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Human Rights

Freedom of expression under threat in Europe

On the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN International is warning about developments in Europe. Vice President Sascha Feuchert is particularly worried about Turkey and Hungary.

Since 1980, the writers' association PEN International (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) has remembered the fate of persecuted, imprisoned or murdered writers and journalists on November 15. In just the first six months of 2012, 25 writers and journalists died because of their work. But it's not only in China or Syria where authors are persecuted by the authorities.

DW: Mr. Feuchert, marking the Day of the Imprisoned Writer (15.11.2012), your organization, PEN International, is speaking of a loss of democracy in Europe. How should we understand this?

In Europe, there are two points of focus that should be mentioned: one is certainly Turkey. For months, we have experienced that freedom of expression is being suppressed. Turkey has a big problem with it, and if we look at the statistics where the most writers are suppressed, Turkey currently ranks among the very worst in the world.

The second country in Europe which gives us cause for concern is certainly Hungary. In Hungary, there is a democratically legitimate government, yet the measures being taken there are anything but democratic and make us very worried. The suppression of freedom of expression is not just a problem that occurs only in Asia or Africa, but also on our doorstep.

In your view, do politicians in Europe do too little about this problem? Hungary is at least a member of the European Union ...

I believe that the EU is doing too little. Although the situation in Hungary is being addressed, the pressure has to be much stronger. It is precisely because Hungary is an EU country that we have instruments available to us to exert still greater pressure.

Are you aware of concrete examples of persecution in Hungary or Turkey?

Yes, especially from Turkey. There, it often affects Kurdish writers. It affects writers and authors who have, for example, commented on the genocide and were then prosecuted. In Hungary, it's more of a general climate that has been created, toying with anti-Semitism, and where things have gone so far that people feel they need to keep their heads down because the overall social climate is so poor.

How has the situation for persecuted writers and journalists around the world changed in recent years?

It's a gruesome record. If you look at PEN's statistics, you will see that in the first half of 2012, 25 authors and journalists were killed around the world, 155 jailed, 56 threatened and 70 mistreated. We assume that these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. Worldwide, we note that freedom of expression is suppressed not only by states, but if we look to Mexico we see a completely new issue. There, journalists and writers are killed by the Mafia, and face massive obstacles to their work.

In China, too, there are still major problems with the suppression of freedom of expression. The Nobel Peace Prize Liu Xiaobo is still sitting in jail and we do not even know exactly where.

With our "Writers in Exile" program, PEN in Germany brings five fellows each year to Germany and we give them a kind of temporary asylum. Right now, we have a journalist from Syria, where he was tortured and imprisoned and could only leave the country with difficulty.

In Syria and other Arab countries, there have recently been numerous actions on social networks like Facebook, where activists wanted to draw attention to the fate of persecuted individuals, such as bloggers. Do such actions help?

Any form of awareness is beneficial. This year we also started to use Facebook and Twitter, and we have also noticed that people take strong notice of these activities. It is also something that every individual can do to express solidarity with writers worldwide. Creating awareness is the only thing we can do, pointing to individual fates, again and again. Awareness is something dictatorial systems do not like. And for some people, being known abroad can be a kind of life insurance.

How do you rate the influence of PEN? What can you achieve?

I do believe that we can make a difference. We are working hard to create awareness, we are personally in contact with imprisoned writers and we have the "Writers in Exile" program. Still, my predecessor Dirk Sager always said that PEN has a task that exceeds our abilities. We wish we had more influence. I believe that PEN lost influence over the last few years, which we can see from our media coverage. I believe that we have made mistakes in the past. For example, we waited too long to establish a social media presence. Still, I think that PEN remains an important voice and our work is not meaningless.

Sascha Feuchert is a specialist in German studies at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen and has been Vice President and Writers in Prison Officer of the PEN Center Germany since May 2012. PEN International (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) is an association of writers that campaigns for imprisoned writers and journalists throughout the world.