Our Town Downtown: Q & A with Larry Siems, Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs
Our Town Downtown, May 28, 2007—In 1921, two years after the First World War, British writers (C. A. Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy) founded the first PEN (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists) center (then called “The P.E.N. Club”) in London. Scott believed that an international consortium of writers could eventually heal the enmity between nations around the world. The next year PEN opened an American Center in New York.
Today there are 144 PEN Centers in 101 countries, and PEN is an influential force in bringing writers together, defending them from censorship and protecting their basic human rights.
From the PEN American Center’s Soho office, Larry Siems, 47, directs the Freedom to Write program, which is PEN’s human rights arm, and its International Programs division, which connects New York to the other PEN centers around the world. (There is also a Los Angeles location.)
I’m an imprisoned reporter in some less-than-democratic nation. How does my case get from my cell into your hands? And what kinds of things can you do to improve my situation?
It could be we know you already. Many of the people we deal with in countries are people who have long been working with independent newspapers that have been in constant battles with the government. So we will know you or your colleagues, or your family, so somebody will get in touch with PEN.
If not, it’ll be organizations in those countries, with whom PEN is contact; or human rights organizations in our countries, in England, where our main research office is based, or here in the United States, will contact us. And we get information and we immediately start investigating what’s happening to you.
And we have a primary response system, which is called Rapid Action Network. So when we learn of your arrest, a bulletin will go around to 70 PEN centers around the world who are part of this network. And we’ll all immediately write letters to your government expressing concern about your arrest, letting the government that we know you’re detained. And that very often, immediately, will lessen the risk that you would be tortured, lessen the risk that you would be killed, in early days of detention, that they would just sort of disappear you, because the government’s aware that we know that they have you.
Because they’re afraid of things like sanctions?
Governments hate to be publicly exposed as human rights abusers. That’s the bottom line. And the longer that you’re imprisoned, the more we try to make our contact, not only with the government – we’ll send letters directly to the prison. And prison officials who know that they have somebody in their prison who somebody knows about in New York and in Berlin, and Buenos Aires, or wherever the PEN centers are writing from, they’re bureaucrats, they don’t like trouble for themselves, so they don’t want you to die because people are going to ask them questions.
So, you try to keep a steady attention, letting people know that we’ve got you, and then we start looking at sort of what the international mechanisms are for advocacy. So if you’re detained without charge or trial, PEN has affiliation of the United Nations, we’re a UNESCO umbrella organization, we have U.N. member status. And we will take your case, for example, to the U.N. Working Group On Arbitrary Detention, and get the U.N. to review it, and declare that you’re arbitrarily detained, so you get international documentation of your case.
One thing PEN does that I think is pretty unique among organizations is that we do, in addition to issue-based work, we do individual, long-term casework. So, your name gets on our case list, and we’re going to be working on your case until you’re out. We have a group of volunteers at PEN, one of whom will take up your case, correspond with your family, be in touch with you, find out if you need anything, your family needs anything. And we’ll work it and work it and work it until you’re out.
Has the explosion of the Internet changed PEN’s job at all, or presented new issues?
Yeah. It’s been a really, really valuable tool for the human rights community. And it’s just speeded up the exchange of information. So if you get arrested in some small town in some remote country, we’ll still find out about it, very quickly. At the same time, because the struggle is for control of information, now the control of the Internet is posing problems for [writers] as well. So Bloggers and Internet writers are among the most endangered, in several countries around the world.
One of our most vexing cases right now is the case of the Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who’s been jailed for, he leaked information about, basically government orders on how to control the media during the anniversary of the Tienenman Square massacre. And he was prosecuted, partly because the government got information from Yahoo – personal information that was used to convict him.
And so, one of the things that we’re supporting is legislation that’s been introduced in Congress that would bar U.S. Internet service providers from developing the kind of software, participating in the kinds of censorship regimes, that can be used to jail Internet journalists and writers around the world.
Is there one case you felt particularly attached to?
The one that made sort of the biggest mark on me emotionally, happened not long after I started working at PEN, which was the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa, in Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa was a very, very well known Nigerian writer, quite successful. He was a novelist and a playwright, and then he went on to write, it was [an] incredibly popular, satirical TV series that was the most popular television show in Nigeria at the time. And he sort of left his writing to take up causes, social activism on behalf of his indigenous group, called the Ogoni people and they live in the Niger River Delta, which is an oil exploration area. And he was protesting the impact of oil exploration on his community, which had not enjoyed any of the benefits of the enormous wealth that was generated on their land. And he was a leader of a protest movement, and he was targeted by the government, he was arrested several times, and ultimately, he was arrested on trumped up charges of murder and sentenced to death.
And, the incredible thing was that he was somebody with whom PEN had had a fairly long relationship. He had come into the PEN office in London some years before to say, ‘I’m being followed. You should know.’ And we were part of an enormous international campaign on his behalf. And that ended, unfortunately, with his execution.
The world was shocked when the government went ahead and hanged him, in a kind of hideous and botched hanging. But, the interesting thing was that the PEN in Los Angeles, where I was working, sort of refused to let that lie, and conducted a long investigation of the involvement of international oil companies, in suppressing free expression in the oil producing regions in Nigeria, and had considerable discussions with Shell, which was the company that was directly implicated in that particular area, and fought on and I think, were successful in getting some of the international oil companies to recognize that international corporations have human rights responsibilities.
And so, it was both extremely discouraging because we lost somebody who we thought we were having a conversation with, and was well-known enough that we thought was probably immune from execution. So it was a lesson that this is a serious, serious business, and governments will do whatever it takes sometimes to protect their interests.
Three years later, the dictatorship ended, and democracy, a democratic government, came to Nigeria. And I was invited to Nigeria to celebrate with Nigerian writers and journalists. So there was despair, but there was also, you saw the incredible courage and perseverance of the people who were working in these conditions, and the fact that it really does make a difference in the long run.
Iraq could be an anomaly right now, but how protected are Americans working as foreign correspondents?
Well I mean in Russia, you know Paul Klebnikov, who was an American, who moved to Russia and was [editing] the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, was murdered. You know, you’re not exempt.
And I know it from speaking with American correspondents in China, you are constantly reminded of what your limits are. But you would be threatened with expulsion, would be the consequence in China, and in several other countries too.
But, I mean, generally, I think, my own experience, and you know, the experience of all Americans who travel a fair amount abroad, probably holds for journalists too, which is that there are some built-in protections to being an American. I mean [there was] Daniel [Pearl], but it could be because that’s sort of within the conflict zone of the Middle East.
In countries where people are struggling for a voice, struggling to have their story heard, there’s nothing more valuable to them than having their stories covered in the American media, or the Western media in general.
I think the bigger issue is simply access to countries. There are places that [are] very difficult for American journalists to cover, cover well. And, so that’s the way control, I think, is really mostly exerted. I mean, can an American journalist get into the country? And then, how fearful are the people there about talking to you. And that’s the other thing, is that you may not be personally in danger, but everybody you talk to may be in danger because they’re speaking to you – you walk with a very large footprint, a very dangerous footprint in different countries.