Why we should protect Writers Freedom! with Mille Rode from DanskPEN

By Ouafa Zaidi, cultural reporter intern at Crossing Borders

100 years later, PEN is a global organization defending writers and anyone who works with the written word around the world. An anniversary that coincides with the coming of Mille Rode to Crossing Borders, on February 17, 2022, for the second Food For Thought event. A happy coincidence that contributed to a real moment where human and intellectual richness intertwines. And as usual, surrounded by people of all origins looking forward to opening their minds to understand and contribute to a better world. Once again to conclude this exchange in the most pleasant way, our dear Youssra Asmi has concocted a meal of the tastiest.

The world’s first NGO: PEN was founded by poet, novelist, feminist, and internationalist Catherine Amy Dawson Scott in 1921, who described the organization as ‘a republic of words to unite nations’. The name PEN stands for the words Poets, playwrights, essayists, editors & novelists, and of course it also refers to the author’s most important tool, the pen.   

Today, the organization has national centers in more than 100 countries. Danish PEN was founded in 1924 as a subdivision of International PEN. Its members include authors, journalists, translators, editors, and publishers who work to spread freedom of expression and literature across borders. Their areas of interest include human rights, international and cultural relations, and the arts and media.

Mille Rode, General Secretary of the Danish PEN section since 1995, shares with us her personal and professional experience with PEN Denmark, which has now lasted for more than 25 years, as well as her thoughts on the current situation in the world. Here is an interview, which may give you an idea of what a great meeting it was.  

How is PEN different from other freedom of expression organizations?

We are different in the way that we are a colleague organization. It’s not that we know exactly what’s the right thing. We are just trying to open the gate for the work to come out. So, when we are colleague to colleague organizations, we like to try to offer a voice or a pen to someone who has been blocked from using either.

What are your steps to get political leaders to consider your view of a situation you are trying to unblock? I mean, how do you motivate political leaders to guarantee the freedom of expression that you are trying to protect?

I don’t know if we can really motivate them. We can protest in the sense that we write letters to politicians in countries that have imprisoned their writers. We write to judges. We sometimes attend trials to witness what’s going on and we try to speak for the people we represent. I don’t think our letters or our protests make much difference in the world, for example when I write to President Erdogan in Turkey, I doubt he reads the letters but still, we keep pushing and pushing and there are so many of us doing it from many parts of the world that it ends up making a difference. Right now, at the Saudi Arabian Embassy here in Copenhagen, every Friday for the last five years I have been writing them a postcard. So, they have a pile of postcards in their office that they have to report to the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry. So, in a sense, it’s a way to get into the holes that we’re not allowed to get into. It’s a kind of protest that we do. And of course, sometimes we know that the pressure from the outside, from many voices from the outside, is so annoying, that people, governments, or politicians think that they have to get rid of the problem as soon as possible.

How do you define freedom of expression and how do you respond to those who say that hate speech is freedom of expression?

My definition of freedom of expression is, on the one hand, the absence of censorship. There is no need for censorship. We shouldn’t have laws, governments, or ways to censor. People should be able to write whatever they want, even if what they write is something we don’t like. I would also defend people I disagree with. I want them to be able to write too, but freedom of speech is the fact that we can discuss it, that we can discuss the disagreement in an open space, that we can confront the disagreements instead of locking them down or blocking them. Because I believe that the strongest argument is the one that wins, and you never have the strongest argument on this topic. We discuss we learn from each other while confronting our opinions, and those opinions are formed by the discussion we have had with others.
But when it comes to hate speech, it’s a different thing. It’s different because it targets people in the sense that they are threatened, disrespected, or demeaned simply because they are who they are, whether they are a different color, different sexuality or culture, a different religion, and so on. We shouldn’t disrespect each other in that sense. We can disagree with each other, and we can argue, but we shouldn’t disrespect each other. This is hate speech, this is a kind of speech where we target a group of people just for who they are.

Journalists are attacked all over the world, even though it is now 2022. For example, 5 journalists were killed in Mexico, not to mention journalists in Palestine who are all too often attacked by the Israeli forces, can you tell us how to ensure the protection of journalists and the protection of the truth?

We need to put pressure on the government to make sure they have the right laws and measures to investigate crimes against journalists. In Mexico, most of the people who have killed journalists have never been trialed, never been put in jail, they have never even been found. So, journalists are killed without anyone being responsible. And this is a political problem as well as a legal problem, we have a corrupt legal system, where corruption protects the people who order the killings. We have to deal with that. It is not done by an organization like PEN. It is done in the political sphere, and we are not a political organization, we are a human rights organization. What we have to do is to lobby our governments and governmental structures, like the EU or the UN.
We can only protect them by speaking up for them, by making the world aware that this has happened. The louder we speak out, the more of us do it, the better we can protect them.

What do you think has been the impact of Covid on our freedom of expression?

Countries have reacted to the COVID situation very differently from one another. In some places, journalists were silenced if they questioned the government’s approach, other countries banned all demonstrations, or unless they were protected. So, they had to ask permission to demonstrate and so on. COVID has had an impact on a lot of things and in a lot of ways, but not in our country. In terms of freedom of expression, journalists, and all of us who use social media have been asked to be more careful about what we read, to seek the truth, and to find sources. In a way, Covid has made us more careful and if we want to know which way things are going, we have to do the hard work.

PEN defends the principle of the free transmission of expression within each nation and between all nations and is also committed to opposing any form of suppression of this freedom. Can you tell us about a recent situation of this kind that you faced and how you dealt with it?

