expression.

While in prison, Enoh was able to write and publish Poème Carcéral, a collection of poetry.  We at PEN put a call out to our members for volunteer translators, and managed to get the book translated into English.  This month I designed a cover graphic, and published the book as a print-on-demand paperback, available from Lulu.com.  E-book versions (both ePub and Kindle) are also available for download.

I am particularly pleased that we were able to publish the book under a creative commons licence.  Enoh Meyomesse is in prison and this publication is intended to give him a voice once more.  The creative commons licence encourages further translation, remixing and performance of the poems, amplifying what once was censored.

Liberty Annual Conference: Is Speech Free Online?

I was delighted to be asked to speak on a panel at the Liberty Annual Conference yesterday. I took part in the ‘Is Speech Free Online?’ discussion with Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk and the Erotic Review, and Bella Sankey, Liberty’s policy director. Martin Howe was the chair.

Speaking first, my co-panellist Ian Dunt made a pertinent point about how the low financial barriers to free speech online are also the reason that online speech may be threatened. People do not need financial reserves in order to publish online – It is cheap and quick. However, this lack of money also means they are more vulnerable to being sued by those who do have money and power. The publishing divide is not between online/offline, but between those with lawyers, and those without.

I began own my remarks by noting that speech was most certainly not free online in other parts of the world. I cited the recent manoeuvrings to criminalise online dissent by the Azerbaijan parliament; China shutting down dissident Sina Weibo accounts; and Fazil Say’s suspended sentence in Turkey.

I spoke about the recent prosecutions from remarks made on social media, and the fact that current laws include the word ‘offensive’ as a trigger for prosecution, which is open to abuse. I noted how the immediacy of social media messaging meant that immature political views follow you around long after they should have been discarded, but that Tweeting and Facebooking are forms of publishing and could never be cordoned off as some special type of speech that is subjected to different laws. Parents and teachers need to help the young ‘uns be savvier about what they choose to publish online. I finished by warning that we cannot take our free expression for granted when we use social media spaces that feel public, but are in fact owned by corporations with a profit motive to censor if it is in their financial interests to do so.

The player is below or you can listen on SoundCloud.

During the Q&A I also managed to slip in a few re-tweetables about the nature of free speech and ‘counter-speech’.

Here’s the view from the panel just before the start of the session, as people began to filter in.

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Recommendation request for e-mail delivery system

Dear Internet: please recommend an online service that can help me automatically distribute computer files via e-mail.

At English PEN, we have begun to produce e-Books as part of our literary campaigning.  Our recent Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot is a good example of this – It puts more literature and creativity into the world, in response to an act of censorship.

In that project, the e-Book was available free with a voluntary donation.  But we wanted to capture the e-mail addresses of everyone who downloaded it.  I used a tweaked version of a WordPress contact form plug-in to ‘reveal’ the download links after a person entered their e-mail address, but this was an inelegant method.  If downloaders wanted to revist the page, they had to enter their address again. And there was no validation of e-mail addresses.

Are there any online tools that manage the distribution of documents or computer files?  I need a simple system that will take a person’s e-mail address, log it for me, and then either send them a unique download link, or simply e-mail them a file.

I imagine that the Shareware Developer community must have some kind of solution in place for this task?  Can anyone recommend such services?  Or is there a WordPress plug-in I have missed.  Obviously I have a preference for free services, as the projects I run are all not-for-profit.

Discussing Free Speech in Turkey in The Guardian

PEN Turkey at the Istanbul Prosecutor's Office
PEN Turkey at the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office

I’m quoted in The Guardian today, discussing censorship in Turkey.

“This and other cases highlight the fact that Turkey has a free expression problem,” said English PEN spokesperson Robert Sharp. “When ill-advised laws are put in place, then those with an ideological agenda will seek to use them to censor words or writing they do not like. This is why we campaign against ‘insult laws’ all over the world – including the UK. Censorship does not begin with the state instantly imprisoning authors and burning books. It begins with individuals using bad laws as weapons against each other.”

