Maureen Freely – On the English PEN Society

Monday the 2nd of February, the event in Authors and Activists series organized by York PEN Society, welcomed Maureen Freely to York with the discussion focused on her role as a President of English PEN society, the centrality of freedom of expression as a fundamental organizational objective and the importance of her personal experience, particularly during her life in Turkey in determining her decision to get involved in PEN.

Maureen started with an explanation of what PEN personally means for her. She emphasized that for her, the freedom of expression is not only the most important human right that all writers deserve, but it also represents a practical necessity, which allows any author to fulfil his/her responsibility to write for passionate readers. In her words, this is exactly what PEN is all about-encouraging the freedom of speech, educating young authors about their rights and always coming to the rescue for those authors, whose freedom to write is curtailed by the state. Maureen emphasized that PEN is organized around the principle of author’s equality: organization believes that all writers have similar concerns, problems and interest and most importantly, all have the shared responsibility to the reader, but also to those authors, which suffer injustices and limitations on their ability to express themselves.

She then proceeded to the explanation of why and how she developed such views, focusing on her childhood experience of living in Turkey as a part of American-Irish family in the midst of the Cold War. She explained that during her life in Turkey, the state was considered as a tutelary or military democracy, which in practice meant that government concentrated the executive power in hands of the very few military leaders with small level of attention to the interests of population and ethnic minorities, such as Kurdish, Jewish, Greek, Nomadic and Armenian minorities. This allowed the state to control its population by deploying a country-wide ideological discourse, which legitimized those who stayed in power, while silencing both its opponents and very controversial cases, such as massacres of Armenians and the protests within the country. She emphasized that while all this represented a fruitful intellectual space for all the sincere authors opposed to the government policy, their ability to express their opinion by the firm government hold of power. Similarly, the international media outlets, alongside wider international community, was very reluctant to publish any information on government mistakes in office, since Turkey was considered a strong ally of the United States during Cold War and exposing/criticising in Cold War at that time was perceived as an unthinkable policy options for Western elites at the time.

This allowed society like English PEN to offer a helping hand to all those who suffer and who experienced limitations on their ability to write freely. As Maureen highlighted, PEN chief objective at that time was to demonstrate solidarity to those authors and to show that their efforts are appreciated rather than vain. In her words, freedom of expression as well as government constraints on this right, have no borders and should be tackled collectively. Turning her attention to the United Kingdom, Maureen emphasized the importance of hacking scandals in Britain, articulating the view that the credibility of any efforts to tackle the limitations on right of free expression abroad would be strengthened by our joint efforts to address this problem both in the UK and within states of so-called “developed world”.

In conclusion, Maureen emphasized the importance of three challenges, which the right of freedom of speech experiences in contemporary political environment. Firstly, it is the current counter-terrorist measures, which fail to balance the security concerns with the protection of human rights, which are rarely mentioned with the mainstream press.  Secondly, with the growing role and spread of Internet, governments in many states will aim to advance certain systems for regulating and controlling the access to world-wide web. Finally, in her view, the most contrasting difference of contemporary publishing industry with its predecessor is that while the access to the publication is relatively easy for all authors, some stories and materials often go unnoticed or unpublished, since they are considered as the narratives, which have little or no interest with the mass readers. This all means that as long as these and others problems constrain the authors in their attempts to express the opinions on the most topical questions of our age, English PEN can make all the necessary efforts to assist suffering authors to have their voice published and heard.

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I posed her a few questions: Drawing from your experience and your vision, who should be involved in protecting the freedom of expression in contemporary societies in light of the fact that state in some cases (counter-terrorism, hacking scandals) can have the contrary interests(to limit individual freedom as much as possible?

The answer: You are absolutely right, the state often is not the strongest supporter of the freedom of expression, since its interests may vary and in cases compete with individual freedom. In this case, it’s got to be us who should be mainly involved in protecting the freedom of expression in society. When I say we, I mean two things principally. The word we means civil society, or simply people who are passionate about protection of essential rights, such as freedom of expression. This word also means us as individuals-that means people like you and me, who are not indifferent to the problems in this domain.

Secondly: Drawing from experience, especially of your childhood experience in Turkey, how important in your view are the cultural and ethnical divisions, which determine the freedom of expression in different states?

The answer: Undoubtedly, the individual differences, both cultural and ethnical, are important and have strong impact on the freedom of expression of each state. However, we as a people, have also many common interests and objectives and one of them is the importance of freedom of speech as a human right in each society. While our differences matter, they should not get in between this shared understanding and shared objective that we all have.

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