COVID19, Free Speech and the Right to Receive Information

In 2004, the writer Orhan Pamuk gave the inaugural Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, at the Prague Writer’s Festival. Among his remarks, he said this:

I have personally known writers who have chosen to raise forbidden topics purely because they were forbidden. I think I am no different. Because when another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free. This, indeed, is the spirit that informs the solidarity felt by PEN, by writers all over the world.

Orhan Pamuk

I would often use the highlighted bit of that quote in English PEN’s marketing communications. I thought it would appeal to the worldliness of other writers, their solidarity and empathy with fellow wordsmiths.

But occasionally I would worry that the proper meaning of that quote was properly understood. Because taken literally, it’s obviously untrue. The fact that Ahmet Altan (to pick another Turkish novelist) is currently in prison and censored does not stop me writing my derivative science fiction or my bad poetry. Continue reading “COVID19, Free Speech and the Right to Receive Information”

When Defending Human Rights, We Must Tell Pragmatic Stories That Appeal To Self Interest

The idea of human rights being valuable in themselves doesn’t wash with a lot of people. Instead, they want to see a practical benefit to rights. Seeing horrible people benefit from the same rights as the rest of us undermines people’s support for such rights.

I worry about this a lot.

This attitude is particularly apparent this week due to the horrific knife attack in Streatham, which mirrored the awful murders at the Fishmonger’s Hall in December. In both cases the perpetrator had been released from prison following a conviction for terrorism, and so now there is discussion about retrospectively changing the release and parole procedures for such criminals. Continue reading “When Defending Human Rights, We Must Tell Pragmatic Stories That Appeal To Self Interest”

Chinese Cartoons, Free Speech and Offence

Over the years, the exercise of free speech by cartoonists has been a recurring theme on this blog. All the way back in 2006 I discussed the infamous Mohammed cartoons published by Jyllands Postern, and of course the output of Charlie Hebdo has been examined and defended on several occasions. Meanwhile, the free speech of cartoonists around the world is often something that English PEN has to defend.

Continue reading “Chinese Cartoons, Free Speech and Offence”

China’s Moon Landing: When an Oppressive Regime Does Something Amazing

It’s been an exciting few months for anyone who is enthusiastic about space exploration. On 26th November the NASA InSight lander arrived on Mars (those tense landing moments are always worth a watch). Then on 13th December Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft reached an altitude of 50 miles, the so-called ‘edge of space’. On 2 January, the New Horizons Probe flew past Ultima Thule, producing the clearest image yet of one of the most distant known objects in our solar system (its about 4 billion miles away).

And of course the Chinese Space Agency put a probe onto the far side of the moon. It’s part of a grand plan for Chinese space exploration, including a permanent lunar base which can itself facilitate exploration to Mars. Continue reading “China’s Moon Landing: When an Oppressive Regime Does Something Amazing”

Quoted in the Observer, Discussing Artistic Freedom

Last week, the award-winning Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar posted a disconcerting message on Facebook, regarding his play Pah-la.

My dear Tibetan Friends, in Tibet and in exile, who have contributed extensively to the writing of Pah-la, I regret to inform you that the play has hit a roadblock again.

It was supposed to open on 4th October 2017, at the Royal Court Theatre, in London, with its poster printed and rehearsals fixed, when the British Council China pressurised the theatre to withdraw it from opening because of a program in China that they were running together.

Continue reading “Quoted in the Observer, Discussing Artistic Freedom”

How We Export The Erosion of Human Rights

Whenever I moan about the British Government interfering with and weakening our human rights protections, one thing I usually note is what a terrible example it sets to other countries around the world.  How can we expect other Governments to respect human rights if we do not respect them ourselves.

Here is a concrete example of this problem in action, courtesy of The Guardian.

China introduces its own ‘snooper’s charter’

Defending the law, the Chinese government pointed to legislation proposed in Western nations, such as Britain’s draft investigatory powers bill, which grants similar powers to the UK government.

There is no need to comment further at this point.

The Outliers

I have worked for (and with) some courageous people at English PEN.  I am often struck by the personal cost of exercising your right to free expression, and how damaging to life and finances taking stand can be.

For Banned Books Week, I was asked by Tor.com to write a piece on these people, the ‘Outliers’ who do the thing that most people would not.


Have you ever been stood up by Cory Doctorow? I have. Back in 2010 I was due to interview him at the London Book Fair about his latest novel For The Win. I read his entire back catalogue and planned loads of insightful questions, but when the time came for the interview in the PEN Literary cafe, he didn’t show up. Later, I received an e-mail from him with a preposterous and obviously made-up excuse about how his plane had been grounded by a volcano. So it was me on the stage with an empty chair. (My hastily written chat standard performance poem “The Empty Chair a.k.a Cory Doctorow Is Not Here Today” rocked YouTube, with literally dozens of views.) Continue reading “The Outliers”

Enemies of the Internet

Enemies of the Internet

This week, Reporters Sans Frontiers published their 2013 Enemies of the Internet report.  It begins:

My computer was arrested before I was.“ This perceptive comment was made by a Syrian activist who had been arrested and tortured by the Assad regime. Caught by means of online surveillance, Karim Taymour told a Bloomberg journalist that, during interrogation, he was shown a stack of hundreds of pages of printouts of his Skype chats and files downloaded remotely from his computer hard drive. His torturers clearly knew as much as if they had been with him in his room, or more precisely, in his computer.

RSF names Bahrain, China, Iran, Syria and Vietnam as ‘State Enemies of the Internet’, the most prolific violators of online privacy.  But these countries do not design all their own surveillance technologies in-house.  Appallingly, it is US and Western European companies, including British firms, who create the tools these murderous regimes use to spy on their own people.  RSF names Amesys (France), Blue Coat (USA), Gamma International (UK, Germany), Hacking Team (Italy) and Trovicor (Germany) as corporate ‘Enemies of the Internet’.

These companies are emboldened in their dirty (but apparently, perfectly legal) work by the manoeverings by western Governments to seize greater control over the Internet.  The British Data Communications Bill, commonly known as the Snoopers Charter, proposed to give security agencies to monitor all e-mail and data communications.  For all those horrified at the abuse of online activists around the world, opposing the reintroduction of such legislation in our wn countries is a practical first step.

Read the full report ‘Enemies of the Internet 2013’ by Reporters Sans Froniers.

Interviewed on 2ser 107.3

A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression inside the 'market focus' area at the London Book Fair.  Photo by yrstrly.
A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression at the London Book Fair. Photo by yrstrly.

Both readers of my blog were subjected to a significant amount of London Book Fair comment and linkage last month.  I was asked to give opinions on the controversial China Market Focus programme.

During the Book Fair I gave an interview to an Australian radio station, 2ser 107.3, based in Sydney.  I’ve only just discovered the link to the archive of the interview – My contribution is the first segment of the show.  Hilariously, I was credited as John Sharp!

The Chinese Government, Modern Artists

The London Book Fair took place last week, amid controversy surrounding the decision to designate China as the ‘market focus’ country. China is the largest publisher in the world by volume, so it is understandable that one of the publishing industry’s biggest trade fairs should look East. However, the official presence of the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), the censorship body, raised hackles among those who want free expression in China.

During the fair, I spent much of the time in the ‘Market Focus’ section of Earls Court, and I found the atmosphere very odd. Dissidents from the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and the Tibet Society would periodically enter the space and stand with placards, silently demanding an end to Literary Censorship in China. Whenever they did so, GAPP employees would muster their pull-up conference banners and place them between the protesters and the events space, presumably to ensure no stray slogans found their way into official photographs. Unfortunately, these banners carried the offical market focus branding, with slogans about new ideas and cultural exchange. It was not a good look.

At one point, while reading aloud the work of imprisoned poets Zhu Yufu and Shi Tao, I was scolded by the security guards for standing on carpet that had been paid for by the GAPP delegation. The blue aisle carpet was fine, but we would be asked to leave if we persisted with standing on the red carpet. Suddenly, the Book Fair felt like a Fred Sandback installation, where subtle coloured threads demarcate a space. Who knew the Chinese government did conceptual art? (Video here)

A fact went unreported by the trade press was that Liu Binjie, the President of GAPP, failed to turn up for his keynote speech. Earlier that morning, he had come face to face with the exiled novelist Ma Jian, who had attempted to hand Binjie a copy of his celebrated novel Beijing Coma. Security guards hustled the author away, but clearly communist party officials feared that Lui Binjie would be embarrassed by further displays of literary freedom during his scheduled address. At the plenary session, The lackey who replaced him claimed that he had been called away on urgent business, but this was clearly nonsense – what could be more important than the speech he had travelled half way round the world to deliver? The substitute then proceeded to announce that for the next few minutes he would be a ‘puppet’ and, as activists silently held aloft more signs demanding free expression, he proceeded to read Binjie’s speech aloud… including the punctuation. It seems the Chinese government can do performance art as well. (Video here)

Contrast the dour and humourless approach of the official delegation with the rest of their compatriots. When excluded authors like Ma Jian and his fellow exiled author Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans) visited the English PEN Literary Café, it was pleasing to see the number of Chinese delegates who stopped to listen to them speak and take photographs. Chinese publishers and journalists also paused by our stand to talk about imprisoned writers like Lui Xiaobo and Shi Tao. The most fascinating conversation I had during the three days at Earls Court was with a correspondent for a Chinese media outlet, who described in detail the exasperating self-censorship she practices every day. It was depressing to learn the extent to which the Chinese censorship system works on a kind of auto-pilot, with individual writers making decisions about what not to write, rather than a formal censor moderating everything (although that kind of censorship happens too). However, it was also interesting to hear the distain that she felt for the system under which she operates, and her own frustration with others who enable the state to operate as it does. She was not a revolutionary, but her words exposed the made me hopeful that the current system is untenable, and will reform. Like the carpet borders and the wafer-thin pull-up banners, the foundations under which oppressive regimes operate are flimsy, and exist largely in the human mind.