Cambridge PEN Launch

MAGGIE BRIDGE is intrigued by Cambridge PEN’s launch

Cambridge PEN free speech Owen Bennet Jones pen

Last night, Clare’s Riley Auditorium played host to the well-attended launch event for Cambridge PEN.

It’s a student-run branch of a global organisation that, as Caius student and committee-member Leanne Baker explains, is concerned with ‘promoting freedom of expression and literature. It embodies the principle of “unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations,” providing both an opportunity for writers to come together and share their work, and a voice to writers who are silenced in their own countries.’

In 2013, figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) showed 211 journalists imprisoned worldwide. Even more recently, a case of three Al-Jazeera journalists detained in Cairo has hit the international press. Guest speaker Owen Bennett Jones, a freelance British journalist and a current host of the BBC World Service Newsnight programme, told us the story of a colleague living and working in Pakistan as a prominent television reporter who, just last week, experienced an attack on his life – one of several assassination attempts that he has survived in recent years.

Bennett Jones’ story brought home the fact that journalists working as foreign correspondents in turbulent areas of the world face many dangers and difficulties in ensuring that the story they want to tell is heard. This can take the form of both overtly government-sanctioned, bureaucratic red tape which stifles and delays stories, or more immediately life-threatening attempts at ensuring a more permanent silence. Bennett Jones, who has reported back from over 60 different countries, clearly has experience with negotiating government attempts to control the press both at home and abroad – but the focus of yesterday’s talk was more relevant to the interests of the aspiring student journalists in the room as we were taken through a comprehensive of list of the UK government’s methods of media control.

Peppered with personal anecdotes, Bennett Jones’ talk took us from the stonewalling tendancies of the UK government’s 1,376 Press Officers, to the ubiquity and effectiveness of the media-training received by all public figures (the skills that keep political sound bites uniformly bland as difficult questions are side-stepped). He also talked about the more ominous US issue of ‘quote approval’ – which means that public figures have the right to see and, crucially, edit any direct quotes from them before they reach publication.

PEN photo

Bennet Jones is PEN-sive about free speech

Setting up the media as a kind of battleground of ‘establishments vs. intrepid journalists’, Bennett Jones emphasised the limits placed on British journalists through libel and privacy laws but was also keen to show that, in spite of this, journalists are far from powerless and still have the ability to disrupt official narratives. This is an encouraging message for the newly-formed Cambridge PEN. Set up only this January, it has already united a group of students from a range of years, colleges and subjects who believe that everyone should have access to the words, opinions and ideas that can change and inspire lives. As Leanne puts it, ‘We, as students, depend on the thoughts of others for our education – what would happen if our ability to read, listen to and respond to those thoughts was snatched away from us? Or if we were silenced so that we could not express our attitudes towards what we are learning, or the ideas it inspires in us? What would the point of education be if all that it led to was students being forced to rehearse the lines dictated to them, never able to speak for themselves?’

As the audience filed out of the talk on the hunt for the free wine, pamphlets containing some recently translated Russian poetry were distributed, showcasing another key aspect of the group’s work: PEN also translates and distributes the works of censored writers from around the world, attempting to give their works the audience that they do not receive in their native countries.

The next PEN event on 8th May will take a more literary turn as the organisation hosts a talk by the exiled writer Hamid Ismailov who will be discussing his experiences of writing literature whilst fighting censorship. If you are interested in getting involved in PEN, contact Jamie Osborn (jo345). No previous skills required, just a passion for literature and freedom of expression.