I was commenting on the ridiculous news that the board members of PEN Turkey were hauled into the Istanbul Prosecutors Office, to be questioned as to whether they had “insulted Turkishness” by they called Turkey’s censorship laws ‘fascist’.  Thought-crime, essentially.  It is a huge irony that a complaint at ‘fascist developments’ should be met by the sinster act of summoning all the board members for questioning… an irony apparently lost on the authorities.

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Two e-Books

Last week, I published two e-Books for English PEN.

The first is Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe and Sophie Mayer. This is a fantastic piece of literary campaigning for three prisoners of conscience. The government of Vladimir Putin, in collaboration with the Russian Orthodox church, have sought to censor the satire and criticism directed at them by the punk art collective Pussy Riot, by convicting three of them on a charge of ‘hooliganism’.

There is little English PEN or I can do to help with the legal battle. But what we can do is ensure that the feminist poetry and the dissident message is not suppressed. Catechism amplifies what Putin sought to silence.

Download the eBook or buy a printed copy now! You can even make a donation if you feel so inclined.

The other project is PEN Atlas: 10 Literary Dispatches from Around the World. It has been published to coincide with the international translation day conference taking place today in London. It is a re-packaging off some of the best content from our PEN Atlas online project.

Download the e-book now!

In creating these publications, I applied some of the lessons learned during the course of my Insignificant Woman project. I also advanced my knowledge a bit too.

I had been using the EPUB conversion cool within Lulu.com to create my e-book files. This tool is simple and easy to use (you just upload a Word Document) but is somewhat limited. For example, when you want to place two headings adjacent to each other in the text, it creates unnecessary page breaks. However, by good fortune I happened across the Sigil tool on the Google Project Hosting repository. It is not an entry-level program, but it is perfect for someone like me, who has basic knowledge of HTML and CSS. I used it to tweak an existing EPUB file for Catechism, but then used Sigil to create the PEN Atlas file entirely from scratch. Later, I used Calibre to convert and EPUB file into a Kindle ready eBook.

Azerbaijan's Terrible Record on Free Speech #Eurovison

More crossposting with the English PEN site.

Azerbaijan Protest

The state of free expression in Azerbaijan has be a major focus for English PEN in recent years. In 2009, we sent two of our members, Eva Hoffman and Alev Adil, to Baku to meet the writers there and to ask what the literary community in the UK can do to help. On their return, Eva filed a report for our OPEN magazine:

Such freedoms, however, are regularly violated in Azerbaijan. During our few days in Baku, we hear detailed and distressing stories of writers and journalists who have been imprisoned, or who have been persecuted in flagrantly unjust ways.

I must say that my writerly self felt a twinge of anxiety constricting my chest as I heard this story. To lose the fruit of so much work, which must have relieved the ghastliness of unjust incarceration — even while that incarceration continues! And yet, the spirits of our interlocutors seemed undampened.

We are now assisting some of those writers in the creation of a new Azerbaijan PEN Centre.

PEN has also worked closely with our colleagues at Index on Censorship, Article 19 and Amnesty International on a series of demonstrations and campaign actions for imprisoned writers in Azerbaijan, including Eynulla Fatullayev, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade (all of whom have since been released). The video below records one such demonstration, and you can view our photo galleries from other actions.

This weekend, Azerbaijan will host the Eurovision Song Contest – a concept predicated on their idea of free expression. The arrival in Baku of the kitsch, glitz and music must inspire an improvement in the Azerbaijan Government’s approach to free expression.

Our colleagues at Article 19, have run extensive programmes in Azerbaijan and provided crucial documentation of the abuse and harassment experienced by journalists who are critical of those in power. Their compelling report Running Scared: Azerbaijan’s Silenced Voices described the attacks and jailing of journalists, the ban on protests, and lack of independent broadcasting.

Take Action

Index on Censorship (who share offices with both Article 19 and English PEN) have launched a petition for a Guilt Free Eurovison. We urge all PEN members and supporters to sign the petition, demanding that President Ilham Aliyev takes positive action to end the harassment against the writers, activists and musicians who are being attacked.

Click here to sign the petition.

 

Günter Grass and the Free Speech Moment

Last week I wrote a follow up to my Comment Is Free piece on Gunter Grass, this time for the New Statesman blog.

