PEN International and the International Cities of Refuge Network work closely to provide safety and security to writers, journalists, and editors facing threat. PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee meets on regular occasions with ICORN’s executives, writers, artists, and journalists to discuss themes of mutual interest.

At its last meeting, held virtually, Salil Tripathi, PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee Chair, spoke of significant developments during his term, which ends September 2021.

Excerpts from his speech:

The theme of our meeting this year is Digital Dystopia. We had thought the internet was going to liberate us. Instead, we are speaking to fewer people, mainly to those we agree with. Some mute voices they don’t like and block those who they find to be hostile. And worldwide, the cult of intolerance increases, with the powerful seeking to silence, by cancelling those they disagree with, including getting them expelled and removed from social media. US President Donald Trump says reprehensible things, but should it be left to an oversight board, appointed by a corporation nobody elected, to decide if his views should be heard in public? Who gets to decide? Are companies our saviours or new censors?

I had a minor kerfuffle last year, when Twitter removed me from its platform for a bit more than two days, which showed how arbitrary power works. Wiser counsel prevailed, I was back, thanks to the noise many of you made. But it shows the perilously precarious nature of our freedoms. And I am entirely aware that compared to the cases we work on – from Belarus, Turkey, Vietnam, China, Nicaragua, Uganda, and many other places – what I experienced was farcical. They are the real heroes. And the powerful seek to silence them in far crueller ways. To expect companies to make reasonable judgments is naïve.

This, when we know we cannot rely on governments. We know civil society too which wants to de-platform views that may be reprehensible, but instead of challenging those, they want others to remove them from the public domain. The internet enables that; this year, the centenary year of PEN we realise that we have to continue to walk. In the words of the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, even if nobody listens to your call, walk alone.

We are lucky; we are together. And we have walked together. We must continue to do so.

Pandemic thoughts

In my bleak moments I have sometimes wondered – if coronavirus did not exist, would governments have invented something similar? This sounds like one of the conspiracy theories about the pandemic spreading like the virus itself across the planet, but there is cruel logic to it. The pandemic has allowed governments to impose strict controls and restrictions on civil liberties. We are effectively under house arrest, cannot meet others easily, cannot go out easily, and we are expected to be willing to be subject to surveillance and be monitored. We now follow new social norms such as wearing masks and keeping safe distance between us and others, and abide by rapidly changing rules about what we can do, with whom, and where.

The constantly changing signals, as in my former home, London, whether you can meet people in groups of six or 30, as in my new home, New York, whether to wear a mask or not, whether to eat in the patio or inside, or in the country where I was born, India, where the gap to be kept between two shots of the vaccine constantly shifts, depending less on science and more on the availability of the vaccines – these are all questions where decisions are made based on convenience, with a view to ensure compliance, with a view to demonstrate, as if in theatre, that somebody up there knows what is to be done and telling us how to do it and we play our parts to pretend as if everything is normal. And when the government decides, sometimes by giving reasons, but sometimes on a whim, to impose lockdowns or time-bound curfews (as if the virus respects government strictures), again, we must comply.

It is all for good reasons, we are told. Liberties must not be curtailed. But we know that international human rights standards, such as the Siracusa Principles, do permit derogation of human rights in certain circumstances, such as grave threat to public health. However, those restrictions have to be legal, evidence-based, necessary, proportional, and gradual. One thing we’ve learned in the past year and more is that while these restrictions are necessary and often legal, the evidence on which these are based is not always convincing.

Many governments believe in “shock and awe”, and as such, the restrictions are no longer gradual. And they are certainly not proportional. Think of Rozina Islam, the reporter of the Bangladeshi daily, Prothom Alo (First Light), who has been arrested on recently because she was seeking to write information about the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Restricting a large number of people to meet in public may be necessary, but restricting journalists from reporting on that is not. Challenging conspiracy theories is essential, but jailing commentators or writers who question the authorities is not. Being transparent about government policy is crucial, but dismissing critics as purveyors of fake news, and worse, prosecuting them, is not. Journalists who have questioned that have tried to cast light, and today, some of those journalists are in jail.

Curtailing dissent

And yet, as PEN International begins celebrating its centenary – albeit on a subdued note, given the pandemic and the impossibility for us to meet one another – it is worth remembering that no government wants to miss turning a crisis into an opportunity. We have seen this with armed conflict, where Israel bombed a building which had offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press; conflict allows many governments to impose restrictions that never go away. Myanmar is another example, where the Tatmadaw is imposing rules at will, and jailing, even killing writers, or forcing them into considering options to leave. This was most noticeable two decades ago, when after the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the US and many other countries passed legislation that made dissent harder, and in the years since, even though the situation has improved, few governments have relinquished the controls they had acquired.

The pandemic poses a similar challenge. In the name of keeping us safe, healthy, and secure, governments will want to know more about whom we meet, where we meet, and for how long, and in the process find out what we might eat or drink, buy, and consume, because really what they want to know is what we think and what we might express – and how to stop us from doing it.

But we – writers, poets, playwrights, bloggers, artists, editors, and journalists – are made of sterner stuff. We like speaking truth to power. We say that the emperor is in his birthday suit, if he is without any clothes – because that is the truth, and people have the right to know. Parul Khakhar is a poet who writes in my mother tongue, Gujarati and wrote a dirge, outraged as she was when she saw dead bodies floating in the river Hindus consider holy, the Ganges. She is free, but has had to lock her social media account, and received vile abuse which is sexually explicit, misogynistic, and vulgar. She is a spunky woman, but she, and others like her, should never feel they are alone.

Some of us may say what we wish through imagination and fiction; some of us write poetry about it; some present a harrowing account that moves from journalism to the realm of literature; and some of us use newer modes of communication – through social media, through blogs – to widen our audiences. And we create a community – of writers and readers who care for each other, who support each other, and believe in everyone’s right to peaceful and free expression, regardless of their origin – their passport (or not), language, religion (or none), ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, indigeneity. Those in authority – governments, religions, corporations, and others who wield power – don’t like that. They threaten the stubborn among us. They prosecute such outspoken writers, intimidate them, jail them, torture them, and sometimes kill them.

The time has come for me to stop and step aside. My term ends this September, and this is my last meeting with friends at ICORN. The new chair will take over at the next Congress.

As I leave this office, my parting words are simple: we must not give up. We must persevere and continue to support one another, because an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us, to borrow the idea of collective defence governments think they own. Freedoms are ours; we are born with those freedoms, it is not governments who grant us those freedoms. Let us assert ours; let us celebrate our heroes.

We mourn those who have left us, we derive inspiration from their courage. And we remember their names. I want to assure you – even as I leave, I will be back at the pickets, still signing those letters, and continuing to express outrage with you.

Remember what Tagore told Gandhi: যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চল রে!

(Jodi tor daak shune keu naa aashe tobe ekla chalo re!)

If no one listens to your call, walk alone.

And we are not alone, as the French novelist born in Congo, Alain Mabanckou, reiterated in his letter to Enoh Meyomesse, when he was in jail.

My friends in the PEN community, you are that force; it has been an honour to be your messenger.

Salil Tripathi
Chair, WIPC