Beyond Bars: 50 Years of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee

‘Beyond Bars: 50 Years of the Writers in Prison Committee’, a special issue of Index on Censorship, pays tribute to one of the world’s longest running campaigns for free expression, English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)

The magazine is both a celebration of the WiPC’s work on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted writers around the world and a testament to the bravery of our colleagues who, often at great risk to themselves and their families, continue to speak truth to power.Contributors to Beyond Bars – including award-winning authors Margaret Atwood, Sir Tom Stoppard and William Boyd – highlight the vital role writers can play in supporting their colleagues. As Tom Stoppard writes:

“When it comes to the fate of individuals no one, not even a writer, needs to be useless. Political prisoners are less vulnerable when they are kept in our view and known to be so.”

The issue also features articles by writers who have themselves been the victims of persecution, including celebrated Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho. Arrested and threatened after exposing an international paedophile ring, she speaks out about the “double-edged sword” of working in the media spotlight:

“Acts of aggression are intended to silence us, wear us out, or distract our attention from what’s really important. Prizes and accolades are converted into shields to protect and forums to express the messages others are trying to conceal.”

The issue emphasises the real danger in expecting writers to have a political focus too, leading to another kind of censorship altogether. What is absolutely essential is that writers are able to work in a landscape that allows ideas to flourish – and that no writer is silenced. “You can take the guts out of the investigative journalists, both figuratively and literally, but so far no one has been able to completely suppress the human urge that’s at least as old as the Book of Job: the need to tell,” Margaret Atwood writes.

In addition to essays and memoirs by some of the world’s leading authors and commentators, the publication also features biographies of and writing samples by 50 of the most significant cases the WiPC has worked with over the last 50 years. As Natasha Schmidt writes in her editorial ‘Strength in numbers’:

While its case histories and supporters read like a hall of literary fame, including Wole Soyinka, Vaclav Havel, Breyten Breytenbach, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Anna Politkovskaya, the continuing necessity of its existence can never be a cause for celebration.

Since the WiPC was founded in 1960, the PEN case list has grown from 54 cases of concern to almost 600, and the need to support these writers is greater as ever. To find out how you can get involved please email

Beyond Bars is issue 04/2010 of Index on Censorship, for further information please click here

To read Lydia Cacho’s contribution, ‘Reluctant Heroes’, please click here.

To read Lisa Appignanesi’s contribution, ‘Words without borders’, please click here.

To read Philo Ikonya’s keynote address from the launch of ‘Beyond Bars’, please click here.

To see photos from the launch of ‘Beyond Bars’, please click here.

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