Tag Archives: English PEN

Quoted in the Independent, promoting cartoon book

Cartoon by Dave Brown
Cartoon by Dave Brown

Here’s a fantastic feature article by Gillian Orr in today’s Independent, detailing the brilliant Draw The Line Here project.  Yrstrly is quoted endorsing the book:

“It’s fantastic that these cartoonists are using their own right to free speech, to defend and advance the free speech of others,” says English PEN’s Robert Sharp.

Its a crowdfunded project.  Head over to the Crowdshed website to support English PEN ands the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

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Talking Free Speech and ‘The Good Shabti’ on the Bookworm Podcast

Ed Fortune, the presenter of Starburst Magazine’s wonderful Bookworm Podcast, invited me onto the show to discuss the work of English PEN and my own creative writing endeavours.

Download Season 2, Episode 28 to listen to the discussion.

My bit begins at around 16 minutes into the show, but that really shouldn’t stop you listening to Ed and his co-hosts Ninfa Hayes and A.L. Johnson chatting about tea and reviewing a whole lot of genre literature.

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 Discussing #BooksForPrisoners on Good Cause TV

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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.