PEN FAQ

What does the name PEN stand for?

The power of the written word.

In the early years of our organisation when membership was open to writers only, PEN stood for “poets, essayists and novelists”. Now it symbolises the power of the pen – in the literature we love to read, and the letters we write to fight censorship and promote freedom of expression everywhere.

Why should we specially help writers when other citizens are persecuted and imprisoned too?

Because writers give voice to the voiceless.

Of course writers are no more important than anyone else – but because they often speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves, writers, journalists, bloggers and organisers who use the written word to fight oppression are often the first people targeted by oppressive governments. Throughout history, writers have drawn attention, through their words, to the plight of the powerless and voiceless. This makes them dangerous to tyrannical governments, so they are unfairly targeted, harassed, imprisoned, persecuted, assaulted and murdered. Freedom for a society’s writers means freedom for the whole society.

Does Sydney PEN’s work make a real difference?

Yes, it really does.

In 2008 our advocacy work, together with our colleagues at International PEN, helped to release 94 writers from prison. In 2009, the Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka had a personal involvement in the release of an imprisoned newspaper editor after receiving many letters from members of Sydney PEN. Later in the year, another Sri Lankan academic and journalist was released following a mass public letter campaign by Sydney PEN.

Other actions, such as The Empty Chair currently installed at UTS, and the Writers in Detention anthology of asylum seekers' writing, Another Country, have prompted awareness of imprisoned writers and public debate of the issues in Australia.

Some of the impact of our work is immediate, and some of it is incremental. The fact is that every bit - a letter signed by a supporter or a partnership with a fellow centre in the Asian and Pacific region - is part of our ethos of vigilance.

How many writers are there in prison around the world?

As of June 2009, International PEN had officially registered 138 main cases of the imprisonment of writers around the world. The final report for 2009 is forthcoming. There were a further 72 reported cases of imprisonment.

In addition it reported the deaths of 9 writers between January and June 2009, killed because of their writing and listed another 13 writers’ deaths as suspicious. Dozens of others have been logged by International PEN as having endured brief imprisonments, death threats and harassments for speaking freely.

Does Sydney PEN only work for persecuted writers overseas?

No, we work in Australia, too.

Freedom of expression - a fundamental human right - is always under threat, even in Australia. Sydney PEN is vigilant about preserving our rights. While we thankfully don’t imprison writers (although we have helped free refugee writers from our own detention centres), there are more subtle but continual and dangerous moves to restrict freedom of expression in our own country.

Our members keep a watchful eye and take real action on political developments such as sedition and anti-terrorism laws, suppression of academic freedom, arts funding linked to restrictions on artistic content, and so on. We also highlight cases of Australian writers who have been incarcerated or threatened overseas for their work.

We celebrate the freedom of expression we do have in this country with readings, lectures, publications, awards and other literary events. Our focus on encouraging and generating Translation is an important part of our promotion of the free exchange of words between countries in our region.

How do we know the information PEN gets and gives is accurate?

Year-round, International PEN checks for updates on existing cases of incarcerated prisoners.

It releases a biannual Writers in Prison to reflect these updates, which include newly imprisoned, detained, released or deceased writers.

The Writers in Prison Committee gathers its information from a wide variety of sources. It seeks to confirm its information through two independent sources. Where its information is unconfirmed, it will either take not action, or send an appeal worded to reflect the fact that the information is as yet incomplete. Sources include press reports, reports form individuals in the region in question, reports from other human rights groups PEN members themselves, embassy officials, academics, prisoners’ families, lawyers and friends, and exile groups. It also works with international NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It is a founder member of IFEX – the International Freedom of Expression Exchange. IFEX is a collaborative, on-line service in which several groups involved in the campaign for free expression pool information. Other members include Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship, the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters sans Frontieres, as well as regional and national groups.

Once news is released, it is sent out to the Writers in Prison Rapid Action Network across a portion of PEN centres (not all centres have WiP committees). Each centre assesses the news for its relevance to the region and local campaigns, and this decides whether members and the public are informed of urgent news and advocacy campaigns mounted for individual writers.

PEN is not affiliated with any other organisation or cause, simply its International PEN Charter to which all centres ascribe. This means that its information is treated objectively and thoroughly, and only distributed in defense of the Charter.

What is my annual membership fee spent on?

Let us explain how Sydney PEN operates.

We employ one part-time administrative officer. All the work including travel, postage or phone calls done by our members and Management Committee is voluntary. Other costs are kept low thanks to our sponsors and partners who provide their services pro-bono or in-kind. We apply for a range of philanthropic, arts and partnership grants and funds on a yearly basis, and we hold fundraisers for target projects from time to time.

Your membership fee covers our working year from January to December. In that time, aside from the running costs of our office, which keeps us in contact with the public and International PEN, we spend a small amount on production of items such as The Empty Chair posters for events and printing of campaign letters for public sessions. Alongside these expenses, we budget for specific projects or events within the year, such as the recent website overhaul to help our mission reach a wide audience, and the translation exchange fellowship currently being developed. Your membership fee and donations provide the foundation for these activities, to which we add raised funds. In other words, they are essential to PEN's impact in Australia and beyond.

How can I get involved?

We welcome new individual members as well as companies or organisations who would like to offer sponsorship. Check out What you can do and Supporters for some suggestions about how to take part in our work.

Is PEN membership just for published writers?

No! PEN invites membership from anyone who cares about freedom of expression, particularly the expression of words.

This makes it a unique collection of some of Australia's most distinguished and best-loved writers, and ordinary readers and audiences, emerging writers and those who are involved in the production of writing. Sydney PEN's members come from all over Australia and overseas, and include groups and organisations involved in the law or dissemination of words.

Does PEN support all writers, regardless of what they stand for?

PEN advocates for freedom of expression and those who promote it

PEN believes in the right to freedom of expression - not when that right is used to extinguish others' free exchange of thought and language. The freedom of expression adopted by terrorism, for example, defeats the enjoyment of the same right by others. Violence, coercion or ethnic silencing oppress that common human right.