Interview with Sara Whyatt, Program Director of the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, the writers' association, in London.
Sara will be writing the Silenced Writer column for each issue of Glimmer Train Stories, providing us with the opportunity to help censored writers around the world.
Swanson-Davies: How did you come to this work, and how long have you been doing it now?
Whyatt: I joined PEN in 1990 after 7 years at Amnesty International's London headquarters where I worked on its East Asia campaign team. My human rights activism dates back to 1980 when I worked for a documentary film maker who was at that time working on a series on the malpractices of western multinationals in the Philippines. I was horrified to learn of the murder of Bobby de la Paz, a doctor shot dead in a street simply because of his criticism of the health care system, or lack of, under the Marcos regime. As a result I joined AI as an activist and subsequently got to work for them. Back in the early 1970s, as an 11-year-old, I came across photos of the Mai Lai massacre in a Sunday supplement, articles that contributed to the ending of the Vietnam war. Those images haunted me, and still do, yet they also taught me that words and images have a power to mobilize and to bring about change.
What sort of trends have you seen over the years? Do the trouble spots move about or do you find them to be relatively consistent over time?
In the 1980s and in my early years at PEN, there were many, many writers serving long sentences, even life terms, across the globe. Today there are a few countries that still do. The old culprits remain intransigent: China, Cuba, Vietnam, Burma. Now governments are more sophisticated. They will use laws that seem, on the surface, to be reasonable, such as defamation and anti-terror laws. Yet if you look closer, you will find that all too often these laws are being used against those who have dared to criticize government officials, or have stood up for self determination, among other issues the same "crimes" as have always brought writers to the courts. Governments have also discovered that you don't need to imprison a person to silence them. Hundreds of writers and journalists are on trial right now, some of them dragging on for months or years. The majority end in acquittal or suspended sentences, but all at great psychological, time and, often, financial cost. And then there are the high profile murders. I can't say for sure that these have increased, but the rise of the internet in recent years has made the impact of those deaths more widely known and felt. It is rare for governments to be directly implicated in them but they are guilty of having exposed the victims to fanatics through labeling them as "traitors" or, by not properly investigating the murders, allowing the killers to act with impunity.
What about the internet? How has that affected things? Are writers more able to get their ideas out to the population?
The impact of the internet has been positive and negative. On the positive side it has enabled writers to circumvent the censors, to reach out to a wider audience, and to share ideas. That said, it is not a medium that favours the novel or longer pieces of writing, which are relatively rare. As the use of the internet has risen, so has the number of arrests of internet writers as governments, particularly China, have become adept at intercepting and blocking electronic mails and sites, it has to be said, often using the programmes provided by the international internet service provides (ISPs). Yahoo! and Google have been among those accused of allowing their technology to be used to suppress information, and even lead to the arrest of cyber dissidents. It has also become a weapon of extremists who use the internet to spread hate messages and death threats, including against writers. Unregulated free speech in a world where information can be circulated instantly is, overall, a very good thing, but its downsides are alarming.
What writers have most successfully instigated real societal change, and how did they do it?
My experience has been only with writers who have been arrested or even killed for their writings, so I my perspective is, in a way, warped. One of the reasons that I have been able to stay in this job for so long is that I can see that writers have made a difference, whether they have suffered for speaking out, or for the very many more who have stood up in their defense. Looking back, it is Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian author and playwright who was executed in Nigeria for his support for Ogoni rights, who stands out, although there are many others. His execution brought to the fore the international oil companies’ disregard for the environmental, social and political rights of the people from whose land oil was being extracted. The international furor that Saro Wiwa's imprisonment and subsequent death led the oil companies to establish practices that go some way toward respecting those rights, although there is still a long way to go. Vaclav Havel, has to be another hero for his courage, persistence, and subsequent exemplary Presidency that was a beacon for other post-Soviet states. Although it has been many years since she has been able to publish a book, Aung San Suu Kyi's dogged persistence and refusal to compromise has led to her having been imprisoned for almost 18 years under house arrest in Burma for her leadership of the pro-democracy movement And, of course, those thousands of writers, famous and not-so, who stand up and protest, write letters and articles, and ensure that the Ken Saro-Wiwa's and Aung San Suu Kyi's of this world are not forgotten have been absolutely instrumental.
Does it really help to write letters to oppressive regimes? What do they care what we think?
It is often dispiriting writing to governments. They rarely respond to individual letters. And it is difficult to measure the direct impact. But the fact is that, as I mentioned earlier, the numbers of long term detentions has dropped, and governments now try to justify suppression under the guise of "defamation" and "anti-terrorism." Freedom of expression is now a pre-requisite for membership in, for instance, the EU, the Organization of American States and other inter-governmental organizations. Every government, even the most prohibitive, claims that it respects freedom of expression, and thus can now be challenged. This could not have been done with out the letter writing and publicity campaigns of the previous generations. Just as important is the solidarity that such letters bring to prisoners and their families. I shall never forget a meeting at a PEN Congress in Mexico in 2003 when Brigadier General Gallardo, a Mexican army official, was a keynote speaker. He had been imprisoned for several years for a report on human rights abuses in the Mexican army. His wife and two children were also there, bringing with them box upon box of letters, which they spilt in front of the conference.
Over 3,000 letters and postcards from all points of the globe containing messages of solidarity and support. The beams on the Gallardo family's faces, the fact that they had been able to survive the ordeal, and, eventually, to win a reprieve, was evidence enough of the power of letters.
Thank you so much, Sara, for your important work and for answering our questions. We will be proud to present your Silenced Writer article in future issues of Glimmer Train Stories.
The new summer issue of Glimmer Train Stories carries Siobhan Dowd’s last Silenced Writer article. Siobhan will now, after writing this article for us for 17 years, be focusing on her fiction. (www.siobhandowd.co.uk) That article was about Anna Politkovskaya, a brave—now murdered—writer. Please take a moment to mail a letter (we've provided one you can print out, sign, and send) standing up for Anna and other writers at risk in Russia.