PEN Statement on Middle East

PEN International Statement on Developments in Middle East
January 31, 2011
—In the wake of the welcome and peaceful move towards democracy in Tunisia, PEN International notes with great concern the violent response to antigovernment protests elsewhere in the region, notably Egypt, but also in Yemen and Syria.

"PEN International warmly welcomes the democratic developments in Tunisia," said John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International. "However, we are alarmed by the trampling on the rights of citizens to transparency, information, knowledge and freedom of assembly elsewhere, most recently in Egypt over the past several days."

PEN welcomes in particular the release of all Tunisian journalists, bloggers and other political prisoners, following the protests which ended 23 years of President Ben Ali's rule. It also welcomes the lifting of many restrictions previously imposed on freedom of expression. PEN hopes for a full recognition of free speech and the right to assembly in Tunisia. 

In Egypt, scores have been arrested in the crackdown on peaceful protesters calling for democratic reform since January 25, 2011, including several journalists. At least ten journalists covering the demonstrations have been attacked, tight restrictions have been imposed on freedom of assembly, and there has been widespread disruption to internet and mobile-phone connections. Egyptian authorities have also shut down the websites of two popular independent newspapers, Al-Dustour and El-Badil, and a number of social media sites. On January 30, 2011, Egypt shut down the Al Jazeera bureau in Cairo.

In Yemen, tens of thousands of peaceful opposition activists have also taken to the streets demanding democratic and social changes. In Syria, the authorities have blocked Facebook and other social network providers including mobile message facilities (SMS) in an attempt to suppress antigovernment protests. There are fears that opposition activists, writers and journalists in both these countries are at increased risk of arrest.

"The worldwide community of PEN reiterates our solidarity with our colleagues as they seek democracy and practice their fundamental rights to speak, write and join their fellow citizens in peaceful protest," said Mr. Saul.  

PEN International urges the authorities in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen to refrain from using violence to respond to peaceful protests, and reminds these governments of their commitments to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.