‘We don’t pick political parties, we pick freedom of expression’

In a conversation with OpenCanada’s Eva Salinas, PEN International’s past president John Ralston Saul looks back on his time with the organization and the state of freedom of expression in Canada and beyond.

By: /
May 6, 2016
Pens and pencils are seen near candles at a vigil in Place de Republic in Paris January 8, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

As the first Canadian to be elected president of PEN International — following in the footsteps of H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, Arthur Miller, and Mario Vargas Llosa — John Ralston Saul spent the last six years defending freedom of expression and advocating on behalf of writers around the world. His term ended in October, 2015, when he handed the reins to Mexican-American writer Jennifer Clement.

The award-winning author, most recently of 2015’s The Comeback, spoke with OpenCanada earlier this week to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Among other topics, he opened up on why PEN’s advocacy model works, where he was during the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris and Canada’s foreign policy mistakes. 

It hasn't been that long since you stepped down as president of PEN International. How did you view the state of press freedom when your term finished?

First of all, PEN was started in 1921. It’s an original civil society organization, we sort of invented how you fight at an international level for freedom of expression. All the methods that are used today started in PEN and we're still the kind of gold standard for how you keep lists and organize campaigns. I think we have something like 850 writers, journalists, bloggers in jail or in danger on the list that we manage so that is used by other freedom of expression organizations.  So we have a very long view and about 30-35,000 writers around the world are organized with centres based in 122 countries and so you can kind of keep referring back to what was done and how was it done from the '30s on…

I would have to say that in my six years as president that the status of freedom of expression became increasingly problematic. That really there was a downward turn clearly from the day of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. And the downward turn came in part because there was a change in public assumptions and the political assumptions about the role of freedom of expression as it relates to stability and safety. You'd had decades where security was important, and is always important in a state, but we've always known in democracies as opposed to authoritarian regimes that the real protection of democracy is free speech.

But the moment of that attack on, and the very unfortunate response by the American government — which was then imitated by other Western governments and frankly by authoritarian governments taking advantage of the reaction — everybody ended up reacting by embracing fear and by allowing the security forces to start to set the agenda.  So on the one hand, you have the reality of religious extremists killing people and more specifically journalists, writers, bloggers, putting them in jail and so on, but on the other hand you have this enormous strategic error of Western democracies playing that game, which is to say giving in precisely to what the extremists wanted which is a campaign of fear. 

So in many ways the biggest steps on the general restriction on freedom of expression, as opposed to specific cases, has actually been done by Western governments within their own countries by unleashing security forces. You have a series of laws, which are removals in effect of the protection of freedom of expression which was put in place over a period of 150 years where the balance of approval was on the side of freedom and the security forces had to fight very, very hard to eat away at any of that. And then suddenly they were given enormous amounts of purchase in areas which are actually protected by various charters of rights and I think most of this stuff will eventually be overthrown by courts at high levels. You are already starting to see some of that happening but in the meantime enormous damage has been done in areas like the removal of privacy.

You actually hear government, democratic governments and newspapers even, saying, ‘Well, do you have something to hide?’ And people say, well ‘I have nothing to hide.’ That’s the sort of thing you heard in the middle of the 19th century and to which I would reply, ‘Yes, I have a great deal to hide. I have absolutely no desire for my privacy to be public.’ It’s in private that people have sex, it’s in private that people conduct their relationships with their friends, it’s in private that people talk with family and friends about what they are going to say in public. In a way privacy is either about things that should be private or it’s about preparing for what you’re going to be in public. And the removal of privacy, giving the enormous swaths of invasion of privacy to security forces, is a rolling back of the victories in all democracies in freedom of expression.

Let’s not forget that out of the approximately 200 writers, bloggers, journalists, killed every year, and it’s growing year by year, about 75 to 85 percent are not killed by religious extremists, they are killed by governments, armies, police forces, organized crime, private corporations and usually some mixture of the above. You're being distracted everyday that every time a bomb goes off that this is what's happening out there. When the reality is that let's say 80 percent of professional users of freedom of expression are actually being imprisoned or killed not by religious extremists. That’s the reality. It’s very different from what the press, curiously enough, and governments are suggesting. 

john Ralston Saul in Mexico
Canadian author, essayist and President of PEN International John Ralston Saul (R) speaks next to journalists and writers during an event where they declared their support for a free press and freedom of expression in Mexico, in Mexico City January 29, 2012. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Do you think concerns over the lack of privacy and over surveillance are harder to mobilize activism compared to more specific cases, whether in Bangladesh or Mexico, etc., and if so, why is that? 

A lot of it is because people don't want to talk about it. 

In Bangladesh, the hacking to death of bloggers is happening from religious extremists but that’s not the important point, the important point is that the government of Bangladesh, and I saw the prime minister about two years ago, is perfectly capable of controlling this situation. These extremists are very visible, this is a very strong government, it has very strong police force and a very strong army. If they wanted to get this under control, they could. They're playing politics. And it’s very dangerous politics because once you let something like this out of the bag, you don’t know what happens next, and it’s very foolish and wrong what the prime minister and her government are doing — or not doing in this case. 

In terms of Mexico, this is a classic case because they're a member of major international trade deals, major international organizations, with a very sophisticated, public-face leadership, a great civilization culturally, etc., and yet it’s one of the most violent countries in the world. And the government is entirely complicit in the murder of all of these journalists and civilians. And so they have again presented this very simplistic picture, which is the government against organized crime, which is the government represents good. This is totally nonsense. In fact it’s what I call the ‘holy trinity of corruption, violence and impunity’ in which the government is complicit.

