Freedom to Write

About Freedom To Write

“I’ve often envied those writers in the Western world who can peacefully practice their craft and earn a living thereby… What [the authorities here] cannot stand is that a writer should give voice to the voiceless or organize them for action. In short, they do not want literature on the streets!”

 - KEN SARO WIWA, written to PEN USA from his prison cell in Nigeria shortly before his execution.

Since 1921, International PEN has championed freedom of expression and defended writers of conscience. PEN members were influential in crafting Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression… and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” PEN holds Category A status at UNESCO and consultative status with the United Nations, where the organization lobbies on behalf of writers who are harassed, imprisoned, and murdered for the peaceful expression of their views.

As a member of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, PEN USA works to secure the release and to support the families of writers of conscience around the world. Members visit their colleagues in jail in other parts of the world and hand deliver aid in the form of letters and financial assistance whenever possible. With public events and over the Internet, members raise awareness about freedom of expression abroad while working to protect the First Amendment at home.

PEN USA’s Freedom to Write Committee, made up of more than 200 volunteer writers, seeks to create a broader American consensus in favor of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.


Honorary Members

PEN USA’s Freedom to Write Committee carries out campaigns on behalf of eighty specially selected writers who are long-term prisoners of conscience. Each honorary member has several “minders” who work diligently, sometimes for years, on his/her case. Minders write letters to foreign governments and diplomatic representatives, communicate with and provide vital support to the honorary member and his/her family, and encourage American officials to implement sound policy

that represents the United States’ commitment to freedom of expression. In recent years, PEN USA has helped with the release of Xu Wenli and Wei Jengsheng of China, Russian journalist, Grigory Pasko, and Flora Brovina of Serbia.

Emergency Actions

As a member of the Rapid Action Network of International PEN, the PEN USA Freedom to Write Committee receives and responds immediately to reports of arrests, attacks, and threats to more than 900 writers currently at risk around the world. Alerts are issued from International PEN via email to committee members, who then write letters of appeal to appropriate officials. Each year PEN USA’s efforts result in the release of dozens of writers worldwide. Recently released writers

include Julia Ceclia Delgado of Cuba, Tamrat Zuma of Ethiopia and Esber Yagmurdereli of Turkey.

First Amendment Action Committee

The First Amendment Action Committee responds to assaults on free speech within American borders. Research is done and alerts are issued solely by the Freedom to Write Committee and are then sent out to members of the First Amendment Action Committee so they are able to respond to such concerns. The Committee is currently investigating and protesting the silencing of the press, violations of academic freedom, restrictions on the Internet, and measures to curb the exchange of ideas within the United States.

Country and Regional Initiatives

PEN USA’s Freedom to Write Committee seeks to spotlight ongoing dangers and disturbing new trends in the suppression of expression. We do this by investigating and reporting on regional and country-specific problems. Past efforts include the Nigeria Initiative, aimed at publicizing the link between oil politics and the silencing of dissent in Nigeria, and a coordinated campaign to end violent attacks against journalists in Latin America.  

“Clear and Present Danger”

PEN USA’s radio program focuses on First Amendment issues at home and abroad. The pilot program, featuring Gloria Steinem and civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, debuted before independent broadcasters in April, 2002. The program airing via Pacifica radio network as a segment of “PeaceWatch” is available through streaming audio at Past interviews include Daniel Ellsberg, Dr. Helen Caldicott, Greg Palast, Robert Fisk and Noam Chomsky.

Freedom to Write Awards/Freedom to Write Fund

Each year PEN USA presents Freedom to Write and First Amendment Awards to individuals and organizations that have produced notable work in the face of extreme adversity or demonstrated exceptional courage in the defense of free expression. The awards are presented each fall at PEN USA’s annual Literary Awards Festival. Funds are collected from our members for the purpose of helping other writers or their families for lawyer’s fees, bail or medical needs. Recent

honorees include Cuban dissident Raul Rivero, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association, and the American Library Association.