Authors such as George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison – I could name many more – have given us terrifying portrayals of what can happen to people when their freedom of expression, be it written or spoken, is taken away. The reason that their stories affect people so deeply is likely that the fiction is unnervingly close to the truth. We are only ever a handful of wrong decisions away from seeing the authors’ dystopia become reality. The books they write simultaneously hold up a mirror and sound a warning. They implore us to safeguard our freedom and never take it for granted.
Article 19 of the UN’S Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
This is how we want things to be and how things should be everywhere, but unfortunately reality is not always the way it should be. People are persecuted, threatened, imprisoned and tortured because of the opinions and statements they utter. Regimes try to silence those who write critically. The Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich was recently accused of extremism, while Salman Rushdie was attacked on a stage during a lecture on 12 August. There are many frightening examples.
Uppsala University plays an important role as a counterweight to censorship, ignorance and looking inwards. A congress arranged by PEN is getting under way today. The worldwide association of writers (PEN originally stood for Poets, Essayists, Novelists) aims to promote friendship and intellectual exchange between writers; to emphasise the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world culture; to fight for freedom of expression; and to defend writers who are oppressed, imprisoned and sometimes killed for their views. PEN is also the oldest human rights organisation and the oldest international literary organisation in the world. The congress brings together visitors from across the globe, and I am proud and delighted that we can offer our wonderful premises for the congress as a practical contribution to the defence of democracy and freedom of expression.
I would like to extend a warm welcome PEN and all of its members to Uppsala and our University.