Speaking In Tongues: 85th PEN Congress in Manila

In September, Scottish PEN joined over 80 PEN centres from around the world in Manila for the 85th PEN Congress. Here, Scottish PEN President, Carl MacDougall shares his thoughts from the trip and what it means for our work defending free expression across the globe.

October 22, 2019

In September, Scottish PEN joined over 80 PEN centres from around the world in Manila for the 85th PEN Congress. Here, Scottish PEN President, Carl MacDougall shares his thoughts from the trip and what it means for our work defending free expression across the globe.

We opened with predictable, if depressing news.  In her welcoming address PEN International President, Jennifer Clement told Congress 2018 had been the worst recorded year for writers and journalists, significantly reminding us of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the killing of Lyra McKee. And, so far in 2019, 11 Mexican journalists have been killed and 200 Italian journalists are under police protection, simply for doing their job.

While writers remain at risk, we were also reminded of the continuing threats to indigenous languages. According to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2016, 40 per cent of the estimated 6,700 languages spoken around the world were in danger of disappearing. In the UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages, the 85th PEN International Congress focused on how centres can defend these keepers of culture, history and identity, and seek to celebrate the sharing of voices and heritage across the world. This goal was typified by the congress theme: “Speaking in Tongues,” and the focus on indigenous writing, linguistic diversity, and multiculturalism.

To share ways to protect and celebrate indigenous languages a panel discussion was assembled featuring Fernand de Varennes (the UN Special Rapporteur for Minority Issues), Merlie Alunan (Poet in Waray, Philippines), Felix Villeneuve (PEN Quebec), Genevieve Asenjo (Fiction Writer in Kiniray, Philippines), Nina Jaramillo (PEN Argentina), Tara June Winch (PEN Melbourne) and Ruperta Bautista (aspiring Mayan PEN).

Language threats was a common thread. The lack of standardisation, education and ability to contribute to formal processes posed distinct dangers that, left unaddressed, would lead to the eventual death of different language groups.

On the languages spoken by First Nation communities in Canada, Felix Villeneuve stated that only 15% of indigenous language speakers used it in their daily life, a drawn out legacy of the Indian Act that created isolated reserves that brought together different First Nation groups into reservations irrespective of their unique language and distinctive cultural identities. However, there are glimpses of optimism. In Canada, the Mohawk community had embraced technology’s ability to support and preserve languages by working on the first Siri-like voice assistant tool.

Further to this, Nina Jaramillo shared the work in Argentina to create a census of translators of indigenous languages and how indigenous languages have been placed at the centre of the training of journalists, which requires the use of two indigenous languages. Fernand de Verannes closed the session with an apt quote from Albert Camus that echoed throughout the Congress: “Democracy is not the rule of the majority, but the protection of the minority.”

PEN Centres came together to call for the immediate release of Ukrainian journalist, Stanislav Aseyev currently held incommunicado by Russia

Resolutions are often the backbone of congress and a Resolution Workshop followed the decision taken at the Writers in Prison Committee meeting in Rotterdam earlier this year. As PEN International grows, the number of congress resolutions increases; and given that a recent congress started with nine resolutions and finished with 23, a new approach was considered necessary. 

Fernand de Verannes closed the session with an apt quote from Albert Camus that echoed throughout the Congress: “Democracy is not the rule of the majority, but the protection of the minority.”

The very nature of congress resolutions was questioned, asking if they are an effective way of campaigning, given that they are a starting point, rather than a way of finalising an issue. 

But the main concern was what happened between submission and selection, which became clear in the Resolution Workshop when smaller, often local centres felt their issues were being dismissed in favour of the larger English-speaking centres.  They urged the larger centres to think about the impact their resolutions could have on smaller centres: “We need you to care for us,” a PEN Vietnam in Exile delegate said.

Resolutions will be fact-checked, edited for clarity and, where appropriate, merged with similar thematic or geographic resolutions. It is assumed possible disputes will be resolved by negotiation, but if the disagreement persists it will be submitted to a committee of five, drawn from three WIPC members and two board members. Jane Archer, from Scottish PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, is on the committee.

PEN Hong Kong and the Writers for Peace Committee present a statement condemning the shooting of an unarmed protestor in Hong Kong, an act that took place during Congress

Scottish PEN’s Project Manager Nik Williams chaired a panel discussion on the media’s financial crisis and its impact on free speech, asking, among other things, how traditional media outlets have adjusted to their loss of impact and the rise of social media.

This was an informative and potentially worrying session.  Speakers from Hong Kong, The Philippines and Nicaragua told similar stories of traditional media outlets struggling to survive in the face of changing reading habits and concerted attacks from hostile governments and other parties. In The Philippines advertising has shrunk in the face of social media, Hong Kong is awash with fake news and Nicaragua was described as “an Orwellian regime.”

Richard Stursberg, the President of PEN Canada was very clear. Freedom of expression and truth are inextricably linked.  Continually questioning credibility leads to confusion and apathy arrives when you cannot tell what’s true. Online platforms are designed to hold users as long as possible, Facebook has 30,000 data points on each user, fake political news is 70% more likely to be re-tweeted on Twitter and algorithms use such data to shape how we live and as such need to be regulated.  This, he said, is the main issue of the 21st century.

