Attending literature festivals where human rights are threatened: English PEN publishes guidelines for writers

English PEN is today publishing guidelines for writers attending international festivals.

These guidelines aim to support writers who have been invited to events that take place in countries with poor human rights records and severe limits on freedom of expression, or where writers are at risk.

In December 2018 English PEN convened a private roundtable, chaired by its president, lawyer and writer, Philippe Sands, for writers and other literary professionals to share experiences. Based on this discussion, English PEN’s guidelines and suggested questions provide context for writers who have been invited to speak abroad.

Philippe Sands said:

In the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, with over a hundred writers now imprisoned in Turkey, and with freedom of expression being dramatically curtailed in so many places around the world, it is more important than ever for each of us, as writers, to reflect on our role and responsibilities in deciding on invitations to speak.

While it is an individual decision whether to attend, withdraw or boycott an event, English PEN believes that literature festivals are valuable forums for free expression, sharing values and challenging abuses. They can benefit writers and audiences alike. English PEN encourages writers to advocate for fundamental human rights whenever they are under attack.

At the same time it is becoming increasingly important that we protect freedom of expression at literary festivals at home. In an English PEN session at the London Book Fair on Thursday 14 March 2019, panelists including Nick Barley, Director of Edinburgh International Book Festival, translator Marta Dziurosz and English PEN Director Antonia Byatt noted that a hostile immigration environment in the UK is making it increasingly difficult to obtain visas for some writers coming into the UK. They called on the UK government to be a leader, welcoming writers from around the world to take part in the open forums provided by literature festivals. They are a valued place for democratic debate in this country.

Antonia Byatt, Director of English PEN, said:

It is essential that writers have freedom of movement in these times. Literature is common human currency; sharing ideas, experiences and values is not only an important part of how we relate to other nations, it is a building block for a free and democratic society. In the year of the Foreign Office’s campaign for free media we need to show that the UK really is a leader.

PEN’s guidance to writers travelling abroad can be found here.

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