By John Ralston Saul, Special to the Globe and Mail, February 3, 2012
John Ralston Saul is the president of PEN International.
International PEN, based in London, has 144 chapters globally, representing 18,000 writers around the world. Its responsibilities include lobbying for the release of writers who have been imprisoned or exiled for their views.
Out there on the front line, it is always hard to know where power lies. When writers are being killed, it often seems as if violence is the real power. Governments and businessmen now like to say prosperity leads to democracy. How is it then that the worst violence in Mexico is in the most prosperous states?
This past week, we made a serious attempt to remind everyone that freedom of expression is the greatest power – the muscle of democracy. It began with a full page in the newspaper El Universal – a letter to Mexican writers signed by 170 writers around the world – many Nobel Prize winners and all the ex-presidents of PEN. The message was simple: This situation can't be swept into the silent corners. The news is spreading around the world – something is seriously wrong in Mexico. Here is a great civilization that is in trouble.
Virtually all the grassroots organizations and non-governmental organizations working on human rights and free expression came together to advise us on the situation. It isn't an exaggeration to say they see no signs of change or improvement. As Jennifer Clement, president of PEN Mexico, put it on Sunday, words have been “reduced to rags to cover corpses.” That doesn't mean the authorities are doing nothing. The Attorney-General's Office received us with about 20 officials, including the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, Gustavo Salas. Here you see the intelligence and sophistication of the Mexican elite. This situation of a virtual civil war is humiliating for them. They are trying to reform a legal system that was designed for what Mario Vargas Llosa called the perfect dictatorship – sequential dictators, each with a six-year term. Since 2000, there has been a choice in presidential elections and the legal structures are being slowly dragged into the real world of transparency and responsibility. The special prosecutor gave a formal recounting of what they were doing. But when you ask simple questions – How many indictments? How many convictions? – the answer is none or almost none. Why?
Because the legal pieces aren't in place. We established this with a study done for PEN by the University of Toronto's Law Faculty Human Rights Program. The special prosecutor doesn't have the powers to do his job. The federal system gets in the way. Much of the power lies in the states, many of which are incapacitated by corruption. The federal judges could take over many cases at the request of the federal government. They refuse. Why?
The primary responsibility of the state is the well-being of citizens. And, in this case, the state is not fulfilling its obligation.
These issues of violence against freedom of expression can be dealt with only through free expression. The public must understand and be engaged. Many of Mexico's leaders and public servants are devoting their lives to changing this situation, but they are uncomfortable with the idea of rallying the public to the cause. They are embarrassed by their lack of success so far.
And that raises another key problem. The Mexican government is fixated on its war against organized crime. Good guys against bad guys. This does not represent reality. When a serious part of the state – elements of the police, the army, the state governments, the political parties and so on – is corrupt, there can be no clear war. The two sides are integrated in a way that can only block those who want reform.
As Jennifer Clement, president of PEN Mexico, put it on Sunday, words have been “reduced to rags to cover corpses.”
This quote taken from the piece above written by Mr. Saul is a warning flag to all political leaders about their, and hence their public's, use of the language to "cover" their sins both of commission and of omission.
Certainly, the Saul piece is about the freedom of expression and its place in the upcoming Mexican elections. Bringing hundreds of internationally acclaimed writers to Mexico to focus attention on this core issue, in a state wracked by violence on many fronts, will certainly help bring the attention of the voter to the need for freedom of expression if any state is to function responsibly in both transparency and accountability.
Yesterday, on CBC's Power and Politics, host Rosemary Barton had to "dance" with the Ministers of the Environment of both the federal and Alberta governments over their joint press statement about the increased monitoring of the oilsands project, the release of the date to independent scientists and the positive impact these moves would have on the reputation of both Canada and the project at home and internationally.
However, missing from the announcement, were the words, "independent agency" to manage the monitoring system. Funded by both the governments and the industry, the data that will be released for study is controlled by those two groups working together.
Do you think for a moment, for example, that a significant negative report on the impact of the oilsand project would ever be released for public examination, including media scrutiny? Not a chance!
Do you think for a moment that Ms Barton was unaware of that signficant piece of omitted information? Not a chance!
Do you think that the political talking heads were uncomfortable knowning the emptiness of their announcement? Of course.
Words were, once again, being used as camouflage for the toxic pollutants that are being emitted into the Athabaska River, into the soil and into the air...and yet the monitoring system was at the centre of the announcement.
It is the writers whose task is to tell the truth, in the most imaginative and entertaining and compelling manner in all cultures everywhere, letting their sparks of 'trulight' fall in the darkness of the public's unconsciousness.
Writers must pull back the curtain of secrecy which is often the curtain of power and make those whose stories are repressed come to the light of day, if any culture is to function responsibly for its people.
Was Dudley George killed in Ipperwash Provincial Park on Lake Huron on "orders" from the then premier, Mike Harris? There will be writers who dig into the evidence of that story for at least the next century, as they should and must.
To what extent is the government of President Assad responsible for the killing of perhaps thousands of its people, in a vain attempt to hold on to power? This question will not only plague reporters on the scene, but also writers over the next decades who seek to find more and more of the indisclosed truth.
Are words becoming missiles in the rising temperature of the rhetoric that is bouncing from Teheran to Washington, to Tel Aviv and back again? Is this a prelude to a war? Or are words serving as surrogates?
When the flow of information is repressed, the work of the writer begins. S/He wants to know the source, the motive and the reasons for the obstruction and will go to what could be seen as "extreme" lengths to find out and to make it public.
And when the writers' pens are locked in the false security of the vault of any society, and their rightful owners are silenced through discrediting of their reputation, or through some form of political threat and intimidation, or even through their murder including the treat of murder (as in the case of Salmon Rushdie), then the whole world must bring the spotlight of public scrutiny to those situations, in order to preserve the right of the writer to do the work s/he must do.
Solutions to problems at any level begin with a clear understanding of the complexities of those situations.
Without the fullness, no matter how uncomfortable, of that truth and its accompanying understanding, there can be no full address of the problem, no clear definition, no clear options for redress and no clear plan of action.
Leadership, in all situations, depends on the whole story, with all it nuances, variables and complexities and that requires a writer's eye, ear, mind and spirit, not to mention imagination, to bring the story to life...and that is why most of the people running around with "recipes" for change are failing their clients, because they are focusing on only a small and manageable and publicly observable part of the story...the numbers on the balance sheet, or the numbers on the "personality test" for hiring...
These are some of the most abusive tactics and strategies for sale in the public marketplace offered by charlatans who have deduced that they can and will seduce others to buy their "fix" and both governments and corporations pay handsomely for their useless and simplistic approaches, often under a marketing rubric that looks good as an ad but will not integrate the complexities of either the people or the circumstances they are trying to fix.
Not only must words never be reduced to "rags to cover corpses;" they must never be used to deflect the public eye from the real story that is going on behind closed doors, in all countries. That is why the writer is and will always be the conscience of the culture, the burr in the shoes of leaders, and the rogue in the halls of