PEN International Congress: Reclaiming Truth In Times of Propaganda

Scottish PEN president, Carl MacDougall shares his thoughts from PEN International’s Congress held in Lviv, Ukraine

Fake news, hate speech, cyber trolling, equality and freedom of expression were high on the agenda at PEN International’s 83rd Congress in Lviv, Ukraine, where the spectre of recent European history is never far away. The congress took place in western Ukraine while fighting continued in both the Donbas and Crimea and a recent PEN International report described democracy in Ukraine as “a work in progress”.

Freedom of Expression was examined in a number of public seminars held as part of congress. The first, entitled Super Powers Under the Spotlight explored free expression in Putin’s Russia, and was followed by a session with Paul Auster and Larry Siems on the Threats to the First Amendment in Trump’s America. The death of Nobel Laureate and honorary Scottish PEN member Liu Xiaobo was commemorated in China’s Shame – How a Poet Exposed the Soul of the Party.

Before the Congress started there were a number of committee meetings held for the Writers In Prison Committee, Writers for Peace Committee and the Women’s Writers Committee. At the Writers in Prison Committee meeting, Nik Williams of Scottish PEN presented the initial findings of our study on the impact of surveillance on self-censorship in Scotland as part of a panel about surveillance and digital expression.

At one stage, it looked as if it might be a quiet congress. We amended the Charter, welcomed four new centres, and raised the dues to PEN International almost without argument. Then came the Resolutions.

The amendment to the Charter followed last year’s spirited debate when a proposed amendment was suspended mainly because some centres felt they would be at risk if statuses currently illegal in their country were mentioned. Following discussion, Article 3 of the Charter was amended to ensure that protections are in place for writers from all backgrounds.

New centres in St Petersburg, Cuba, the Gambia and South India were welcomed and an appeal was made for contributions to the PEN Emergency Fund, now seen as unsustainable with between 25 and 50 applications a year being received.

Sixty-nine centres were represented by more than 200 writers, poets, translators, editors and staff, some by a single delegate, some with more than 10. As before, the range, variety and depth of the discussions brought a realisation that although we are concerned with our own issues and certainly our own board and committees meet and discuss them, there is little difference between our concerns and those of other centres.

An emergency resolution on Myanmar was passed, calling on the government to allow journalistic access and for UN observers to report what they see. Resolutions supporting imprisoned writers in Eritrea, Turkey, Vietnam, China and Kazakhstan (put forward by Scottish PEN) and condemning killings in Mexico, Russia, and India were passed and concerns about creeping censorship in Turkey, India, Ukraine, Poland, Spain and Hungary were acted on, as were the resolutions condemning restrictions of minority linguistic rights such as Kurdish writers in Turkey, Hungarians in Ukraine and Uyghurs in China.

These discussions were excellent, vigorous and well informed. Everyone had something to say, hands from every desk were raised to participate and speaker after speaker brought a familiar local dimension to international issues. Of all of the resolutions, 11 were passed unanimously without abstention. Four had a total of nine abstentions between them and only two had a single vote against them.

This was when a Turkish delegate raised what for many was the central point of the Congress, reaffirming the powerful principle that underlies PEN: “In most organisations the people who join ask, What’s in it for me?” she said. “PEN asks what can we do for others.”

And following a heated discussion on a hate speech resolution, it was decided to put together a working group of different PEN centres to explore PEN International’s position, while ensuring free expression is protected. Scottish PEN has agreed to participate in this group that will report back to next year’s Congress.

Tags: Carl MacDougall Congress PEN International Propaganda Ukraine Writers at Risk