Attending literary festivals and other international events is an important part of a writer’s work, and can bring many benefits, not least increased sales, expanded networks and new audiences.
However, many such events take place in countries with poor human rights records, where freedom of expression is severely limited, where fellow writers are in prison or otherwise at risk as a result of their work. During a number of recent debates around participation in international events and festivals, questions have arisen around the role and responsibilities of a writer and what the decision to accept such invitations can mean.
English PEN is often asked by our members and supporters about the ‘ethics’ of attending international events. Our position is that it is an individual decision about whether to attend, withdraw or boycott an event. We believe that literature festivals are – or can be – valuable forums for free expression, sharing values and challenging abuses. However, as an organisation that supports and defends freedom of expression, we also encourage writers to speak out to protect this and other fundamental human rights when they are under attack.
We are very aware that the decision to attend an international event can be a difficult one. The following guidelines aim to support the process. We will also be happy to provide advice on specific countries and cases wherever possible.
When, where and why might we feel a need to draw the line?
We suggest asking yourself the following questions:
Where is the event taking place? (Country / City)
What do I know about the situation there? How can I learn more? Where can I find further information?
– Amnesty International country reports
– Human Rights Watch country reports
– PEN International’s annual case list
– Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index
– Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World’
– Local PEN centres and other NGOs on the ground
Are there any restrictions on what I can say?
E.g.: political, religious, LGBTQ sensitivities?
Who is funding the festival?
Who are the sponsors? How independent is the artistic programme of the sponsors?
Does attendance mean endorsement? How might my presence be used?
– Consider the timing and context in which the event is taking place (e.g. upcoming elections)
– Poor freedom of expression / human rights record
– Specific violations / cases of imprisoned writers
Is it a public event? Who is the audience?
Public events provide an opportunity for local people to hear other voices, engage with writers and stay connected with the rest of the world. A ‘privileged’ audience is not necessarily an audience not worth engaging with: they can be important influencers of policy and opinion, but do use the opportunity by speaking out or modelling the attitudes that you value.
Is there a possibility of taking part in events elsewhere if within a ‘bubble’? What is the value of engaging? Who suffers if you don’t go?
At what point is the ‘goodness’ of taking part (eg benefit to the audience/readers) outweighed?
If you have already accepted an invitation, what might withdrawing mean?
If you do withdraw, do you do so quietly, or use it to make a more public point? E.g. join other invitees in writing to the authorities/organisers to raise concerns?
If you are considering this option, please do contact PEN as we may be able to connect you with others in a similar position and potentially increase the impact/effect of withdrawing and related media coverage.
If the latter, how and what? Should any actions be tied to a specific ask/case? PEN can offer support in identifying possible issues and individuals of concern that you might wish to highlight. If you decide to go, what could you do?
This will vary hugely depending on the country but possible options might include:
– Asking organisers to programme a session on free expression / address cases of concern in the country
– Using your platform to address concerns
– Visiting writers at risk and their families, including in prison
– Write for local/national/international media before/during/afterwards
– Emphasise your own commitment to freedom to write and other personal freedoms in your main discussion – this can still have impact even if you don’t directly call out the local regime.
– Meet with local writers. Contact with visiting writers can provide support and encouragement for all writers working in a difficult, restricted environment and may be easier to arrange than a visit ‘off site’ or to imprisoned writers.
– Ask to meet with local groups with interests that you support – such as LGBT rights groups. This can be privately to provide support and encouragement without placing the members in danger.
What, if any, are the potential risks associated with such activities?
This will again vary according to the country in question, and what you choose to do.
It is perfectly reasonable to be cautious about speaking out – you could put yourself and others at risk – but if you decide to go there are less public things that you can do that can still provide support for those trying to achieve change.
If you have any more questions or would like to get in touch, please contact Cat Lucas firstname.lastname@example.org