2021 Chair’s Reflection

Image Credit: Leah Jing McIntosh

As you all know, PEN Perth exists to support and strengthen the responsible freedom of expression. In the current historical moment, that matters more than ever.

At home, there are trials on defamation with Ben Roberts-Smith, Christian Porter and John Barilaro. Defamation is currently being weaponised by political figures to help silence dissent and avoid scrutiny. That issue has been covered by the media, but it also is cause for activist concern. It contributes to an atmosphere of fear that affects all citizens. It is a cop inside your head that tells you to be quiet when injustice is everywhere. That extends to Indigenous language sovereignty, fair access to education during lockdown, and to the rights of journalists to protect witnesses.

When we look beyond our shores, there are current concerns for our region, just like Chris Lin shared and there are concerns for our citizens. The former includes authoritarian regimes founded in violence that suppress freedom of expression. Many of whom have exploited the COVID situation to further entrench their power be that in Myanmar, India and Hong Kong. Australians are also caught up in this, most especially Yang Hengjun and Chau Van Kham, who both remain imprisoned in China and Vietnam respectively. We need to work for their freedom and secure their release just like we did for Kylie Moore-Gilbert and Peter Greste.

All of this leads to a reflection on what freedom of expression actually is. Many public opinion makers hide behind a false definition of this, use it as a way to kiss up and kick down, making vile, incendiary and inaccurate claims, especially against the marginalised. Freedom of expression does not mean you get to say what you want, especially not hate speech. It means respecting the rights and needs of others while speaking a truth for you, one that is grounded in reality and dialogue and data. To remember that freedom of expression is something to protect and enshrine also means being aware that it is something to be defined. It is a responsibility most of all. 

—Robert Wood

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