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English PEN: Upholding the right to freedom of expression

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Rudyard Kipling once said words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.  The written word helps spreads ideas, culture, memories, and events. But in many countries harsh totalitarian laws often impinge upon the freedom and ability to write. Writers are often persecuted for simply speaking out against the regime they live under.

Our freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its content is simple, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression’, in which these expressions can be held without interference. The freedom of expression allows the publication of controversial opinions and often un-wanted truths. The freedom of expression is a fundamental building block which democracy is reliant upon.

Writers have used the powerful medium of written prose to critique injustice and oppression for hundreds of years. The written word is one of the purest forms of protest. During the Second World War many famous writers spoke out against the terrors of Nazi Germany. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was famously written in hiding from Nazi persecution by Anne Frank, a Jewish teenage girl. The diary is a good example of how writing can transcend the horrors of war, and genocide.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Johannes Morsink explains in his book The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, there was a concerted effort to codify human rights and uphold them as a reaction to the horrors of Nazism. Nazism had systematically killed over six million Jews during the Holocaust. In 1948 the member states of the UN voted unanimously to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cementing the freedom of expression into international law.

Although not encoded internationally like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, efforts to protect our right to the freedom of speech and expression are nothing new. The first murmurs of legislating the freedom of expression are referenced in John Milton’s Areopagitica published in 1644. Milton proclaimed: 'He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself’. Freedom of expression was first legislated in the English Bill of Rights and would later be built upon in the American Bill of Rights.

Freedom of expression is one of the most powerful methods of reconciliation for societies looking to transition towards democracy, and provides reprieve for those affected by war and conflict. Former child soldiers such as Emmanuel Jal, who fought in the Second Sudanese Civil War have used redemption biographies to help protest against the human rights injustice of the recruitment of child soldiers. Similarly books like Senait Mahari’s Heart of Fire, have used the medium of writing to expose the injustices of war.

English PEN founded in 1921 is a charity designed to defend and uphold the human right to freedom of expression. Based in 145 centres in over 100 different countries it has a truly global presence. Using this platform it created the writers at risk campaign in 1960, which has been running ever since. English PEN through this campaign called for the release of imprisoned writers worldwide, who have not received a fair trial. Their imprisonment is a direct violation of freedom of expression.

An example of English PEN’s recent work is their campaign for the release of the Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badwi whose peaceful activism landed him in prison. Badwi is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence and received 950 lashes in public for simply blogging about free speech. English PEN to show support holds public vigils for Badwi and is currently pressuring the Saudi Arabian government to exonerate Raif Badwi.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also makes reference to the expression of opinion ‘regardless of frontiers’. English PEN to help uphold this section of article 19 promotes the translation of foreign language prose into English. The group has helped translate Senait Maharis Heart of Fire through its ‘writers in translation’ programme.

The English PEN director Jo Glanville will be involved in a Q&A with Luke Harding, the author of the Snowden Files, at the Lush Summit on 8th February. Before joining English PEN in 2006, Jo Glanville worked as a BBC current affairs producer for eight years. Harding was famously deported from Russia by the Kremlin, for reporting controversial material. He has since been a vocal author and critique of the actions of the American government towards Edward Snowden.

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