Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Freedom to write - the PEN Experience in Europe by Dr. Terry Carlbom

Dear Hosts, distinguished guests,

I would first of all, as International Secretary of International PEN, like to convey to you and this Conference a message of greetings from the Writers for Peace Committee, one of the Standing Committees of International PEN, now holding its annual meeting in Bled and Ljubljana. This is a response to the kind initiative of Mr. Spyros Mercouris of the ECCM conference. We look forward to continued co-operation.

The history of PEN - originally an acronym for Poets, Essayists and Novelists - starts soon after the end of the Great War, in the early twenties. In Geneva Jean Monnet, as deputy Secretary-General of the League of Nations, was gaining first-hand experience of solving problems of the European peace. In London a middle-aged energetic lady, close to the literary society there, conceived another idea of internationalism, on a far less amibitious scale. Above and beyond the waves of Nationalism still persistently evident across Europe, indeed the world, Mrs. Amy Dawson-Scott pursued an idea of a fellowship of writers. The PEN Club was established in London in October 1921, aimed at promoting literature in a setting where travelling writers would be welcome whatever their nationality. Quite interestingly, it was a club intended to be, not national and exclusive, but international and inclusive.

More rapidly than she could dream of, PEN Centres started to be established across Europe and soon also in India, Japan and the Americas. But although trying to be purely literary at first, PEN could never be divorced from politics nor political antagonism - not at a time when Mussolini started to imprison writers, Hitler to burn books, and Franco to strangle poets. Where others sought appeasement, PEN mobilised. Without exact claims to 'cause - effect', I might mention that when Arthur Koestler was in prison and sentenced to death by Franco in 1937, PEN mounted a campaign and Koestler found himself free within two months. Today we continue to oppose the fatwahs of the ayatollas of all religions and political movements.

After 1945, as sides were taken in the Cold War, individuals were again supposed to rise to the call of either of the dominant ideologies of the day. International PEN kept individualistic humanism at its heart, resisting as best it could the ultimate call of the rogues of religious and ideological fundamentalism: "if you are not for us, you are against us"!

After the founding of UNESCO, PEN grew into its role as a global non-governmental organisation, expanding in Africa, Asia and Latin-America. It now has over 130 Centres in more than 90 countries. It's work for Writers in Prison became in the early 60's a model for amnesty international and the general human rights concern of that other later organisations. In a certain respect PEN Centres have still remained clubs: every invited member has to sign the Charter, which spells out the ideals of freedom to write, joined with the ethical restrictions that follow of internationalism and fellowship.

The contribution I would like to make today, as we mark our respect for the initiative taken by the ECCM Network organising this Symposium "Freedom of Expression and Dialogue", is to give a few reflections on the relationship between freedom of speech and nationalism.

In promoting Freedom to Write, and keeping an ever-watchful eye on censorship, International PEN recognises that in civilised world civil freedoms are given by constitutions and declarations, but are also defined and restricted by common law. Respect for the integrity of individuals is one such exception to totally free speech. The borderlines, which always should be under discussion, can furthermore be supplemented by self-imposed ethical restraints on free speech. Mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood, distortion of facts for political and personal ends may not always be unlawful, but are for instance, incompatible with membership of PEN. So would also be the denial of the Holocaust and use of hate speech on racist or other grounds.

Even today, as we enter the new Century, nationalist movements and even governments still pose a threat by trying to intimidate freethinking individuals and citizens, writers and journalists. Maybe less in the countries of the European Union, but Europe is also the Balkans and Belarus, and further still. After the fall of the Soviets, the Cold War was in many countries replaced by post-Communist nationalism, constructed by elites searching to gain or retain power. Again we are confronted with patterns of drummed-up nationalism built on the Construction and the Demonisation of the Other - a powerful element indeed in the history of Europe. And in these countries the prisons are filled with those who are not sheltered by the Rule of Law and independent courts. Put there by regimes, where those who are not for it are quickly defined as being against it!

What PEN does is to forcefully acknowledge the pride of peaceful national identity, which for the creative individual so often is a great source of inspiration. What we reject is the nationalism which thrives by asserting itself over others. This has been spelled out by Croatian PEN Member Mirko Mirkovich: "All great literature is national. Nationalistic literature is unfailingly terrible." To remain a free writer, you must never in the name of your country allow yourself to become a tool for political movements. That is the sophisticated difference between internationalism and nationalism.

If we thus have defined ourselves with regard to nationalism, what then about national language? The most distinct characteristic, one would think, of national identity. Here, International PEN supports the right of all to express themselves in the language of their choice; that which best expresses their personality, their quest for identity, their literary ambitions. We reject claims in the name of national unity, which try to monopolise a language or assert it in relation to others. We claim as personal birthright for anyone to holde and use the language of their choice. We are pressing, through UNESCO, for a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. Even in Europe, this is not unproblematic.

For close on eighty years now, from out foundation in 1921, PEN has been guided by a Charter,chiselled out of the daunting experiences of 20th Century history. Our basic values are simple, and are linked to the Dignity of the Free Word, - the promotion of the written word, open dialogue above and beyond nationalism on topics of literature and culture, and solidarity between writers, journalists and publishers alike in the defence of freedom to write.

In times of turmoil, the experience of International PEN is that to truly promote literature and poetry, we must build and uphold the bridges for open intellectual discourse between writers, whatever their languages or citizen nationalities are. We must offer shelter against virulent, demanding and demeaning nationalism. It is at this point it is good to remind ouroselves that non-governmental organisations, pledged to ordinary, decent humanistic values, above and beyond nationalism, have a great role to play in creating what UNESCO calls building A Culture for PEACE. NGOs of this kind are, in fact, a totally indispensable part of Civil Society. So is also Freedom to Write.

Dr. Terry Carlbom

International Secretary of International PEN

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