Policy Press intern Steph Lynch is a champion for international freedom of speech. Steph and her colleagues have set up the Bristol branch of English PEN – an international human rights organisation that promotes literature in translation and the freedoms to read and write.
In today’s guest blog Steph tells us about a recent event organised by Bristol Student PEN, in which Professor Maureen Freely explained why protecting freedom of expression in the UK and worldwide is so essential.
I established Bristol Student PEN in January 2015 with two other students, since then we have been working hard to make our mark in Bristol, as well as on an international scale through our campaigning and events.
I am a strong believer in the importance of English PEN’s work and had been volunteering for them at various events in London over the past year when the Director, Jo Glanville, told me that they didn’t have a branch in Bristol and that they were keen to get more students involved. Creating a society for PEN at my university seemed like the perfect solution.
To kick-start the beginning of the academic year and introduce our new members to the charity, we invited the President of English PEN, Maureen Freely, to Bristol, to talk about issues surrounding freedom of expression both in the UK and worldwide.
International Writers at Risk
Maureen was born in Turkey, and having translated all five books by Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, she is well informed on the restrictions of freedom of expression in the country. She spoke about the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk in 2005, for openly discussing the killing of a million Armenians in 1915, and the 100 or so others who were also prosecuted over the following year for expressing their views.
“Ten years on, she told us, the situation in Turkey has hardly improved with the government clamping down on the authors of any material not to their liking.”
It is cases like Orhan Pamuk’s, which English PEN campaigns to defend. Their Writers at Risk programme focuses on bringing such cases to global attention and holding the governments responsible to account. One of the most high profile cases, which Maureen mentioned, is that of Saudi Arabian blogger, Raif Badawi.
“Bristol Student PEN, along with English PEN and Amnesty International, have been campaigning in defence of Raif, who was sentenced to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison for one of his tweets.”
Saudi Arabia has a poor human rights record, of which Raif is just one of the victims, however the international community has failed to adequately condemn the country’s human rights abuses. In fact, Britain’s ties to Saudi Arabia are so close that David Cameron felt justified in spending over £100,000 to attend the late King’s funeral in October.
Freedom of Expression in the UK
Discussing Britain’s support for the repressive Saudi Arabian leadership brought Maureen back to freedom of expression in this country. She explained that having lived under an oppressive regime she was hyper-aware of the danger signs that threaten freedom of expression, and the complacency of the British population towards such danger signs baffle her.
“Theresa May’s prevent strategy to fight non-violent extremism, launched at the beginning of October, was one danger sign which Maureen expressed serious concern about.”
The strategy will increase Ofcom’s powers to pull programmes if their content is deemed ‘extreme’ and demand that internet service providers remove any ‘extreme’ material. Maureen emphasised that the ambiguity of what constitutes ‘extreme’ allows for the censoring of material which may not pose any threat to national security.
The police have already employed these new regulations to seize a BBC Newsnight journalist’s laptop, which has sparked concern that journalists will be unable to efficiently report on sensitive issues because sources will refuse to give evidence for fear of police intervention.
Maureen ended her talk by reminding us that, even in a democratic country, it is essential to exercise our freedom of expression by continually challenging the government and demanding transparency on matters such as the counter-terrorism strategy. At Bristol Student PEN we aim to do just that!
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