(Below is my talk for the Gathering in Istanbul for Freedom of Expression, a conference held every two years, but this year it is being held via video May 26-27. For the first time in 21 years the organizers judged that a gathering in person was too problematic given the arrests and crackdowns on the media. Turkish presidential elections are scheduled for June 24 alongside parliamentary elections.)

I first visited Turkey for the inaugural “Gathering in Istanbul” in March, 1997.  At the time I was Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee and joined 21 other writers from around the world. Along with over a thousand Turkish artists and writers, most of us had signed on to be “publishers” for Freedom of Thought, a book that re-issued writings which had violated Turkey’s laws against “insulting the State.” The book included work by noted authors, including celebrated novelist Yasar Kemal. None of us aspired to go to Turkish prison, but we understood the importance of showing up and showing solidarity with our Turkish colleagues. During that Gathering we visited prisons where writers and publishers were incarcerated and visited court rooms where they were charged.

Inaugural “Gathering in Istanbul” March 1997

In the subsequent decade, conditions for writers in Turkey improved. An amnesty released writers from prison; oppressive legislation was rescinded though new laws replaced old articles in the penal code. But the climate opened. We all took hope that Turkey might signal an opening of consciousness and an easing of political and legal constraints globally.

Unfortunately, that opening has closed, and we are here today on video because the biennial ‘Gathering in Istanbul’ for the first time in 21 years is too problematic to hold in Istanbul. The situation for freedom of expression is worse than ever in Turkey with more writers in prison than anywhere else in the world. Depending on the statistics of the day, there are more than 250 journalists and media workers in or facing prison terms, 200 media outlets closed, and thousands of academics and civil servants let go or facing charges.

Yet we are here, even if on video. And the organizers remain steadfast in Turkey. I take heart in the commitment of individuals who understand that freedom of expression is central to a free society and work towards that end.

For this “Gathering in Istanbul” it was suggested we look at “Freedom of Expression Around the World,” not just in Turkey. My general observation is that the world is reversing direction from those days 20 years ago when many thought authoritarianism was yielding globally to democracy and freedom.

The situation in my own country, the United States., is as fraught as it has ever been in my lifetime in the relationship between the government and the media, but the press is protected by the U.S. Constitution, laws, history and society. The majority of U.S. citizens still remain committed to protect freedom of expression and to remain vigilant though sometimes I fear we are preoccupied with our own challenges to the exclusion of more dire challenges to free expression around the world. I also fear we have lost credibility and impact when speaking out on these issues. Yet as an American, I can hold vigils in front of prisons, sit in courtrooms, write articles and books, meet Ministers, and then return home. I’m able to write and to speak out without being threatened with imprisonment or death.

I’d like to focus the rest of my talk on the courageous writers in the Democracy Movement in China, especially after the death of Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace laureate who died last July in prison after serving nine years of an eleven-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” because of his participation in the drafting and circulating of Charter 08.  I have the privilege of being an editor for the English-language edition of The Memorial Collection of Liu Xiaobo. The collection includes writings from dozens of Liu’s colleagues inside and outside China, who knew him and pay tribute to the man, his ideas and to the consequential voice he had in articulating and taking action on behalf of a free society.

One of the authors of Charter ’08, a document signed by hundreds of Chinese writers, intellectuals and citizens, Liu Xiaobo and others set out a democratic vision and path for China, using rule of law and consensus, not weapons and violence. It is individuals like Liu Xiaobo and his fellow Chinese writers and thinkers, who one hopes will eventually prevail.  Like the writers and thinkers in Turkey, they are committed to ideas, to the rule of just laws and to nonviolent means to bring about change and wrest society from tyrannical modes.

Liu Xiaobo understood that a free society begins with the individual consciousness.  In his Final Statement “I Have No Enemies” he addressed the court:

“Hatred only eats away at a person’s intelligence and conscience, and an enemy mentality can poison the spirit of an entire people. It can lead to cruel and lethal internecine combat, can destroy tolerance and human feeling within a society, and can block the progress of a nation toward freedom and democracy. For these reasons I hope that I can rise above my personal fate and contribute to progress of our country to changes in our society. I hope that I can answer the regime’s enmity with utmost benevolence, and can use love to dissipate hate.”

Such sentiment was difficult for many to accept, especially after he died. Many questioned whether he would have expressed the same sentiments had he known his end. I’ve been assured by those who knew him well that he would have stood by this statement. His commitment was rooted in his view of himself and of what it would take to change society.

A longtime colleague Cui Weiping has observed that Liu Xiaobo “…viewed the world through boundaries of his own making. Whatever he wouldn’t allow into his life, he was also unwilling to allow into the world. For instance, if he didn’t have violent tendencies in his own life, he would not let the behavior of others impose on him. If he valued freedom and autonomy, he would not become mired in hatred because of the crimes of others, since hateful people were dominated by the other side. If he experienced the good things and positive feelings of human life, he knew all the more that he must allow what was good and open to take root in himself and not what was biased and narrow-minded. His life was oriented toward love and light, not toward hatred and darkness. This was his own decision and what he was willing to take upon himself; every person writes his own history. Other people could choose to go along with Xiaobo or advance alongside of him, but there was no need to feel that this was his error or flaw that must be corrected or surmounted. Twenty years passed like a day, and he was a trailblazer for people who insisted on their own ideas. China lacks trailblazers like Xiaobo, and that is what allowed him to become a standard-bearer for the Chinese Democracy Movement and gain the widespread endorsement of the international community.”

A small number of Chinese writers drafted Charter 08, thousands of citizens have signed it, but only one went to prison and died.

No one knows and few can predict the success of Charter 08’s vision and the ultimate impact of Liu Xiaobo, but history has a long arc and may well bend to those who see our common humanity and the universal value of freedom for the individual. By focusing on the individual’s responsibility for his own behavior and consciousness, Liu offered the tools to empower all, for no government has the mandate over one’s individual consciousness. There the individual sets his or her own terms of engagement with the world.

In reading the essays of the many Chinese writers who knew and admired Liu Xiaobo and his vision, I also think of Turkish writers and artists I have had the privilege to know over the years who continue to work towards a free society.

The two countries and circumstances are different, and many would say Turkey is not as extreme as China, but in all the years I have been working with PEN, it was Turkey and China which placed the most writers under pressure. In China the sentences were often longer and harsher, but the numbers were greater in Turkey. But in both nations the individual voices of writers, publishers and artists continue to inspire.