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A New Report from PEN America Warns: Epidemic of “Fake News” Poses Looming Threat to Free Expression


The spread of “fake news” is reaching a crisis point, PEN America warns in its new report,  Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth. The comprehensive, 100+-page report evaluates the array of strategies that Facebook, Google, Twitter, newsrooms, and civil society are undertaking to address the problem, stressing solutions that empower news consumers while vigilantly avoiding new infringements on free speech.

Coming from the leading US free expression organization, the PEN America report argues that even though most “fake news” is protected by the First Amendment, its proliferation creates a flood of disinformation that imperils open expression writ large and demands a concerted response.

“Fake news is mendacious publication gone viral in the digital age,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, citing the organization’s 1948 Charter which commits PEN to “oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.”

“That most fraudulent news may be protected by the First Amendment doesn’t mean it isn’t corroding our discourse and, ultimately, our democracy,” said Nossel. “When the public loses its bearings in terms of what’s true or false, it shakes the foundations that make freedom of speech valuable.”

Faking News rates the range of fact-checking, algorithmic, educational and standards-based approaches being taken to counter the proliferation of fake news.  The report identifies sound methods that merit investment, and sounds a warning bell for tactics that risk suppressing controversial speech, such as giving government new powers to regulate or calling on social media companies to block specific content entirely.

The report comes out as tech giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter are being called to Capitol Hill to testify about how their companies’ platforms and technologies were used by Russian actors in an effort to sway the 2016 presidential election. Arguing that these companies—which are many Americans’ primary channels for news consumption—must play a critical and transparent role in curbing the spread of false news, the report spells out a series of specific strategies that center on empowering news consumers with access to fact-checking initiatives and news literacy programs.

In Faking News, PEN America also sets out a News Consumers Bill of Rights and Responsibilities outlining what consumers should expect from the outlets and social media platforms that convey news and how they can protect themselves and others.

In addition to the report, PEN America will host a public panel discussion about “fake news” on October 13 at the Newseum in Washington, featuring Nossel, NPR Editorial Director Michael Oreskes, executive director of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center Lata Nott, media critic Rem Rieder, and George Stanley, award-winning editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Newseum’s Gene Policinski.

The report is available here.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. The organization champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible

500 Organizations Worldwide Collaborate to Provide Lifesaving Services to Artists at Risk


Livestream happening at 6 pm Eastern tonight.

Ai Wei Wei 2008 courtesy of Andy Miah under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Artists at Risk Connection launches today in tandem with a public event in New York featuring one of the world’s most prominent threatened artists, Ai Weiwei. Ai, who will be in conversation with author and PEN America President Andrew Solomon, was detained in China without charge for 81 days during 2011 and later denied his passport to travel. The event will be streamed live online at 6pm (Eastern) at PEN.org Livestream.


“Fats was starting to think that if you flipped every bit of received wisdom on its head you would have the truth. He wanted to journey through dark labyrinths and wrestle with the strangeness that lurked within; he wanted to crack open piety and expose hypocrisy; he wanted to break taboos and squeeze wisdom from their bloody hearts; he wanted to achieve a state of amoral grace, and be baptised backwards into ignorance and simplicity.”
― J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy


PEN America announced today the launch of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), an online collaboration of more than 500 global organizations that provide life-saving resources to artists worldwide who face oppression, persecution, arrest, and violence for their creative work.

Recent reported threats against New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the cancellation of a major planned work from the Louvre in Paris, and the withdrawal of a major film from Russian theatres offer stark reminders of the hotly contested terrain that artists occupy. There were more than a thousand attacks on artists in 2016, according to the Copenhagen-based Freemuse—more than double the prior year. While hundreds of organizations offer assistance to imperiled artists, ARC is a first-of-its-kind platform bringing all of these resources together in a single online hub, accessible in 104 languages.

“Artist face backlash when they push up against intellectual, social, and ideological boundaries,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America. “While global campaigns and U.N. resolutions have been mounted to protect journalists and human rights defenders, threats to artists have gotten limited international attention. The Artist at Risk Connection brings together an extraordinary network of global organizations committed to augmenting the assistance available to artists who risk their freedom and their lives in the name of creative expression.”

ARC collates resources—including emergency funding, housing opportunities, residencies, fellowships and grants, and legal, immigration, and resettlement services—in an interactive online catalogue to help threatened artists quickly identify programs for which they’re eligible. This exhaustive database is the first of its kind for artists-at-risk, who have typically had to piece together assistance through a combination of personal contacts, referrals, and web searches, often under dire circumstances.

ARC also provides training and facilitates collaboration within a network of artist assistance organizations, including Index on Censorship (United Kingdom), ICORN (Norway), Al Mawred (Lebanon), and the Sundance Institute (United States), to strengthen each organization’s ability to provide comprehensive support to artists in dire need. Over time, ARC will work to elevate the visibility of artists at risk, seeking to mobilize an even greater breadth global arts institutions to play a more prominent role in assisting their field’s most vulnerable.

“At-risk artists often operate in the shadows, striving to continue to work amid pressures and dangers to their livelihoods and safety,” said Julie Trébault, Director of the Artist at Risk Connection. “Given the central role of the arts in society and culture, those who pay the heaviest price for their contributions need and deserve greater support and recognition for their sacrifices.”

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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The Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) safeguards the right to artistic freedom of expression and ensures that artists everywhere can live and work without fear. An interactive hub to gather, share, and coordinate the many resources, services, and forms of assistance available to artists at risk, ARC aims to strengthen connections between threatened artists and the organizations that support them.

Cambodian Government attempts to control discussion about next year’s elections

Cambodian Natonal Assembly

PEN America’s Freedom to Write program drew our attention late last month to the Cambodian government’s efforts to shut down several news outlets saying this represents a clear attempt to stifle a free press in advance of the 2018 elections.  IFEX, an international network of organizations committed to the defence and promotion of freedom of expression as a human right, calls for solidarity in the face of the Cambodian government’s crackdowns on independent media and civil society.

Cambodia, located in the Southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula, has a population of over 15 million. The country’s minority groups include Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams, and thirty hill tribes.The capital and largest city is Phnom Penh, the political, economic, and cultural centre of Cambodia.

The kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with Norodom Sihamoni, a monarch chosen by the Royal Throne Council, as head of state. He was also an ambassador to UNESCO. The head of government is Hun Sen, who is currently the longest serving non-royal leader in South East Asia and has ruled Cambodia for over thirty years.

Cambodia faces many challenges including widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, lack of political freedoms, low human development, and a high rate of hunger. The country has been described by Human Rights Watch’s Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.”

Rooms of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum contain thousands of photos taken by the Khmer Rouge of their victims.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has been in power since 1985. His rule has relied on security force violence and politically motivated persecution of opposition members, activists, and human rights workers. Security forces commit killings and torture with impunity. Authorities regularly restrict the right to peaceful assembly by suppressing protests and banning nonviolent gatherings and processions. The politically powerful have carried out forced evictions and illegal land grabs for decades. Government officials and judges are mired in corruption. Garment industry workers, primarily women, are subject to sexual discrimination and other rights abuses.” MORE

Reports are that The Voice of Democracy and Moha Nokor Radio, both independent radio stations, were ordered by the Ministry of Information to close. The Voice of Democracy, a Khmer-language station, is affiliated with the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, an independent media organization. Maha Nokor, which also broadcasts in Khmer, is seen as one of the few outlets where opposition media parties can share their message.

The Cambodian Flag

The Cambodian government’s Finance Ministry recently accused two U.S.-funded independent media outlets, Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, of failing to register with the country’s tax officials and of operating without official media licenses.  Apparently both programs have operated within Cambodia for years.

Another major media outlet, Cambodia Daily, was accused by the Finance Ministry of failing to pay $6.3 million in taxes, an accusation which the Daily contends is politically motivated. Failure to pay the tax, the Ministry declared, may result in the newspaper’s closure. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen made remarks in favor of shutting down the newspaper if they fail to pay, and the Ministry of Information has refused to renew the Daily’s media license until the disputed bill is resolved. The Cambodia Daily, which has operated since 1993, is one of only three English-language newspapers within Cambodia and as such serves as a vital voice of news from Cambodia for the international community.

“These closures and threatened closures are an attempt by Hun Sen’s government to shut down media outlets that it believes may criticize them in the run-up to the 2018 Cambodian elections,” said James Tager, Senior Program Manager of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “Press freedom and media diversity are not political chess pieces to be removed when convenient; they are underpinnings of a democratic society. PEN America calls on the Cambodian government to cease its attempts to shutter Cambodia Daily, The Voice of Democracy, and other media outlets, and to respect press freedom and diverse media voices.”

A number of human rights groups have been accused of not paying appropriate taxes to the government after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an investigation into the tax payments of NGOs registered in Cambodia. On August 23, the Foreign Affairs Ministry ordered the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based NGO that works to support and foster democratic institutions, to cease its operations in the country. The Ministry, alleging that the Institute had failed to meet registration requirements under the country’s Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, also ordered the NGO’s international staff to exit the country within a week.

Then Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Hun Sen, the 34th Prime Minister of Cambodia (2016), in an effort to encourage unity among the Asian Pacific nations with regard to the South China Sea.

