PEN’s 100-year struggle for writers

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In 1960, a Prison Writers Committee was founded to fight attempts to silence critical voices around the world. PEN’s London offices monitor around 1,000 attacks on writers, journalists, editors and publishers in any given year. As the lists of cases show, attacks on freedom of expression also know no borders. Writers have been persecuted by totalitarian regimes on the right and left, in theocracies, under military juntas and in self-proclaimed democracies.

Ardeshir Gholipour with two of his works at an exhibition in 2005 at Trades Hall in Melbourne. Credit:Mario borg

It was not until Cheikh Kone, an Ivorian journalist, was jailed in the Port Hedland detention center in January 2001 that PEN had its first case on Australian soil. While in custody, Kone was known as NBP451. He fled his country after writing an article claiming that the October 2000 presidential elections were rigged by the military.

Kone boarded a ship in Durban and was handed over to immigration officials upon arrival in Fremantle. When PEN Melbourne was alerted to his detention, researchers in London verified his case and campaigned for his release. Kone said in a recent interview: “The work PEN has done has made it easier to present a case to the Minister and helped me get the humanitarian visa that was granted to me.

In January 2005, PEN Melbourne learned of the imprisonment of Iranian artist and pro-democracy activist Ardeshir Gholipour. After five years in the Port Hedland and Baxter detention centers, he faced the threat of imminent deportation and was in a state of desperation. Gholipour had spent time in the infamous Iranian prison of Evin before fleeing to Australia to seek asylum. Once again, PEN verified her case and successfully campaigned for her release.

At the end of 2014, PEN Melbourne was approached by Janet Galbraith, refugee advocate and poet, about the then unknown detainee from Manus Island, the Kurdish-Iranian writer and journalist Behrouz Boochani. Once again, PEN International has confirmed the details of the case and joined a coalition of human rights groups campaigning for Boochani’s freedom and his right to be heard.

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On the occasion of its centenary, PEN International has become a truly global organization. There are currently 147 centers around the world. The work has expanded to include a Translation and Language Rights Committee, a Committee of Women Writers, and numerous forums showcasing contemporary literature and defending freedom of expression.

Over time, individual centers have developed their own identity. PEN Melbourne, for example, has established relationships with local writers from diverse backgrounds whose works, often for language reasons, have been overlooked by the general public. He has developed links with writers in Asia and the Pacific, and organizes writers’ workshops in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap in partnership with PEN Cambodia. He also initiated projects that promoted and nurtured the works of Indigenous writers.

But campaigns for the release of imprisoned writers remain PEN’s core business. Over the years, the success rate has been mixed, with some writers released, others serving long prison terms and some being killed.

One of those killed was Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. She was found shot dead in Moscow, in the elevator of her apartment building, on October 7, 2006, a few days before she published an article on torture and kidnappings in the Russian Chechen Republic. Along with other PEN centers around the world, centers in Australia have campaigned for its safety. After his death, the members met at a cafe in Carlton, ate together, and read excerpts from his works.

Each year as the holiday season approaches, PEN members come together to send cards to jailed writers letting them know they are not alone. In December 2006, members of PEN Melbourne sent cards to Armenian-Turkish journalist and human rights activist Hrant Dink. Because he had regularly spoken about the Armenian genocide, Dink was charged with the controversial crime of denigrating Turkishness under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.

The card journalist Hrant Dink sent after receiving a 2006 Christmas card from PEN Melbourne.

The card journalist Hrant Dink sent after receiving a 2006 Christmas card from PEN Melbourne.

The following April, the center received a response card from Dink. He wrote: “Thank you for your support and your message of goodwill. I send you all my best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The card arrived months after his death; Dink was shot dead by a young Turkish nationalist outside the offices of his newspaper in Istanbul in January 2007.

There have been many moving responses to letters and cards of support over the years. In January 2020, PEN Melbourne received a response from Nedim Turfent, a Kurdish journalist and poet imprisoned in Turkey. Turfent has now spent more than 1,500 days in detention on false terrorism charges.

He wrote: “Dear friends of PEN, as a worker of the word, if the truth is your guide and your goal, you will never give up hope. To learn more about the effects of truth, we need to hang on to our work – from writing to storytelling. We must join our hands when darkness is everywhere. Solidarity is the first step towards the light. With solidarity, nothing is beyond our reach. I am very sorry for the massive forest fires in Australia. Please feel my aching heart. I hope the ongoing nightmare will end as soon as possible. Thank you for your letters. We are in one heart. Sincerely, Nedim Turfent. Journalist imprisoned.

As PEN International celebrates its centenary, the persecution of writers continues. The spotlight is shifting, but the threat remains constant. Over the past year, PEN has tracked the increased targeting of writers, journalists and civil society activists in Afghanistan.

Afghan honor guards hold a wreath containing a portrait of Dawa Khan Menapal, director of the Afghan government's Information Media Center, who was shot and killed in Kabul on August 6.

Afghan honor guards hold a wreath containing a portrait of Dawa Khan Menapal, director of the Afghan government’s Information Media Center, who was shot and killed in Kabul on August 6.Credit:PA

In the weeks leading up to the fall of the Afghan government, PEN documented the murder by militant groups of two writers. Journalist Dawa Khan Menapal, director of the Afghan government information and media center, was killed by gunmen on the Darul Aman road in Kabul on August 6. District, tortured and murdered.

Again, as a century of PEN testimony has shown, being a writer can be a dangerous calling. And being a poet can mean risking your life on the front lines in the struggle for freedom.

Arnold Zable is the current boss and former president of PEN Melbourne. He hosts an ABC Radio National series, marking the centenary of PEN International, on his History Listen and Ear blow programs. The series begins September 7.


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