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Atwood, Rushdie, Soyinka protest Russia's stranglehold on free speech

Canadian author Margaret Atwood is one of more than 200 writers calling for the repeal of laws enacted under President Vladimir Putin that restrict freedom of expression.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood is one of more than 200 writers calling for the repeal of laws enacted under President Vladimir Putin that restrict freedom of expression.

REUTERS/Mark Blinch

As all eyes turn to Russia for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games at Sochi tomorrow, more than 200 writers from across the globe have joined PEN in calling for the repeal of a troika of laws enacted under President Vladimir Putin that severely restrict freedom of expression.

In an open letter published by The Guardian this morning, renowned writers including Edward Albee, Anthony Appiah, Margaret Atwood, Ariel Dorfman, Jeffrey Eugenides, Günter Grass, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Peter Stamm, Lyudmila Ulitskaya , and others reflect on past contributions of Russian writers and the enormous loss to the world if they were to be silenced. “Russian voices, both literary and journalistic, have always striven to make themselves heard above the clamour of their nation's unfolding story, contributing to the political and intellectual shape of the world far beyond their country's borders,” the letter reads.

Over the last 18 months, Russian lawmakers have passed three sweeping laws that curtail free speech and dissent: the gay "propaganda" law, which prohibits vaguely defined "promotion of a gay lifestyle to minors"; the blasphemy law, which criminalizes "religious insult" and is widely viewed as a response to the Punk Prayer performance that landed two Pussy Riot members in prison; and the re-criminalization of defamation. The laws are part of a regressive crackdown on freedom of expression in the country targeted by PEN's Out in the Cold campaign, which has organized writers and journalists worldwide to stand up for the rights of their Russian peers.

“I believe that free expression—freedom of speech, freedom to write, to argue, to disagree—is the most important freedom we have as human beings,” said Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods and a signatory to the letter. “The solution to speech and writing that offends you is to speak and write about it in your turn, not to criminalize it or to try and eradicate it.”

The letter calls on Russia's leaders to respect freedom of opinion, expression, and belief. “A healthy democracy must hear the independent voices of all its citizens,” the group writes. “We therefore urge the Russian authorities to repeal these laws that strangle free speech.”

“The reservoir of goodwill that ordinarily makes the Olympics a unifying, feel-good moment for the host country and viewers from around the world is notably absent when it comes to this year's games in Russia.  President Putin's intolerance of dissent and crackdowns on gay rights and religious freedom cloud over what should be a shining moment for his country,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN American Center. “The Olympic spotlight has helped to reveal the underside of Putin's rule, mobilizing athletes, governments, and now writers to demand restoration of Russian people's rights to write, speak, and access information freely. The greatest challenge ahead will be to keep the pressure on Russian authorities after the Games end.”

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