82nd International PEN Congress: A report from Carl MacDougall

Scottish PEN’s president recounts stories about freedom of expression that we heard at PEN International’s annual conference.

November 17, 2016

In many ways, Congress was defined by an early statement to the Writers At Risk Committee.  During the opening reports, one of the Turkish delegates began by saying, “I am not going to give my name.”

The situation in Turkey was never far away. Newspapers have closed, more than 100 journalists are in prison, books have been burned and more than 100,000 people jailed after being told to report to a police station.

In a Congress report on Protection we were told the increase in writers approaching IPEN and ICORN for help has outstripped the capacity to respond.  Jo Glanville from English PEN announced residencies that were prompted by the new Home Office visas for artists.  There is enough funding for two writers for a year, but cases are difficult since we have to show the benefits are mutual.

The reports on Gender Based Violence were harrowing.  The initial focus was on India where following the heavily publicised public attack on a bus in New Dehli two years ago there was hope of change.  Now the situation is worse: on line threats are followed up and women are followed by police who say they are “there for your protection.” PEN has instigated safety training and is investigating the trafficking of young girls.

More than 180 delegates from over 70 countries attended and Scottish PEN contributed to the committee and congress discussions and forums.  We were applauded when I announced our Many Voices project to Congress and thumbs-up signs were followed by inquiries and requests for information.  I am certain the topic will come up again next year, especially since the approval rating was unanimous.

Our attendance at Congress is vital and we are grateful for the support we got from Creative Scotland.  It not only gives us an opportunity to hear first hand accounts of stories and events that are often ignored or sparsely covered and to find how other centres are meeting situations similar to our own, but we can actively participate in shaping International PEN’s policy.  At a local level, the exchange of information is essential and covers all of PEN’s activities.  This is where international contacts are established and developed.  Congress is where we meet, but the work and contacts continue throughout the year.

PEN Norway failed in their attempt to give Edward Snowden asylum. But Congress unanimously approved their motion asking Barack Obama to pardon Snowden as a final act of his presidency.  We expect news shortly.

Carl MacDougall