“When another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free” – Orhan Pamuk, recipient of 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature

Václav Havel (1936-2011) statesman, dissident playwright, defender of free speech

Photo: Oldrich Skácha

“For Václav Havel, and for his people, everything changed in 1989, the year of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, when he led the extraordinary display of people power which toppled the ruling communist regime. The world watched with astonishment as, within weeks, the dissident playwright became president” ~ BBC

A Brief History of the Velvet Revolution

21 August 1968: The first Soviet tanks rumble into Prague. Tas, the Soviet news agency, said assistance was requested by members of the Czechoslovak government and communist party leaders to fight counter-revolutionary forces.

Photos: Oldrich Skácha

At a time when thousands were being expelled from the communist party for their involvement in the Prague Spring, Havel wrote an open letter to Dr. Gustav Husak (the leader he would eventually replace) denouncing the government for having taken “the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing conformity”. This, he warned, was unsustainable: “A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy lid of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it. It may be a long process, but one day it must happen: the lid will no longer hold and will start to crack”.

Photo: Oldrich Skácha

 19 November, 1989: Ten days after the Berlin Wall was breached, and two days after a crackdown on protesting students, Havel convened a meeting at The Magic Lantern, a Prague theatre. He and other dissidents established the Civic Forum, which called for the resignation of the communist leaders. The next day 200,000 people took to the streets, the first of several demonstrations that ended communist rule and installed Havel as President.

Photos: Oldrich Skácha

“Václav Havel was the most courageous fighter for the freedom of speech. He trusted and believed in the “power of the powerless” in the most democratic sense. So many spiritual seeds were planted by him all over the world. He changed the paradigm of global society with his fight for democracy and freedom of speech” ~ Hori Takeaki, International Secretary of PEN International

“Free speech may not have died in the hearts of the men and women of the West, but it is ailing badly. The combination of official censorship, unofficial censorship and self-censorship is reducing the scope for debate, creating a climate of stultifying conformism and the fear of straying from the straight and ever more narrow. Free speech is left looking like a ‘free-range’ chicken, fenced in and approaching its use-by date. If we want to live in a truly tolerant world we should reject every demand to cage, censor, parole or punish speech. No matter how sympathetic a case the censors make, and however much you might abhor the words others use.  Our society has forgotten why free speech should count above other concerns. It is now considered almost unimaginable that anybody could support free speech without a long list of exceptions. However it is presented and excused, the result of infringing on free speech is always to close down discussion and bland everything out in a world of grey conformism. No doubt the awful truth is that a world in which we enjoy free speech will contain ugly, difficult and hurtful ideas as well good and inspiring ones. But the alternative to free speech is inevitably worse. That is why free speech is always a price worth paying, and much too important to pay mere lip service to” ~ Mick Hume

“[But] there is a vital distinction between attacking a person or a group for who they are and criticising or satirising particular views or beliefs. It should not be acceptable to attack somebody simply for being a Muslim or Jewish or gay. But the right to criticise religious or political views must be protected, even if some people and groups are inevitably upset by criticism of their cherished beliefs. In the coming years, protecting press freedom is likely to cost Europeans contracts and money. It will cause diplomatic headaches and sometimes it will be dangerous. If Europeans bend and compromise fundamental freedoms, they may gain money and a quiet life but they will lose their self-respect, and ultimately the respect of the world” ~ Gideon Rachman

The Havel Tartan

The Havel tartan portrays an endless succession of prison cell windows struck through in red, protesting the persecution and imprisonment of writers of conscience in the knowledge that free expression is an essential component of every healthy society. It is named in honour of the late Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright and co-author of Charter 77, the landmark human rights declaration for which he was imprisoned for several years, only to lead the ‘Velvet Revolution’ that peacefully overthrew communism and installed him as Czechoslovakia’s president. Charter 77 was also the inspiration for Charter 08, the petition demanding the end of one-party rule in China for which author Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year sentence. Permission to adopt the Havel name was graciously granted by his wife, Dagmar Havlova Veskrnova, with assistance from the Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation VIZE 97 and PEN International, the worldwide writers’ association promoting literature and defending freedom of expression.

Scottish Tartan Register No. 10625; UK Patent Office No. 4022092

The Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International works on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide. It was established in 1960 in response to increasing attempts to silence voices of dissent by imprisoning writers and journalists.

Working on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide, the WiPC monitors between 700-900 cases across the globe each year. The WiPC mobilises the wider PEN community to take action through its Rapid Action Network alerts, targeted regional campaigns, and by utilising PEN’s consultative status with the UN to submit UPR country reports.

The Committee’s Rapid Action Network Alerts provide details of cases of individuals whose lives and liberty are being threatened and makes specific suggestions for action.

In addition to its work on behalf of individual writers, the Committee creates campaigns on issues affecting freedom of expression, such as Religious Defamation, Impunity and Criminal Defamation, and campaigns focused on specific regions or countries, such as the Americas, Iran, China and Turkey.

The Writers in Prison Committee also works through the UN to bring attention to individual cases and to systemic human rights problems in specific countries.

See more at: http://www.pen-international.org/who-we-are/writers-in-prison/#sthash.d0QEvw4n.dpuf

It is not hard to demonstrate that all the main threats confronting the world today, from atomic war and ecological disaster to a catastrophic collapse of society and civilisation by which I mean the widening gulf between rich and poor individuals and nations–have hidden deep within them a single root cause: the imperceptible transformation of what was originally a humble message into an arrogant one.

Arrogantly, man began to believe that, as the pinnacle and lord of creation, he understood nature completely and could do what he liked with it.

Arrogantly, he began to think that as the possessor of reason, he could completely understand his own history and could therefore plan a life of happiness for all, and that this even gave him the right, in the name of an ostensibly better future for all–to which he had found the one and only key to sweep from his path all those who did not fall for his plan.

Arrogantly, he began to think that since he was capable of splitting the atom, he was now so perfect that there was no longer any danger of nuclear arms rivalry, let alone nuclear war.

In all those cases he was fatally mistaken. That is bad. But in each case he is already beginning to realize his mistake. And that is good.

Václav Havel,  “A Word about Words”. The New York Review of Books, January 18, 1990