“I’ve often envied those writers in the Western world who can peacefully practice their craft and earn a living thereby… What [the authorities here] cannot stand is that a writer should give voice to the voiceless or organize them for action. In short, they do not want literature on the streets!” —KEN SARO WIWA, written to PEN Center USA from his prison cell in Nigeria shortly before his execution.
Since 1921, PEN International has championed freedom of expression and defended writers of conscience. PEN Intenrational members were influential in crafting Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression… and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” PEN International holds Category A status at UNESCO and consultative status with the United Nations, where the organization lobbies on behalf of writers who are harassed, imprisoned, and murdered for the peaceful expression of their views.
As a member of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee, PEN Center USA works to secure the release and to support the families of writers of conscience around the world. Members visit their colleagues in jail in other parts of the world and hand-deliver aid in the form of letters and financial assistance whenever possible. With public events and over the Internet, members raise awareness about freedom of expression abroad while working to protect the First Amendment at home.
PEN Center USA’s Freedom to Write Committee, made up of more than 200 volunteer writers, seeks to create a broader American consensus in favor of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
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PEN Center USA’s Freedom to Write Committee seeks to spotlight ongoing dangers and disturbing new trends in the suppression of expression. We do this by investigating and reporting on regional and country-specific problems. Past efforts include the Nigeria Initiative, aimed at publicizing the link between oil politics and the silencing of dissent in Nigeria, and a coordinated campaign to end violent attacks against journalists in Latin America.
As a member of the Rapid Action Network of International PEN, the PEN Center USA Freedom to Write Committee receives and responds immediately to reports of arrests, attacks, and threats to more than 900 writers currently at risk around the world. Alerts are issued from International PEN via email to committee members, who then write letters of appeal to appropriate officials. Each year PEN Center USA’s efforts result in the release of dozens of writers worldwide. Recently released writers include Julia Ceclia Delgado of Cuba, Tamrat Zuma of Ethiopia, and Esber Yagmurdereli of Turkey.
Each year PEN Center USA presents the Freedom to Write and First Amendment Awards to individuals and organizations that have produced notable work in the face of extreme adversity or demonstrated exceptional courage in the defense of free expression. The awards are presented each fall at PEN Center USA’s Annual Literary Awards Festival. Funds are collected from our members with the purpose of helping other writers or their families for lawyer’s fees, bail, or medical needs. Recent honorees include Cuban dissident Raul Rivero, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association, the American Library Association, Sahal Abdulle, and U Win Tin.
PEN Center USA’s Freedom to Write Committee carries out campaigns on behalf of eighty specially selected writers who are long-term prisoners of conscience. Each honorary member has several “minders” who work diligently, sometimes for years, on his/her case. Minders write letters to foreign governments and diplomatic representatives, communicate with and provide vital support to the honorary member and his or her family, and encourage American officials to implement sound policy that represents the United States’ commitment to freedom of expression.