Launch of International PEN’s Freedom to Write in the Americas Campaign

Today the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC) launches a campaign to promote freedom of expression and freedom to write in the Americas, to run throughout 2009.



Freedom to write in the Americas aims to highlight the persecution of writers and journalists and the issue of impunity in the region, provide direct support to colleagues in trouble and raise awareness of trends of repression and censorship threatening writers’ rights.


In the five years from January 2004 to December 2008, 37 writers and print journalists were murdered in Latin America while four more were forcibly disappeared. WiPC figures for 2008 alone show a total of 191 attacks against writers and journalists, all but seven in Latin America. These included seven killings and one forced disappearance (all in Mexico), 30 imprisonments (25 in Cuba), 44 physical attacks, 35 death threats and 35 other types of threat or harassment.


In many cases it is clear that these writers were targeted for their writing. In others, their criticism of the authorities or criminal gangs gives rise to concerns that the killings and attacks were related to their work. In very few cases have the culprits been brought to justice.


While this situation may appear daunting, the WiPC draws inspiration from the fact that over the decades it has successfully campaigned on behalf of writers in the Americas such as Maria Elena Cruz Varela (Cuba), Myrna Mack Chang (Guatemala), Brigadier General José Gallardo Rodríguez (Mexico), Yehude Simon Munaro (Peru) and Lydia Cacho (Mexico).


For example, PEN provided direct support to Yehude Simon Munaro, a writer and politician who was imprisoned between 1992 and 2000 on false terrorism charges. After his release Munaro wrote to International PEN: “The life of a prisoner is hard and desperate, even more so when the victim is innocent. I do not know what I would have done without your oceanic solidarity.” Munaro became Prime Minister of Peru in October 2008.


Lydia Cacho, an award-winning author and investigative journalist, was illegally arrested, detained and ill treated following the publication of her book on child pornography in Mexico in 2005, before being subjected to a year-long criminal defamation lawsuit. She acknowledged the importance of PEN’s support in a speech at a reception hosted by American PEN in 2007: “I do believe that all these people, including most of you here tonight, saved my life by writing letters, by being there, by making calls or even just by thinking or wishing that I was alive…” 


It is in this same spirit of solidarity that the WiPC launches Freedom to write in the Americas.


The primary focus countries of the campaign will be Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela, while developments in Peru, Colombia and Nicaragua will also be closely monitored. These countries were selected on the basis of the volume of attacks and severity of persecution against writers in recent years, and the interests of PEN Centres in the Americas and worldwide identified during a consultation process carried out in 2008. (See Background below for details of concerns in each country).




‘In times of division between countries, International PEN is one of the rare institutions to keep a bridge constantly open’ – Mario Vargas Llosa (Vice President of International PEN)


International PEN, the worldwide association of writers with over 15,000 members in 144 Centres based in 102 countries, exists to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere, to fight for freedom of expression and represent the conscience of world literature.


International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) works on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide and monitors the cases of writers who have been imprisoned, tortured, threatened, attacked and killed for the peaceful practice of their professions. The WiPC campaigns to end these attacks and oppose suppression of freedom of expression wherever it occurs.


Summary of concerns in key campaign countries:


Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a print journalist. From 2004 to 2008, 20 writers – 19 journalists and one author – were murdered and four more disappeared. 2008 saw an alarming escalation in attacks, including seven killings and two imprisonments.
Cuba: As of early 2009, there are at least 25 writers, independent journalists and librarians in prison in Cuba. All are serving lengthy prison sentences – up to 27 years – on anti-state or ‘social dangerousness’ charges in relation to their work. Most are in poor health but have limited access to adequate medical treatment. 
Venezuela: Practising journalism in Venezuela has become increasingly hazardous in recent years, with attacks on print journalists rising by 50 per cent, from 13 incidents recorded in 2007 to 19 in 2008. Physical assaults in particular rose. Another serious concern is that the Venezuelan government is reportedly imposing controls on the importation of foreign books in the name of protecting national industry. 
Peru: Writers in Peru, particularly print journalists, frequently come under threat, with 25 attacks recorded in 2008. Death threats were particularly common. Five journalists were on trial for criminal defamation and one young poet for affiliation with a terrorist group.
Colombia: In 2008, the WiPC recorded 14 attacks against writers in Colombia, most of them print journalists. Death threats were common. Three writers were on trial for criminal defamation, two of them for reports linking powerful individuals with drugs trafficking.
Nicaragua: Although the press is still free in Nicaragua, there are concerns that President Ortega’s second administration is becoming increasingly authoritarian and repressive of dissent. In particular, Ortega is accused of persecuting revolutionary figures turned critics. 


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