In The Philippines advertising has shrunk in the face of social media, Hong Kong is awash with fake news and Nicaragua was described as “an Orwellian regime.”

This theme was continued in a panel on the impact algorithms and artificial intelligence has on free expression. It featured Nik Williams (Scottish PEN), Brendan de Caires (Canada PEN), Ma Thida (Myanmar PEN/PEN International Board) and Nadezhda Azhgikhina (Moscow PEN) and was chaired by Salil Tripathi, the chair of the International Writers in Prison Committee.

This discussion featured a vigorous debate on how algorithms are used to curate content online, prioritising engagement over a healthy and pluralist debate, and how these technologies are used by tech platforms to opaquely police their content and guard against hate speech. Ma Thida spoke eloquently about how Facebook was used to amplify and share content in Myanmar that encouraged violence, most notably against the Rohingya minority; and while the impact of technology is unequally felt across the globe, the threat from algorithms and artificial intelligence is an increasing area of focus for all PEN centres.

A month before his inauguration, in June 2016, the BBC reported The Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte saying journalists deserved to die. “Just because you are a journalist you are not exempt from assassination,” he said at a time when in the 30 preceding years 176 journalists had been killed in the Philippines.  It is still one of the most dangerous countries for reporters, ranking fifth in the world for the number of unsolved murder of journalists.

A PEN International publication, A Carnival of Mirrors, offers brutal honesty. The Philippines have more than 2,000 news outlets, 40 national dailies, around 100 community newspapers, 31 television stations, more than a hundred local cable stations and thousands of radio stations on both bands. Yet this is more an assertion of rights than a barometer of freedom, given that the Duterte government has either crafted new legislation or strengthened existing laws to boost state powers and diminish human rights. Nothing is straightforward or can be taken for granted.  The fight continues.

A month before his inauguration, in June 2016, the BBC reported The Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte saying journalists deserved to die. “Just because you are a journalist you are not exempt from assassination,” he said at a time when in the 30 preceding years 176 journalists had been killed in the Philippines. 

The fact that PEN’s 85th congress was held in The Philippines was a gesture of solidarity with their defenders of truth and free expression; and given that the Manila congress is the first to be held in South East Asia, PEN Philippines took the opportunity to introduce themselves. The archipelago’s rich literary and linguistic diversity, their struggle for free expression and the ways the region is being positively reshaped dominated a series of parallel workshops, and readings.

Leading journalist from The Philippines, Maria Ressa, outlined the threats against her and The Rappler and ongoing Cyber-Libel actions brought against her by the state

And they wanted to hear from us, taking us beyond the event.  Groups of four writers visited each of Manila’s five universities, answering questions from students. At the university, we were met with a garland of orchids and a line of applauding students.  And rather than the standard Where Do You Get Your Ideas From set of questions, we were closely challenged on our opinions, working methods and social media habits.

I was asked why I’m on neither Facebook or Twitter and was closely questioned on the difference between my writing style, approach and resulting narrative of my novels, short stories and journalism.  Then, just when I thought it was over, a young man of perhaps 18 or 19, asked, “How do you get rid of the fear?”

This was followed by a performance from the university’s dance ensemble and a lunch punctuated by an endless stream of selfie requests.

Congress, at times, can feel somewhat insulated. With so many centres, issues and threats brought together in one location, it can appear detached from the daily churn of politics and events.

However, certain actions or events puncture this sense. During congress, protests in Iraq were violently suppressed and this required PEN Iraq to draft an unplanned statement and visit the Iraqi Embassy in Manila, while, at the same time, we were shaken by the news that an unarmed protestor in Hong Kong had been shot by a police officer. The Writers for Peace Committee convened an extraordinary meeting and produced a statement of condemnation that was presented from the floor and accepted unanimously.

2nd October 2019 marked the first anniversary of the assassination of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Congress co-authored and with more than 80 centres attending, signed a letter calling for justice and an end to impunity.  This was hand delivered to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Manila by the PEN International President and Executive Director, alongside representatives from Scottish PEN, English PEN and PEN Iraq.

A delegation from Scottish PEN, PEN Iraq, English PEN, PEN America and PEN International delivered a petition to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Manila calling for justice following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

While the number of resolutions brought forward was significantly smaller than in previous years, a number of important issues were voted on and accepted, including the protection of minority languages in Iran and The Philippines, opposing the expansion of the US Espionage Act, protecting asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, and condemning threats to free expression across South and East Asia, as well as the ongoing threats in Crimea. Further to this Svetlana Alexievich, Orhan Pamuk, Elena Poniatowska, Luisa Valenzuela and Frankie Sionil were all unanimously accepted as new Vice President’s of PEN International, showcasing the vibrant, diverse and defiant voices that continue to shape and drive the PEN network forward.

Former Scottish PEN President, Paul Scott was remembered during the In Memoriam session; and in proposing a new centre in Malaysia, Bernice Chauly told congress, that Scottish PEN honorary member Louise Welsh had encouraged her to apply for PEN membership by when she was a guest at last year’s George Town Literary Festival. PEN Malaysia were accepted unanimously.

We may be a small centre, but our impact extends far beyond our borders and this congress, like every year, is testament to that fact.  We look forward to next year’s Congress in Uppsala, Sweden.