For 50 years PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee has been campaigning on behalf of writers who have been imprisoned for speaking their minds
“You’re free to write,” read the email that stood out from the others in my inbox. I clicked on the message. Its words struck home: “Others have not been so lucky”.
The email was an invitation to participate in a project to mark 50 years of the International PEN Writers in Prison Committee.
Choosing to participate caused me to stop and think, properly for the first time, about the writing freedom I take for granted every single day.
Since 1960, the PEN Writers in Prison Committee has been campaigning for writers who have been threatened, suppressed or imprisoned for their work. The most famous include Wole Soyinka, Vaclav Havel and Salman Rushdie, who have all had to weigh their words in fear.
The committee was formed at a PEN meeting in Rio De Janeiro, after researchers passed round a list of 56 writers imprisoned in Albania, Czechoslavakia, Hungary and Romania.
PEN centres began to spring up in countries where writers had been imprisoned because they spoke or wrote their minds. Fifty years on, there are more than 70 centres worldwide and together they support around 900 persecuted writers, editors and journalists each year.
To mark 50 years of defending freedom of expression, PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee is running a year-long campaign – Because Writers Speak Their Minds.
One strand of this campaign highlights the cases of 50 writers PEN has campaigned on behalf of in the 50 years that the committee has operated. Each of the oppressed writers, who include Mamadali Makhmudov from Uzbekistan, poet Angel Cuadra from Cuba and Bangladeshi novelist, poet and journalist Taslima Nasrin, has been paired with a writer from writing group 26, of which I am a member.
The task? Write 50 words, no more, no less, inspired by the life and work of the writer.
Not all of the campaigned-for writers are still alive. The writer I wrote about was Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Dink was shot dead in January 2007 outside his newspaper Agos, a bilingual Armenian-Turkish newspaper.
He was among a number of high profile writers charged under Article 301 of the Penal Code, accused of “insulting Turkishness” in his writings. He had received numerous death threats.
What can you say in 50 words? Not much. But hopefully 50 words a day for 50 days, will highlight freedom taken for granted, and freedom lost.
• Some of the writers that the committee has supported over the years will be celebrated at the 50th anniversary of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee at the London School of Economics on Friday, 16 April
• Follow 26:50 at 26-50.tumblr.com
• Free The Word festival blog: freetheblog.typepad.com