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PEN International Congress 2015 highlights threats to freedom of speech in Canada

PEN-International-Congress-2015Earlier this week, reports emerged that a trio of Iranian artists had been sentenced to a combined 26 1/2 years in prison, in part for the crime of “insulting sanctities” in the Islamic republic. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Musavi, two poets, and Keywan Karimi, a filmmaker, have been handed a combination of prison terms and lashes after being convicted on various charges stemming from their work and from actions such as shaking hands with unrelated members of the opposite sex.

“None of the poems that were referred to in court include insulting terms, more importantly none of them were related to sanctities,” said Amir Raeisian, the lawyer for Ekhtesari and Musavi. “Yet this is the court’s interpretation.”

RFE/RL also quotes Musavi, who wrote on Instagram, “I hope one day there will be such justice in this country that no one will be sentenced to [a] heavy jail term for writing a poem and being a freedom lover.”

The news of the convictions comes in the same week that PEN International is holding its annual congress, which this year takes place in Quebec City. And while constraints on free expression differ by several orders of magnitude between an oppressive theocracy like Iran and a western democracy such as Canada, the actions of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in recent years have nevertheless sent off warning signs for Canadian observers worried about the curtailment of domestic liberties.

“Much as it pains me as a Canadian,” writes John Ralston Saul, outgoing president of PEN International, “I am obliged … to underline our concerns about the erosion of freedom of expression in Canada.”

A briefing paper, titled “Free Expression in Canada” and put together by PEN International on the occasion of this week’s congress, outlines several areas of concern, including policies that prevent civil servants from speaking publicly or to the media; “excessive use of force by law enforcement officers” during public protests such as the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto and the 2012 student uprising in Quebec; and increased government surveillance by Communications Security Establishment Canada, the organization that monitors digital communication, and under the government’s controversial anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51.

The briefing cites statistics that are indeed cause for misgiving: according to one 2013 survey, 90 per cent of federal scientists felt they “could not speak openly to the media,” and 86 per cent of scientists feared for their jobs if they broke rank. On the subject of access to information, the briefing states, “The Right to Information Rating ranks Canada’s access to information system 59th out of 102 countries that have such laws, based on: right of access, scope, requesting procedures, exceptions, appeals, sanctions, and promotional measures.”

The context for the PEN International Congress could hardly be more pressing. Canada is in the final week of a long and bitter election campaign, during which the subject of the Conservatives’ centralization of information and squashing of dissent has cropped up repeatedly.

An Oct. 14 article in the Toronto Star quotes Frederick Ghahramani, an Iranian-born Vancouver tech entrepreneur who is donating $1 million of his own money to fight Bill C-51: “I find it really sadly ironic that we have Syrian refugees that are running away from a horrible country that treats them horribly, listens in to everything that they do and watches them 100 per cent of the time arriving in Canada at a time when we’re eliminating those very same rights that make us existentially Canadian. … It just feels like I’ve woken up in North Korea and our dear leader has eliminated our rights to think and speak and write and do business in private without government oversight.”

Earlier this week, Mohamed Fahmy, the Canadian journalist recently freed from jail in Egypt, where he had been convicted on terror-related charges, says he felt “betrayed” by the Harper Conservatives’ apparent lack of urgency in trying to secure his release.

Finally, while on the campaign trail in September, the prime minister was forced to defend a 2014 contract, worth $15 billion, that the government entered into to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country that even Harper admits is responsible for “significant” human rights violations.

One of those violations involves the sentencing of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam and running the website Liberal Saudi Network. Badawi is one of three figures represented by empty chairs at the PEN International congress; the other two are imprisoned Eritrean poet Amanuel Asrat and Honduran television correspondent Juan Carlos Argeñal Medina, who was shot to death in 2013. The empty chairs, which are meant to symbolize solidarity with imprisoned and persecuted writers around the globe, are set up in Quebec City’s main square for the duration of the congress.

This year’s PEN International Congress, the 81st such event, features 200 writers, journalists, and intellectuals from 70 countries. It runs through Oct. 16.