International: Protect free speech and expression during COVID-19 outbreak

As COVID-19 spread rapidly around the globe, it has engaged humanity in a fight that has claimed far too many lives against an enemy that appears to indiscriminately target its victims. ‘PEN International mourns the loss of life and expresses its solidarity with families, loved ones and friends,’ said Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International. She added that ‘While the virus is ruthlessly arbitrary, we are particularly concerned that some groups find themselves more at risk than others, including those who are at the core of our work.’

PEN International advocates for the release of writers who are detained in violation of their right to freedom of expression. The Coronavirus outbreak has made their freedom more critical than ever, as people deprived of their liberty are likely to be more vulnerable to the disease. In this time of crisis, they are moreover especially at risk of human rights violations, including denial of necessary medical care. PEN International reiterates its call on all Governments to immediately and unconditionally release all writers imprisoned for the legitimate expression of their views.

PEN International also engages in protection work for writers who face forced displacement as a consequence of persecution. For many, the outbreak of the pandemic has exacerbated the precariousness of their situation. Some are without basic needs of shelter and security and are at a heightened risk of contracting the disease or developing serious complications. Others face increased challenges in their host countries: in many places, discrimination, intolerance and hate speech are on the rise, as heightened fear and economic uncertainty have spread in tandem with the virus. Meanwhile, for some exiled writers the absence of the familiar networks of home may become even more acute.

In their response to this crisis, some governments have resorted to measures that undermine and unduly restrict human rights, including the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression, information, association and assembly, beyond what is permissible under international law, in an attempt to instrumentalise the situation to quell dissenting voices and crack down on independent journalism including critical reporting on the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. A free press, moreover, has proven key to an effective response to the health crisis, in light of its indispensable role in enabling access to information and promoting transparency. Accordingly, while acknowledging that the challenges are formidable, PEN International recalls that in accordance with states’ international obligations, restrictions on human rights imposed in times of emergency must meet the criteria of legality, necessity and proportionality, must not be arbitrary or discriminatory, and must be time limited and subject to regular review. During this time, PEN International remains committed to working for changes in law and policy that serve to advance the protection and promotion of the rights to freedom of expression and information.

Jennifer Clement said: ‘We continue to believe in the power of free speech to inform and transform society. In a time of physical distancing, literature and storytelling can connect us, by giving expression to complex emotions and helping to build a shared understanding.’