By Lito B. Zulueta – Arts and Books Editor / Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines — The 85th congress of the PEN International writers group expressed concern over continuing threats to free speech and creative expression in the Philippines and around the world.
“Around the world, spaces for free expression are shrinking,” said Carles Torner, the group’s executive director. “Dissenting voices — be they journalists, academics, writers or students — face intimidation, harassment, online abuse, violence.”
“It is also the case in the Philippines — and it is the mission of PEN International to join hands with Filipino writers to expand literary expression and its freedom,” he said.
PEN, which counts top poets, playwrights, fiction writers and journalists, including Nobel laureates, among its members, condemned the “suppression of free speech” by China in Hong Kong and Tibet, and “human rights violations” in North Korea and Vietnam.
Right after the shooting of an 18-year-old protester in Hong Kong on Tuesday, the conference issued a statement denouncing the violence and warning against its escalation.
In a resolution on the “threats to freedom of expression and peace in South and East Asia,” PEN condemned the “systematic human rights violations” in North Korea and Vietnam.
It said it was “deeply concerned” by the “violent persecution of minority groups,” such as the Rohingya of Myanmar and the Uyghur of China by “both state and nonstate actors,” and was alarmed by “blasphemy laws” in some countries.
The “empty chair,” a tradition of PEN to symbolically protest writers who have been persecuted, imprisoned or even killed, was reserved for Jamal Khashoggi of Saudi Arabia, Stella Nyanzi of Uganda, and Uygur writer Ilham Tohti of China.
The PEN meeting, held from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4, commemorated the first death anniversary of Khashoggi, who was murdered on Oct. 2 last year inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey.
American-Mexican novelist Jennifer Clement, president of PEN International, and other members of the organization visited the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Manila to hand over a letter expressing PEN’s concern over the killing, signed by all the delegates.
It was the first time that the world congress of writers was held in Southeast Asia. Some 200 delegates from 67 PEN centers around the world took part in the 85th congress held in various sites in Manila, such as De la Salle University, Cultural Center of the Philippines, National Museum of Fine Arts, and the University of Santo Tomas.
PEN International issued a report on the continuing threats to press freedom and literary expression in the Philippines.
The report was titled “A Carnival of Mirrors: The State of Freedom of Expression in the Philippines,” and among its contributors were Sheila S. Coronel, Inday Espina-Varona, Manuel Mogato, Criselda Yabes, H. Francisco Peñones and Joel Pablo Salud, its editor.
“Philippine writers and journalists have continued to wage the long battle, pointing out injustice, inequality and abuses that the Filipino people have suffered,” wrote Salil Tripathi, head of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.
“As we from the PEN community meet in Manila, we salute these heroes for their commitment and courage [to] stand in solidarity with them.”
Torner wrote: “We gather here in solidarity with defenders of free expression in the Philippines, those who are pursuing truth in the face of intolerance.”
Minority rights, languages
Minority rights took center stage in the 85th congress, whose theme was “Speaking in Tongues: Literary Freedom and Indigenous Languages.”
The focus on indigenous languages, some of which PEN said were in danger of extinction due to globalization, was also in line with the United Nations’ declaration of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
The assembly passed the PEN Philippines-proposed “Resolution on the promotion of language justice and the protection of the cultural integrity of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines.”
The document expressed concern over the government’s closure of 85 schools for the “lumad,” as the indigenous cultural communities in Mindanao are called. The administration of President Duterte has accused these schools of teaching communism and subversion.
PEN writers also took note of the planned establishment of the “New Clark City” in Central Luzon, which may displace the indigenous Aeta people.
They urged the Philippine government “to respect and protect the rights of the Aeta, lumad, and all other cultural communities, and ensure that public and private development efforts, however well-meaning, do not deprive marginalized communities of their rights to their ancestral domain, social justice and cultural integrity.
The conference said the government must continue cultural programs to promote and conserve indigenous languages and cultural practices, such as the Bahay Wika (Language House) of the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino and the School of Living Traditions of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.
‘Hatred and division’
Upholding creativity and freedom of expression amid political and international upheaval, the PEN congress approved the “Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto.”
“We know attempts to control the imagination lead to xenophobia, hatred and division,” said Clement, who read the document.
Philippine national artist for literature F. Sionil Jose, who founded PEN Philippines, was elected vice president of PEN International, along with Elena Poniatowska of Mexico and Luisa Valenzuela of Argentina, and Nobel laureates Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus and Orhan Pamuk of Turkey.
Previous vice presidents included the late Nobel laureates Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer.