THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File

Barbara Kay: PEN International’s criticism of Harper hypocritical considering its own omission

PEN International has traditionally protected writers who faced state sanctions for their work; now they're devoted to partisan demagoguery while ignoring real threats.

PEN International, the association mandated to support freedom of expression for writers, recently held its 81st annual congress in Quebec City. Every year the organization sums up the prevailing state of liberty of expression in the country in which the congress is held. Thus, this year the country under scrutiny was Canada. 

According to a report released Tuesday, the organization is concerned about “the erosion of the right to express oneself freely” in Canada. PEN International is not happy with Stephen Harper. Its report accuses the Harper government of being responsible for repression of freedom of expression in Canada, citing a breakdown in the right to demonstrate freely, as for example in the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto and in the 2012 Quebec student protests. The 20-page report also critiques the “gagging” of communications civil servants with regard to climate change, and as well the “sprawling surveillance programs” Canada shares with the Nationals Security Agency in the U.S.

Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, Saul’s wife, also chimed in, scolding Canada’s government for its lack of transparency, citing a 1982 access-to-information law, at the time “revolutionary,” as today “en retard,” with Canada occupying 59th place of 102 countries with similar provisions.


That the report, so highly critical of the Harper government, comes out only days before the election – surely a week’s delay would not have altered its import! – is not technically impermissible, but the motivation seems rather suspect, given that Saul wrote: “It is for Canadian citizens to decide if they think that the limitations to their freedom of expression are acceptable or not. And if they think, and I hope that they think, that they are unacceptable, then they will act [in consequence].”

Well gee, John, don’t be shy. Tell us how you really think we should vote! (Sarcasm) 

To state the obvious, I think it takes more than a little hutzpah for what should be a non-partisan organization to roll out a damning report on a government’s freedom-of-speech record 6 days away from a federal election. I am not arguing that their concerns are invalid. But in the timing of the report, and Saul’s framing of its conclusions, this is a pretty direct plea to defeat the government. Not kosher.

If hutzpah in political partisanship was PEN International’s only sin in this report, I would not have been motivated to write about it. But what’s worse than hutzpah is double standards in regard to PEN’s own mission.  The report totally ignores the gravest threat to freedom of expression in Canada today, happening literally in front of delegates’ noses in Quebec City. To wit: Why was there no mention of Bill 59, now in progress toward passage into law?  

 Bill 59 would effectively turn Internet-based criticism of Islam or Islamic customs or Shariah law into a crime. Under Bill 59, a lawsuit could be initiated by any individual who feels offended by a statement that he or she believes promotes “fear of the other.” A website like, scrupulously annotated, which exists solely to expose networks of anti-western Islamism, and whose work is helpful to CSIS,  could be shut down under this law, and its director punished with outrageous fines. I write frequently about honour codes in Islamic regions that mandate severe punishments for girls and women whose mode of dress or behaviour allegedly shames their families. The fact that what I have written is “true” and “in the public interest” would not be grounds for my defence under Bill 59, as it is under the actual laws of defamation. Even my frequent critiques of the niqab could, under Bill 59, be considered Islamophobic, in fact are considered Islamophobic by many people (they write and tell me so; any of them could bring a lawsuit against me under Bill 59).

Read & Debate

(--image--) Find
Full Comment on Facebook

Beside Bill 59, the other worrisome erosions of free speech in Canada pale to insignificance. How could PEN International ignore such an egregious proposed crime against free expression, a bill which was inspired by UN resolutions 16/18, initiatives of the 56 Islamic states that comprise the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to suppress hate speech, which they equate with criticism of Islam? The omission is no accident: The Quebec chapter of PEN has no mention of Bill 59 on its site; nor, in the July letter of PEN International president John Ralston Saul, is there any mention of Bill 59; and in the search engine for PEN Quebec – key words “projet de loi 59, 59, consultations,” etc – I found no mention of Bill 59. 

Is this the same PEN International that stood shoulder to shoulder with Salman Rushdie, when a 1989 fatwa was issued against him for alleged blasphemy against Islam in his fictional writing? Apparently not. If they are not going to condemn Bill 59 – in my interpretation because they fear being accused of Islamophobia themselves by certain of their member countries – then they can save their indignation on the other issues to cool their soup. This report may contain many legitimate criticisms, but its open partisanship and the huge Bill 59 lacuna in its report tarnish its credibility.