They've had lots of time to get the corruption under control at high levels in government and they have not done it, and as long as the corruption is at that level, which is of course the link between government and organized crime and government and the private sector, as long as they don’t handle corruption at that level, they will never be able to handle the violence against freedom of expression in the country. And that has nothing to do with religious extremism.

And then countries like Canada go, ‘Oh we just want to talk about trade,’ and ‘if we get trade going, this will all go away.’ No, it won't. If you continue to accept the normalization of violence in which the government is directly involved, you are complicit in that violence, and in those murders and that corruption. In fact you may be encouraging the spreading of that kind of corruption to your own country. 

PEN mobilizes writers and citizens so what about on a government level? There has been the question about whether trade and human rights can be separated, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia, for instance.

We're not romantics and we don't shout for nothing. We're an organization with so much experience that we do understand the complexities of foreign policy and economics and so on.

On the other hand, it doesn't take a PhD to understand that the stranglehold of the Saudi government on attitudes in that area, toward freedom of expression, has been very damaging for decades. Let's not forget it is the Saudi government, its Wahhabi ideology which lies at the basis of the rise of extremism in the area, which is a fundamentally profoundly anti-democratic government in the international sense of that term, not in the Western sense. It is a deeply anti-freedom of expression government, it is a deeply anti-women’s rights government, it’s a government which pretends it has its own particular form of justice but it’s not justice at all. There’s virtually no other mainstream, Islamic-dominated country in which has that idea of justice, so they can’t claim that they are speaking in the name of religion. They are speaking in the name of a family and an authoritarian regime.

We're actually undermining what we stand for by going into alliances like that. This is a very important mistake by the West in foreign policy terms and I think the leader in that mistake is the United States and before that it was Britain and the rest of us have gone along with it and it’s a mistake.  

We often think of international organizations as a post-WWII phenomenon but PEN is older than that. What did you learn in terms of mobilizing people or about international cooperation and governance?

When I would go into a country when I was president, when I leave, I leave our members. So we're not something based in a Western country that puts forward points of view about other countries. We're in every country. When I’m in Honduras or Mexico or wherever and they look at me and they say, ‘you know, you…’ and I say, ‘No — we. We're a Mexican organization.’ Because Mexican writers are members of PEN. And so I’m speaking for them as a Mexican, as a voice of Mexico and I can say whether it’s Honduras or Costa Rica or right through Central America and so on. So that’s a big difference. You have to see things from within these countries. We're constantly not taking what I call the Western, universal values approach which is really a leftover of the old empire. We're actually sitting down with leaders of government everywhere saying, ‘You are breaking the rules of your own country, of your own history, whether its national or international.’

The Chinese government loves to say, ‘You Westerners’ whereas in fact they are in total contravention of the history of literature, of freedom of expression, of a culture of intellectualism in China over thousands of years. And in fact when communists writers were imprisoned in the 1930s, it was PEN which stood up for those writers in getting them out of prison. We don’t pick political parties, we pick freedom of expression. And we don’t accept the idea that Western concepts of freedom of expression are the dominant idea — there are many, many approaches to freedom of expression over thousands of years.  

Paris
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (2ndL), French President Francois Hollande (C), Germany's Chancellor Angela Merke (4thL), European Council President Donald Tusk (5thL) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attend the solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris January 11, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

What are the moments or people that will stay with you from your term — you were president for instance during the January, 2015, attacks in Paris. Do you remember that day? 

I was in actually in The Hague giving a major prize that we give out and the attack had happened just a few days before. There was great expectation and requirement from me as international president to say something. And if you go back and look at what I said, of course we were all in total solidarity. When something like that happens, there's absolutely no room for any cracks at all. You don’t ask yourself, nor should you, about the people killed or imprisoned about what they have said or done — it is never, ever acceptable to use violence against freedom of expression.

And then I went on to speak in Paris the next day, of course to put flowers on the site, to meet people and to go around giving a whole series of speeches in Europe. People instinctively knew we had to be both in solidarity and yet not filled with fear or panic in our reaction. So that was very important — to stay calm. And as soon as that march took place in Paris, the next day we put out a press release pointing out that in the front row of the marchers were a whole series of representatives of authoritarian governments, including Saudi Arabia, which were in fact the problem not the solution. Their presence was hypocritical because they were not offering to act in a different way. 

On freedom of expression in Canada, your term ended the same week Justin Trudeau was elected and PEN released a report that week on its concerns in Canada. How much of those concerns were related to the former government or to Bill C-51, and have any subsided since Trudeau's election?

First of all, it was a mix — many of those things happened during that preceding decade and they were very specific, but it’s also important not to simply blame a government. You also have to look at what happened in other countries in the West, which is that you saw a broad push by security interests and by certain kinds of political forces for the same kinds of limitations. And in that sense Canada was ahead in some, behind in others in terms of doing the wrong thing.

So it’s partly a government but it’s also partly the weakness of leadership in the West when faced by these challenges. And we responded in the West very badly and frankly a lot of those things haven’t changed. They are going to be hard to change and it’s very, very early days. We’re going to have to see how the government deals with it — we’ll have to see how the rewriting of C-51 goes, right? We're going to see what happens in terms of privacy, and what money is spent on.

What clearly has happened is there has been a rebirth of the idea that public debate is a good thing. The government seems to encourage public debate and to be involved in the debate itself so that’s kind of interesting but we have to see how that works out in terms of laws and security. And we’ll be better able to judge that on a case-by-case basis and we have to do that. It’s very important to do that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.