At a press conference in New York this morning PEN announced its intent to petition the Chinese government to free 39 Chinese writers who have been jailed for exercising their right to speak and write freely. Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie, Edward Albee and Ian McEwan all spoke about the importance of allowing freedom of speech in China as the nation prepares to host the Olympics.

Prose (pictured), who is the PEN American Center president, said 3,000 PEN members and supporters have signed the petition, which was delivered to the Chinese Mission to the UN immediately following the conference. “The Chinese government has the power to release [the imprisoned individuals] at a moment’s notice. And it should do so before the Olympic Games open,” she said.

Rushdie, Albee and McEwan reiterated the need for China to protect free speech. Rushdie was particularly passionate, noting that “the greatest victory of censorship is when it goes on so long that the truth begins to seem like bad manners or lies.” He said PEN has a history of helping to free imprisoned writers by shining a spotlight on the oppressive government, and hopes it will succeed in this case.

Following the writers’ remarks, Chinese writer Ma Jian spoke, via a translator, about censorship in China. Noting that he has been the victim of China’s stringent laws—his story collection Stick Out Your Tongue (which FSG published in the U.S.) was banned in China as a “vulgar and obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots”—he said, “The power of literature is still stronger than the power of totalitarianism.” Finally, human rights lawyer Li Jianhong, who has represented seven of the writers currently imprisoned in China, talked, also via a translator, about the situation and thanked the U.S. for its support.

PEN American Center Freedom to Write director Larry Siems said PEN is not asking for a boycott of the Olympics. However, he said, “The Chinese government made explicit promises to the world to improve human rights before the Olympics, but if anything this year has seen even greater restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

The press conference coincided with the PEN World Voices Festival, which is running now through May 4.