Archive for February, 2014

Spotlight on Sochi

Posted: February 16, 2014 in 2013-14, Campaigns, Letter writing, News

PEN’s international campaign to highlight Russia’s deplorable policies on freedom of expression during the Sochi Winter Olympics has hit the headlines over the past week, and you can read a selection of the coverage below. Closer to home, Oxford Student PEN committee member Nico Hobhouse raised the debate with a brilliant comment piece in the Oxford Student, which you can read here.

PEN’s campaign was also discussed in the Guardian, which featured an open letter organised by PEN International and signed by more than 200 writers – a galaxy of literary stars, including Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Carol Ann Duffy, Wole Soyinka, Paul Auster, and Margaret Atwood – against Putin’s ‘chokehold’ on freedom of expression. The leading Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya wrote, again in the Guardian, about the problems faced by the media in Russia as they seek to question the way the state is working, likening contemporary Russia to something Orwell might have imagined.

PEN’s letter also earned notice from the BBC, the Telegraph and the Moscow Times, among others.



Mandela 1

On Friday 7 February we were delighted to welcome two senior Oxford professors to discuss the achievements and enduring significance of Nelson Mandela. Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature, and William Beinart, Rhodes Professor of Race Relations, brought distinct perspectives to a conversation which touched on the iconicity of Mandela – brilliantly exemplified for us by Professor Boehmer’s props, which included Mandela coasters and a Mandela apron – coverage of his death and funeral, and the likely prospects for South African politics in the future.


With the official opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi tomorrow, Friday 7 February, there is still time to support Out in the Cold, PEN’s international campaign which is highlighting three laws in Russia which seriously curtail freedom of expression.  The laws which PEN would like to see repealed are:

1. The now-infamous gay ‘propaganda’ law which prohibits the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors,’ meaning that any activity that can be construed as promoting the non-heterosexual lifestyle, including the holding of LGBT rallies, or the ‘promotion of denial of traditional family values among minors,’ is now banned. Russian citizens violating this law face being fined; foreigners face deportation.

2. The ‘blasphemy’ law which criminalises ‘religious insult’ and provides punishments of up to three years’ imprisonment or a maximum fine of 500,000 RUB. The law is widely seen as a heavy-handed attempt to deter stunts similar to the one carried out by the feminist punk group Pussy Riot, who performed their ‘punk prayer’ inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February 2012.

3. Defamation, which was re-criminalised in July 2012. Having previously been de-criminalised in 2011 under former President Dmitry Medvedev, it was made a crime once again when Putin returned to the presidency. This law provides cripplingly harsh fines of up to US$153,000 for violations and threatens to push small media outlets into self-censorship for fear of risking financial ruin.

We’ve been writing letters to President Putin and others in our Wednesday campaigning sessions to put pressure on the Russian administration in the run-up to the games, when the world’s attention will be fixed on Sochi. Visit PEN’s website for details of how to write to the Russian authorities yourself. You can also download the striking campaign image and share that on social media to help raise awareness. Crucially, too, you can sign up to PEN’s Thunderclap, which will release all our calls on social media for greater freedom at the very same moment. And let us know what you’re doing! Remember you can contact us any time on Facebook: just search Oxford Student PEN.