New York, July 27, 2007—During the first week of July, PEN held its historic International Congress in Dakar, Senegal, marking the first time in 40 years and only the second time in its 86-year history that the annual congress has convened in Africa. PEN used the occasion to celebrate the rise of PEN activism in Africa and to urge an end to the criminal insult and defamation laws that continue to endanger writers around the world as well as threaten freedom of expression in many African countries.

PEN congresses are the international organization’s annual business meeting, bringing together representatives from PEN centers around the world for a week of plenary sessions, workshops, and literary events. 200 delegates from more than 70 PEN centers gathered in Dakar for this year’s meeting, which called for greater protection for threatened languages, as well as international action on behalf of the endangered writers, journalists, and translators currently living in Iraq.

In recent years, PEN has concentrated on helping writers in developing countries establish PEN centers, supporting their efforts to promote literature and defend freedom of expression locally and regionally. Building on the success of PEN American Center’s Rockefeller-funded Center Development Project, which helped fund community-based projects at 11 PEN centers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, International PEN has for the past year focused specifically on strengthening the organization’s presence and influence in Africa, where there are currently 15 active PEN centers. These centers—in Sub-Saharan countries including Nigeria, Malawi, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Zambia and Northern countries including Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt—are working with International PEN to develop and run projects from bookstores and internet cafes to running creative writing programs in schools. African Center projects have met with support from organizations such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), which will provide funding for these programs over the next five years, and TrustAfrica, which supported Africa-related programming at the Congress.

For the past year, PEN has been conducting an international campaign to eradicate laws criminalizing insult and defamation, arguing that laws designed to protect reputations should carry civil rather than criminal penalties, and that criminal insult and defamation laws are frequently abused to silence criticism and punish dissent. Almost 100 writers and journalists around the world are currently in jail or facing jail terms under such laws, more than half of these writers in Africa. Pressure from international human rights organizations and from the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the United Nations has led several countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia to amend criminal defamation laws. In a resolution issued in Dakar, PEN praised those developments and declared PEN’s highest campaign priority to be the elimination of all remaining criminal defamation and insult laws.

The congress also brought attention to the refugee crisis in Iraq and the urgent needs of Iraqi translators, writers, and journalists currently being targeted for death for their work. PEN American Center, which has been pressing the United States government to resettle more than a dozen Iraqi colleagues now living in hiding in Iraq or in neighboring Syria, led discussions of the refugee issue and introduced resolutions calling on the governments of the United States and Iraq to protect and assist refugee writers. In these resolutions, passed unanimously by the Assembly of Delegates, PEN urges the United States to increase funding for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other refugee services in the region; to remove barriers to resettling Iraqi refugee writers and intellectuals in the United States and begin direct refugee process in Iraq and neighboring countries; and to declare the refugee crisis a top policy priority.

PEN American Center also pressed discussions of the state of literary translation internationally, and the mounting threats to linguistic diversity in an English-dominated world. Esther Allen presented To Be Translated or Not to Be: Globalization, Translation, and English, a major survey of barriers to an equitable exchange of literature and ideas and of emerging strategies for entering the international literary marketplace. Allen, former chair of the PEN American Center’s Translation Committee and former World Voices Festival Co-Director, wrote the report, which was co-produced by International PEN and the Institut Ramon Llull in Barcelona. The Assembly of Delegates subsequently took up the issue of language preservation and linguistic rights, issuing a resolution calling on UN member states to monitor and enforce compliance with international declarations and conventions on linguistic rights.

In the coming year, International PEN will focus its development efforts on Latin America. The 2008 PEN Congress will be held in early summer in Bogotá, Colombia. The Assembly selected the site following a review of the situation of freedom of expression in Oaxaca, Mexico, the original site selected for the event.

 Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, [email protected]