Koos Kombuis

Is the pen mightier than the dragon?

2013-05-03 12:25
To honour and celebrate World Press Freedom Day, the South African branch of PEN International - an organisation that connects writers and signifies a public forum for the advancement of the literary arts - has lent their voice of support to a letter and petition from PEN International to the Chinese government to protest the fact that their most famous Nobel laureate, the writer Liu Xiabobo, is in jail. An important except of the letter runs thus:

"In literature as in traditional and new media, new energies toward creation exist side by side with, and are often threatened or obscured by, old habits of suppression. That suppression violates fundamental human rights precepts including the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed under international law and China's own constitution. It comes at an enormous human cost for the individual writers, journalists, and bloggers whose rights are being abridged, and for the health and vitality of China’s traditional and new media and for its literatures."
Apparently, freedom of expression is getting increasingly curtailed in China, with more than forty dissident authors and journalists in prison, and others harrassed. Liu's wife, Liu Xia, is at present under house arrest.

At the risk of sounding over-cynical, and though I cannot help finding these sentiments from our local writers admirable, two questions remain: (i) do South African authors really hope to achieve anything by this? And (ii) Will the international writers' community, including writers in China, stand up for our freedom of expression once the Info Bill becomes law in this country?

Though the Info Bill in its present form may seem more "benign" than the orginal draft, there is much about it that is vague and open to differing interpretations. It might not seem to threaten the average novelist in any way - I can hardly imagine Andre Brink going to prison for his latest historical novel - writer-journalists like Adriaan Basson, author of Zuma Exposed, may very well be targeted in the new dispensation.

An earlier predecessor of PEN, Die Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde, was very active during the eigthies to fight censorship laws under the National Party. One can only hope that this refreshingly militant attitude by PEN will be as brave, and even braver, than those efforts by the Skrywersgilde long ago.

Though censorship in the New South Africa is not, at this point, nearly as bad as those imposed by the Nats, all the signs point towards an increasingly worrying tendency by the ANC to try and control the written word and the flow of information in this country. This might eventually be bad news not only for journalists, but also for writers, bloggers, cartoonists and artists.

I personally would hate to see a funny guy like Zapiro go to prison...

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