Over the past few days, a “free speech moment” has been unfolding. These are the controversies where we get to discuss the first principles of free expression, and they usually begin when someone does something extremely offensive. Think of the public trolling of Anjem Choudry, or the English Defence League. Think of Liam Stacey, charged with a criminal offence for tweeting. Think of every controversial columnist, paid by the newspapers to be politically incorrect. These moments are frustrating, but at least campaigners like me are asked to make the case for free expression afresh, on sites such as this one.

This week, the “free speech moment” has had both an historical and international flavour. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize Winning German author, angered the Israeli government after he wrote a poem about their militarism. Israel, incensed that a former conscript in the Waffen-SS should write such a criticism, responded by placing a travel ban on the author. In the most recent twist, Grass has escalated the controversy by likening the Israeli government’s actions to those of the East German Stasi.

There are two unresolved issues here. The first is whether a travel ban (declaring Grass a persona non grata, unwelcome should he wish to visit Israel again) is censorship. Clearly, such a move is less severe than the formal banning of Grass’s books; and many authors around the world (for example, in Iran, which was cited in the poem) suffer imprisonment for their transgressions. Nevertheless, placing this restriction on a person, purely because of what they have written, is a form of censorship.

It prevents any Israeli citizens who happen to agree with Grass’s poem (and I am sure there are many, from every religion) from inviting him to speak. It precludes the possibility that those in Israel who enjoy Günter Grass’s oeuvre would ever have the chance to meet him at a literary event. A voice is suppressed. Until recently, the UK Border Agency were in the habit of denying authors and artists entry to the UK because a gallery opening or a book tour was considered a form of “work”. English PEN campaigned for reform of the system on the basis that freedom of expression also includes freedom of information, the right to hear dissenting voices. A travel restriction on an author denies this freedom, which makes it undemocratic.

Such bans also have a “chilling effect” on other writers – will authors who regularly visit Israel now self-censor, if they hold opinions that the Israeli government doesn’t want to hear?

The second issue is over Günter Grass’s actual words, including his latest ‘Stasi’ interjection? These “free speech moments” are frustrating because defending someone’s right to say something is usually equated with defending the content of what they say. Those whom the speaker has offended are always ready to conflate the two issues. We should remember that the oft-cited Tallenter quip on free speech (“I hate what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it”) also works perfectly well in reverse: I defend Günter Grass’s right to say things . . . but I hate what he says. The writer Kenan Malik goes further, and makes the point that if one vigorously defends free expression, one also has a moral duty to retort when people say unpleasant things.

I don’t think that Günter Grass is saying abhorrent things, though in my opinion he has been deeply insensitive. His last comment is clearly a doubling-down, and the result is polarising. His poem, despite taking on the form of introspection, has not persuaded anyone that was not already of his point-of-view. For such an accomplished writer, celebrated for his turn of phrase, this is a shame. The great power of poetry and prose is their ability to help the reader empathise with someone of a different culture or history. Personally, I think Grass is capable of this, and should have written a different poem. But to say this is an act of literary criticism, not a statement of the principles of free speech.

Filmic and Literary Activism

Its the London Book Fair this week, and China is the controversial ‘market focus’ country. To mark this, English PEN staged a day-long forum on Chinese literature and invited artists both from inside China and in exile.

One of the visitors was Ou Ning, who introduced his film about forced demolitions in Beijing, ahead of the 2008 Olympics. During the Q&A I asked Ou Ning about remix culture in china, and then followed with a rather loaded question about film vs literature. You can watch the event below or see my particular question on YouTube.

There wasn’t time for me to engage him in a debate, but I’m not sure I agree with Ou Ning’s assertion that film beats literature. Both are important. In the short term, I agree that film and video are superior in showing fellow Chinese people, and the rest of the world, what is actually happening. However, I’m not sure that providing that enhanced knowledge is sufficient to bring about lasting change. I think literature has an essential role in bringing about change, whether that is through an Arab Spring style uprising (a ‘Jasmine’ revolution?) or a kind of Chinese glasnost. A fundamental shift in mindset is required for either kind of reform, and I think the depth and nuance that long form literary work brings is essential to inspiring such a change.