This feature is complied primarily courtesy of PEN America, Reuters, IFEX, Human Rights Watch and Wikipedia. Photo credits: the Cambodian National Assembly by Io Herodotus under CC BY-SA 4.0; Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is in the public domain; drawing of the Cambodian Flag under CC0; Kerry and Hun Sen by the U.S. Department of State and therefore in the public domain.


PEN America’s stated mission is to “stand at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide” It is important that we as poets and writers stand alongside PEN in championing “the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.” PEN unites “writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”

Russian Theatre Director, Kirill Serebrennikov, Detained … part of a strategy to stiffle artistic freedom

Russian Stage and Film Director, Theater Designer, and Artistic Director of the Gogol Center, Kirill Serebrennikov (b. 1969)

The detention yesterday of Russian Stage and Film Director, Kirill Semyonovich Serebrennikov, on dubious charges is part of a concerted campaign to silence dissenting voices in the arts in Russia.

Serebrennikov’s father was Jewish and a surgeon. His mother was from the Ukraine and taught Russian. Serebrennikov was graduated from Rostov State University in 1992. He was a physics major and had no formal theatre education prior to his 1994 debut as a stage director.

According to PEN America, Serebrennikov was detained on and will face trial on embezzlement. He is accused of embezzling 68 million rubles ($1.1 million) of state funding for a project called Platform, the purpose of which was to promote modern dance, theatre, and music to wider audiences. Investigators claimed that part of the project, a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, did not take place, despite having been staged at least fifteen times. Serebrennikov has turned to attendees on Facebook to prove that the play was staged, using the hashtag #ябылнаплатформе (I was at Platform.) If found guilty, he faces up to ten years’ imprisonment. In addition to PEN America, Civil society groups and prominent members of Russia’s and Europe’s artistic communities have called for Serebrennikov’s release.

The Gogol Center in Moscow is Russia’s leading avant-garde theater, a multi-use arts complex. It hosts movies, music concerts, a discussion club and performances by Russian and foreign directors on several stages. It is noted for its stagings of contemporary Russian Dramas and a lobby featuring neon-lit mirrors shaped like famous directors. 

The Center’s has recently hosted dance companies including SoundDrama and Studio Seven as part of an experimental artist in residence program specifically committed to art that “does not limit itself with any genre boundaries and constantly strives to reflect Modern Art in the most relevant way.”

Russian Playwright, Damaturge and Journalist, Valeriy Pecheykin (b. 29184)

The Center’s writer and dramaturge, Valeriy Pecheykin, is a regular contributor to Russian LGBT magazine Kvir, author of the plays My Moscow (2008), Net (2009), Lucifer (2008), Russia,Forward! (2011), A Little Hero (2014), screenplay co-author for Pavel Lungin’s The Conductor  (Russia, 2012). 

Kirill Serebrennikov, the artistic director of The Gogol Center is professor (of acting and direction) at the Moscow Art Theatre School. His productions were presented in Wiener Festwochen, and Avignon Theatre Festival. His films were screened at Cannes Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, Rome Film Festival, and the Warsaw International Film Festival where his film Yuri’s Day received the Grand Prix.

Russian Ballet Dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993)

Serebrennikov, artistic director of the Gogol Center, is a prominent critic of the Kremlin, having spoken out against anti-LGBT measures and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in cultural affairs. PEN America has followed his case since May 2017, when his apartment and the Gogol Center were searched, and a bookkeeper and two other theater directors were arrested. In July 2017 the production of a ballet directed by Serebrennikov for the Bolshoi Theater about celebrated dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who was gay, was canceled after intervention by Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.

“The detention on dubious charges of a prominent theater director who has spoken out against the government is another move to stifle free expression and the arts in Russia, ” said Polina Kovaleva, PEN America free expression programs manager for Eurasia. “We urge the Russian government to drop all charges and release Serebrennikov immediately, and to end its campaign against artistic freedom.”

This is not the first time that PEN America sounded the alarm on the shrinking space for free expression, particularly artistic expression in Russia where the government has taken “increasingly brazen steps to control information and stifle creative expression.”

FREEDOM OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION AND CREATION is defined by the United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner as “the right of all persons to freely experience and contribute to artistic expressions and creations, through individual or joint practice, to have access to and enjoy the arts, and to disseminate their expressions and creations.”

It is important that we as poets and writers be aware of and supportive of the artists and arts in our own countries and elsewhere to – as PEN America says and does – “champion freedom to write” and to openly acknowledge the “power of the word to transform the world … [and] to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”

PEN America “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide.” 

Note: The August issue of The BeZine is entirely devoted to theatre.

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The sources/content for this feature are largely courtesy of PEN America, the United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, and Wikipedia.

Photo credits: Serebrennikov by Col. Hans Landa under CC BY-SA 3.0  license; Nureyev in his dressing room by Allan Warren under CC BY 3.0 license; Valeriy Pecheykin by Taktisch under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.