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World Press Freedom Day: PEN Germany president warns of threats

Regula Venske, the new president of the writers' organization PEN Germany, spoke with DW about current threats to authors and freedom of speech. She promises that PEN will continue to work actively to protect writers.

The German novelist Regula Venske was selected as president of the German branch of the PEN organization (Poets, Essayists, Novelist) last weekend after her predecessor, Josef Haslinger, chose to not to stand for re-election. Known for her 1995 political thriller, "Opernball," Venske was already active in the writers' organization as secretary general.

Founded in 1921 in England, PEN has expanded across the globe, working to give a voice to those writers and authors who are threatened. DW's Stefan Dege spoke with Regula Venske shortly after her election to speak about the road ahead.

DW: Ms. Venske, is PEN still a necessary organization today?

Regula Venske: More than ever. Of course it's our aim to make our work superfluous. But as long as freedom of speech is threatened, as it is in more countries than ever, then we still have to take action.

Regula Venske, new PEN president (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Thissen)

PEN Germany President Regula Venske

You've been the PEN secretary general since 2013, which has given you a unique understanding of the situation of writers around the world. Where do you see the situation being especially threatening?

One of the focuses of our work - even before the failed coup - has been Turkey. China, Eritrea, Iran, Mexico - there I was a part of a delegation that protested the trinity of violence, corruption and impunity. In Mexico, for example, there are no authors in prison: "We have writers in graves," the president of PEN Mexico told me. It looks a little different in every country. In Russia, there's a focus on May 3, the International Day of Press Freedom. But we also have to pay attention to what's happening right at our own front door.

Freedom of speech: Why is it such an important topic?

Words are the weapons that those leaders of authoritarian regimes fear the most. The first people to be imprisoned are the writers and journalists. Maybe we aren't so clear about that in this country because we have lived in relatively peaceful circumstances for several decades. Here, literature has been put a bit into the corner, something for nice chats by the fireside, something to do in your free time. But words are an elementary part of the way people live together; they are fundamental to freedom and truth. That is what distinguishes us.

Interestingly, a recent report from Reporters Without Borders lists many Northern European countries as the best for press freedom. Where do you think this stems from?

Josef Haslinger (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa)

Josef  Haslinger was PEN Germany's president from 2013 to 2017

That's a good question. I'm not sure. Certainly, it has something to do with prosperity, with stability. Perhaps also with the emancipation of women, who already during the Viking Age were busting things up (laughs). Scandinavian countries are very strongly engaged in PEN worldwide. Perhaps there are many explanations.

You said earlier that we should also have a look at what's happening at our doorstep as well, so let's have a look at the situation in Germany. What dangers do you see threatening freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought?

Freedom of speech is being threatened by people who are using it as a pretence and see themselves as martyrs. At our annual meeting this year, we discussed adopting a resolution on the topic of AfD (Eds.: the Alternative for Germany far-right political party) and right-wing populism, increasing nationalism, even in western democracies, which one might have thought was long past. We're positioning ourselves.

If you were to look at the success of your organization, what would you point to?

Sometimes it's the little things, like when a poet imprisoned in Qatar sends you a poem that he has written for PEN Germany from a jail cell to thank you for your support - a poem which references the Loreley and Heinrich Heine. Sometimes that brings you to tears. And sometimes it's the little successes, when you can help free someone from prison.

Writer Enoh Meyomesse (Photo: DW/M. Dronne)

Enoh Meyomesse, recipient of a stipend from PEN Germany

Or as our stipend recipient Enoh Meyomesse (Eds: A Cameroonian author) said, because of PEN's support, he became a VIP, a Very Important Prisoner, while imprisoned. The humiliation and torture stopped because the prison warden saw that people were watching. They knew they couldn't do anything they wanted to him anymore. Those are individual successes that keep you from lacking courage. Looking at the numbers of writers who are being persecuted, it is easy to sit on the couch, depressed and helpless. Being able to make a difference in individual cases gives you the energy for continued resistance.

As PEN president, you don't have much time left for your own writing, or do you?

There's a bit of a time problem, that's true. But I'm working on a novel. It will just take a bit longer. And will be all the better for it.

 

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