For example, we have been confronted when writers have been put in jail, journalists have been put in jail or had to flee the country because they opposed the government, the President, and we are trying to help them reorganize outside of Belarus. We are trying to help them reorganize outside of Belarus and create a structure that will allow them to organize again so that they can be stronger in their protests against the government. Because it goes without saying that a government that does not protect freedom of expression is on the wrong track. So, in that sense, we fight against such a government, and we ask it to protect human rights and freedom of expression. Most countries, at least some parts of the world, have signed the UN Declaration of Human Rights, even if they don’t really protect their own people. So, we are also trying to tell them that you have already signed for this, so you should do what you say, you should act as you said.
I’m not naive. I know it’s a long way and we need a lot of voices, but the more voices the better to put pressure on others.

How did Danish PEN become one of the ten most active PEN Centers in the world?

I think the conditions in which we work here are better than in many other countries. We have the possibility to organize, to protest, to participate in trials all over the world, possibilities that many other centers do not have. For example, if you come from a local center or from an African country, you are probably poorer than most of the Danish group and you can’t attend events and activities. And then I think we also have a tradition of political activism in the sense that we have for many years, for a century, actually more probably a democratic tradition, but we also have a tradition of activism. And we have taken part as a country in their campaigns for peace and for human rights and for all kinds of things. So, it’s relatively easier to mobilize in a country like Denmark, as it would be, for example, in Vietnam, or Algeria, or wherever we could imagine. There are Pen centers everywhere in the world, especially in countries where freedom of expression and thought are controlled.

There are PEN Centers all over the world and especially in countries where freedom of expression and thinking are controlled, can you tell us a little more about this? Your struggles and achievements.

We are trying to build a Pen Center in countries where they probably wouldn’t be allowed to do what we do here. And even though a Pen Center in a country like Vietnam probably won’t be able to do the work that we do here, they can still do cultural work, activities, events, and so on. And then they can keep us informed of what’s going on there. They send us reports about what is happening on the streets, and we can find out who is being imprisoned, and the various problems that are taking place there; subsequently I can inform the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on behalf of my colleagues in Vietnam, so that they are better equipped to exert political pressure on another scale, at EU or UN level, if necessary. So that’s the kind of help we can give them.

How do you promote linguistic rights, what does it involve and how can we, as citizens, contribute? I guess that's why PEN's oral history collection records valuable testimonies of people, to preserve the language over time, right?

Well, on February 21 we have an event that celebrates languages, it’s International Mother Language Day. Every day of the year, languages are spoken for the last time. And we believe that people who have been raised in a language and have the mentality, heart, and culture of that language should be protected. We need to protect our cultural heritage and our different languages. Therefore, we try to make people aware that languages are dying, that people who have spoken certain languages are forbidden to do so today, like Kurdish in Turkey.
In Denmark, there are more than 100 mother tongues that are spoken and written. Having a mother tongue is what makes you who you are. It’s the basis of your deepest roots, the fact that you have a language that you’ve been speaking since you were born and I believe that no matter how well you speak another language, there will always be something missing if you are not able to express yourself in your mother tongue. So, we should appreciate all these languages. We should take care of these languages. We should appreciate the fact that we can speak hundreds and thousands of different languages expressing different things.
So, we try to organize events around these languages, publish translations of literature written in these languages, and promote as much as possible the writers of these minority language groups. And we try to understand the richness of our culture, coming from different parts of the world. And we will have access to it if we protect the languages.

A few days ago, you celebrated the centenary of International PEN, and from this event, you have created a book, named An Illustrated History, which tells how PEN has placed the celebration of literature and the defense of freedom of expression at the center of humanity's struggle against repression since 1921. What do you think this book brings to this generation?

Mainly the book in itself is a celebration book. We are celebrating ourselves. I think by looking at this story of freedom of expression and this fight for freedom of expression over 100 years, the young generation could get an impression of the variety of ways that the language and the written word have been oppressed over time. When we get an understanding of what we are fighting against and what we have been fighting against, it’s a story we have heard before and learned from it. And that led us to know somehow ways of handling today’s oppression. Pen’s history is mainly a history of people who have been helping one another over time in all sorts of crises, from World War 2 to local wars to dictatorship to blocking the borders, avoiding people to escape the fights that they are living with like we saw in Syria when they tried to prohibit people from leaving certain areas, we’ve seen that many times in the history of 100 years, and if we know the history, we will know what kind of means the dictators use, which will mean that we will be much more willing to fight them. And it also highlights our success stories.

What advice you would give to those who are reading this now?

Don’t be afraid to write. That’s the best thing I can say. Do not be afraid. And if you’re scared, try to do it anyway. Because we need to say the words, we need stories, we need to open people’s minds to other places. And literature and journalism are windows through which we can see what is happening in other parts of the world, so do write, please. Don’t stop.  

As you probably have figured out, this Food For Thought with Mille Rode, the General Secretary of the Danish PEN, invites us to appreciate differences, because that is what freedom of expression is all about; Getting to know and understand why people don’t think the same way, why they have a different approach, a different opinion or a different mindset, and why they are can be right, which means that either we will eventually learn something from them, or we will improve our arguments by being confronted with these different opinions. And that’s the beauty of free speech. 

Remarkable writers, playwrights, screenwriters, actors, and directors have been and are members of PEN: Margaret Atwood, Joseph Conrad, Amin Maalouf, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda, Liu Xiaobo, and many others. Here are some quotes about PEN and what they are fighting for:

«My respect for this organization has no borders… PEN has been so fierce, so consistent and ferocious in its efforts that it is hard to ignore their worldwide impact. » Toni Morrison

«Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth. » Liu Xiaobo

«In terms of how we understand each other, how we bridge connections and how we mold societies; we have to do it in an intelligent way. It’s not only a matter of good ideas, it’s also a matter of being there, at the right place, at the right time and with the right people. » Mille Rode, February 17, 2022, at Crossing Borders. 

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