Last week a small but committed group from PEN Melbourne met for the annual evening of card-writing to writers who are imprisoned around the world. For such events, the PEN International Writers in Prison Committee collates a document from its current case list, providing details about those writers who can be contacted via a postal address. Where possible, the entry on each writer includes a small photograph or picture, and a line or two summarising his or her sentence. This year, the fifty-three entries included Australian journalist Peter Greste, who, with Al Jazeerah colleagues Mohammad Fahmy and Baher Mohammad, has now spent over three hundred days in Cairo’s Tora Prison. (You can write to Peter Greste using the email address email@example.com.)
In October Greste contributed a trenchant keynote address to the Frontline Club 2014 awards ceremony in London. The text of the speech was compiled by family members, the content relayed to them during their fortnightly prison visits. In attesting to the highly significant decline, through the past decade, of press freedom across the globe, Greste’s speech also concludes with a very admirable optimism: he notes the momentum returning to ‘a crucial debate about the relationship between governments and the media; or more correctly, between a free press and a free society’. As I saw and heard throughout the 2014 PEN International Congress just two months ago, the PEN centres in more than a hundred countries and territories are helping to foster that ‘crucial debate’, as part of their striving to protect free expression. Nota bene: on Thursday, Greste’s speech accepting this year’s Walkley Award for Courage and Outstanding Contribution to Journalism emphasised that the struggle to defend media freedom ‘is just as important for democratic accountability in Australia as it is […] in Egypt’.
Altogether, by the close of our evening of card-writing there were more than one hundred and thirty envelopes to carry to the post office. Each was a personal, handwritten expression of awareness of the addressee’s situation, an assertion of care and goodwill, and a reminder of the staunch support of PEN members. Usually, the Annual General Meeting of PEN Melbourne precedes the card-writing activity. In anticipation of speaking at the meeting, I completed a report—or rather an essay—about the five days in spent in Bishkek (capital of the Kyrgyz Republic), as a delegate to the 80th PEN International Congress in September–October. The essay can be read here; it was written for the PEN Melbourne Quarterly Newsletter. Since returning from the Congress I can say that I am more often brought to reflect that freedom of expression and press freedom are both enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And that even so, to be able to post a news item such as this without fear of repercussions feels like a privilege never to be taken lightly.