Toronto, December 10, 2002—PEN, the worldwide association of professional writers, marked International Human Rights Day by announcing a year-long campaign to challenge impunity for violations of the essential right to freedom of expression. The campaign, which was officially launched on November 25, 2002 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico during a conference of the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, will include direct actions throughout the year and will culminate with the release of a PEN report on the problem of impunity and a series of public programs during International PEN’s 69th World Congress of Writers in Mexico City from November 23 through November 28, 2003. PEN Canada, PEN American Center, and Mexico PEN are leading the push, in collaboration with the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN.

“Unsolved and unpunished crimes aimed at silencing writers and journalists not only deny those individuals their universally-guaranteed right to express themselves freely, but also abridge the collective right of the citizens of their society to share ideas and information,” said Isobel Harry, Executive Director of PEN Canada, which has received funds from the Human Security Program of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs to coordinate the campaign. Noting that on May 3, UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day would highlight the problem of impunity, and that the Canadian Government is the lead sponsor of resolutions both on impunity and on freedom of expression at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Harry declared PEN’s intention to add the full prestige and passion of PEN’s voices around the world to the growing chorus of non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations demanding an end to impunity for those who commit crimes against writers and journalists.

While PEN is tracking scores of impunity cases worldwide, its 2002-2003 campaign will focus primarily on the problem as it affects freedom of expression in the Americas, seeking to use the lessons learned from its investigation and advocacy in this region to address similar cases in other regions. In Latin America, the assassination of journalists continues to be the most serious threat to freedom of expression, with at least nine journalists murdered in 2001 alone. The victims had most often written or spoken out about official crimes and corruption or about the crimes of narcotics entrepreneurs. Few such cases are ever solved, and the official investigations are often thwarted by threats, official corruption, and indifference.

Speaking at a panel entitled “Impunity and the Writer” during PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee conference in San Miguel de Allende, Eduardo Bertoni, Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States decried this high level of impunity in a large number of crimes against journalists committed by both state and non-state agents in several countries in the Americas. Even when the crimes were presumably carried out by non-state actors, Bertoni emphasized that impunity is a problem for which governments bear the responsibility, and that the failure to conduct serious, impartial, and effective investigations and to punish the perpetrators is itself a human rights violation.

In addition to actions protesting specific cases of impunity throughout the year, PEN will share information with the Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations and present an oral statement to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in April on the problem of impunity in relation to freedom of expression.

Special appeals will be sent to demand the resolution of exemplary cases to correspond both with PEN’s regular country-focused campaigns and international efforts including World Press Freedom Day. During the International PEN Congress in Mexico City in November 2003, the campaign will be capped by the release of an International PEN report and a day-long seminar, co-sponsored by the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Division for Human Rights and Democracy, on combating impunity. The seminar will bring invited experts on freedom of expression from around the world together with writers and representatives from freedom of expression NGOs to solidify an action plan for follow-up efforts both in the Americas and in other regions where human rights violators have escaped prosecution.

PEN Canada, PEN Mexico and PEN American Center are three centres in a global network of 131 centres around the world that make up International PEN. PEN’s mission is to protect free expression whenever writers or their work are threatened.Internationally, PEN defends writers from censorship, harassment, and imprisonment, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. In addition, in Canada, PEN Canada supports the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, lsiems@pen.org