Toxic Propaganda vs. Freedom of Speech: What Literature Can Do in the Post-Truth Era? Regional meeting of the Central East European PEN Centers and Podiumdiskussion in Chernivtsi

Since 2010, the Ukrainian PEN Center organizes annual meetings of the Central and East European PEN Centers, with a strategic plan to institutionalize them as a regional network of PEN Centers under the auspices of the PEN International. The main goal of the meetings is to discuss the topical issues related to both the general/programmatic activity of PEN Centers (protection of freedom of speech, defense of imprisoned and persecuted authors, support for all kinds of minorities, promotion of liberal democratic values by means of literature), and more specific issues like refugee crisis, growth of political populism, spread of fake news, and more.

Within the past few years, a rather new serious problem came to the fore at the international public arena – the problem of very extensive and highly unscrupulous use of the internet and all kinds of mass media for the particular goals of propaganda, disinformation and, ultimately, political manipulation. The distinctive feature of the new-type propaganda is not only its technically empowered ability to spread rapidly and multiply exponentially via social networks and all kinds of trolls. It differs markedly from the old-style propaganda also in an extremely cynical and barefaced neglect of any facts, proofs, and plausibility. It creates a completely new situation of the “post-truth”, – when “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible”.

This poses a real challenge to both democratic governments and liberal intellectuals committed to freedom of speech as one of the fundamental principles of their life and professional activity. Now they are forced to assess the threats that come from the rogue regimes, primarily Russian, with this new type of weapon and find a response that should be both efficient and consistent with their liberal values and democratic principles. The traditional Western belief that the words should be fought with words is strongly questioned and seriously undermined. The proved meddling of Putin’s regime in democratic elections and other procedures that distorts the voting results and undermines credibility of the process, is only a part of the story. Worse is a popular cynicism, evoked by the interference and fostered by the “post-truth” propaganda. But probably of the greatest danger is the inflammatory propaganda aimed to provoke an immediate subversive, often violent reaction on the part of the recipients – as it happened in Berlin with the “Lisa story”, or in Sloviansk with the fake news about the “crucified boy”, or in the whole south eastern Ukraine with the calumnious narrative spread internationally about the “fascist junta” in Kyiv that allegedly persecutes Russian and Russophones.

It sounds like a nice idea – to fight words with words. But the problem is that the lie moves fast and the truth moves slowly; the lies appeal to emotions, and the truth appeals to reason; the lie provokes immediate action, the truth evokes pondering and weighed judgement. Hundreds of Germans went on the streets after the “Lisa” fake, and thousands of volunteers took the arms in Donbas and elsewhere and rushed to fight the “junta” before any truth about the “crucified boy” or “Odessa massacre” reached them. Ukraine is at the forefront of the new type of war that the Russian regime wages against the West; it has been exposed to all the methods and instruments of this war on a much broader scale and for a much longer period than anybody else to the west. Ukrainians have a substantial experience of the kind to be shared with international colleagues, but they also are interested in colleagues’ experience, especially from the neighboring regions of Central and East Europe.

There are many questions to be discussed within the informal network of the regional PEN Centers, including:

How to fight the poisonous propaganda without endangering freedom of speech? How to deal with the weapon that pretends to be a sheer “information”, and with the de-facto operatives that pretends to be “journalists”?

How to restrain censorship in some cases when it is unavoidable (as e.g. during the war)? What can PEN Centers as institutions and PEN members as writers and public intellectuals do under the circumstances?

How much truth the writers can convey in the post-truth era?

These and many more questions will be discussed at the Regional meeting of the Central and East European PEN Centers in Chernivtsi on the 8th of September, during the Meridian Czernowitz literary festival that provides a broader context for cultural exchange.

The confirmed participants include a famous prose writer, vice president of the Ukrainian PEN Center Andriy Kurkov, the president of the Austrian PEN, a renowned poet Helmuth Niederle, a member of the German PEN Simone Trieder, the vice president of the Romanian PEN Caius Dobrescu, a member of the Polish PEN Jakub Ekier, a member of the Lithuanian PEN Antanas Jonynas, and a Ukrainian translator and media expert, PEN member Oleksiy Panych.

The event, organized by the Ukrainian PEN Center, is supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for freedom in Ukraine, and the International Renaissance Foundation.

Time and place: 8.09, 16:30 – 18:30, Central Palace of Culture (Teatralna Place 5).

Panelists’ photos and biographical sketches (in German):

http://www.meridiancz.com/de/category/teilnehmerinnen-des-festivals-2018/