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November 15 marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. DW spoke to Ralf Nestmeyer, Vice President of PEN Germany. Nestmeyer says there is little to feel optimistic about.
DW: Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, but it is being curtailed in many countries. Is this a global trend?
Ralf Nestmeyer: Well it's definitely not getting better. The situation is just as bad now in many countries as in the past few years. In other rankings there is some change. Turkey has gotten much worse in the last three - four years, and remains in this worse position. It's well known that lots of journalists and authors in Turkey are in prison. Such familiar names as Ahmet Altan, who's also a member of the German PEN center, has been sitting behind bars for the last 1,500 days.
How easy is it to assess the situation of writers and artists worldwide?
There are several possibilities. One is the so-called case list from PEN. It's published every year. It documents cases where writers have been arrested or placed under other restrictions. But there are plenty of other cases where we just don't know anything. One example is China which in many ways is just a big black hole. There are whole regions, such as that of the Uighurs, but also in Tibet and in Mongolia, where they are trying to bring the local culture into line. And so authors who try to publish works in their local language face real constraints.
What does the repression look like?
It depends on the region. It's really bad in South and Central America, Mexico, for example. Organizations there always say we have no writers in prison, we have writers in graves, since unpopular reporters are often simply killed. Six writers last year alone. The cases are quite different in somewhere like Eritrea where people are thrown in jail for decades and nobody hears from them. There are several journalists and authors, around 12 to 14, I don't know the exact figure.
What role does Germany play in terms of offering protection to those facing threats and persecution?
Germany plays a pretty important role, I think. We have the program "Writers in Exile." That was founded in 2000 by the then culture minister, Michael Naumann, to repay a debt of gratitude for earlier writers who were taken in by other countries after having to flee Germany in 1933. So we now take in journalists from around the world who are under threat. There are currently 12 authors who are enjoying this scholarship program. They are supervised by the German PEN center. We help them with their papers and such. But they also of course get financial support and a furnished apartment. The money is provided by the German culture ministry.
PEN sees itself explicitly as a non-political organization.
Yes and no. Literature is important, but for us it's also about politics. That's why the Writer-in-Prison program was started in 1960. Then, during the era of the iron curtain it was about protecting authors in eastern Europe and Russia. Since 1980, there has also been Writers-in-Prison Day, which every year on November 15 shines a light on five authors around the world. That has the effect that more is reported about them.
To what extent is it even possible to enact political pressure on these countries? And what does it mean for these people in prison when they're given this attention?
That has a very positive effect on people in prison. We had someone from Cameroon as part of our program. He had been in jail there. He received so much post while in jail because we also get our members to write to imprisoned authors. He said he ended up being a VIP in jail, that's to say a very important prisoner. He was then treated differently because the authorities also saw that he was receiving a lot of attention.
Do you ever feel like you're fighting unwinnable battle?
Yeah, you need to have a thick skin. There is, I believe, no light at the end of the tunnel for now. But on the other hand, you always get a positive sense of affirmation when a prominent author is released or we were able to help them. So there are positive things for sure, but there are of course also many negative cases.
The interview was carried out by Andrea Horakh.