Words Unbound: A Conversation on Free Speech Now and Then

By: ICFJ | 03/11/2022

Journalists often are the first ones in a community looking at the facts of a situation, shaping the narrative  and the first to be jailed by authoritarian governments clamping down, said Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, whose new book, PEN Journeys: Memoir of Literature on the Line, focuses on brave journalists and writers around the world.

“Everywhere always there are writers trying to shape what that narrative is, find the facts, find the truth,” said Leedom-Ackerman, speaking on an ICFJ panel this week.

She was joined by Salil Tripathi, a journalist, writer and former chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, for a special event moderated by ICFJ President Sharon Moshavi. In her new book, Leedom-Ackerman tells the stories of courageous writers and her experience supporting them through PEN International, a global community of writers formed after World War I.

Looking at the places that imprison writers and those that don’t, it becomes clear what divides them, said Leedom-Ackerman, an award-winning author and an ICFJ director. “In authoritarian countries, the state is organized to protect itself from its citizens,” she said. “In democratic societies, the state is organized to protect its citizens.”

Tripathi said he increasingly sees governments that claim to be democracies  and even have laws protecting freedom of speech  cracking down on writers after they speak out.

“This happens in many countries where the countries hold elections, but are not democracies,” said Tripathi. “They have newspapers, without freedom of the press. They have a court, but no rule of law. They have a parliament, but no effective opposition. We’re increasingly going into that area where the functions are taken away but the structures are there, and therefore we confuse those countries to be democracies merely because they hold elections.”

The conversation covered the facets of what it looks like to protect freedom of speech and touched on the themes of private vs. government censorship, separation of the media from the state, the key indicators of “dangerous speech” and hate speech, and the impacts of technology such as social media. At points, the outlook may seem bleak, but Leedom-Ackerman and Tripathi left on a hopeful note, with Tripathi saying despair is not an option. Watch the panel.


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