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`Winds of Change' and the Freedom to Write

IN his inaugural address, President Bush declared that the ``winds of change'' were blowing across the globe, and that ``the day of the dictator is over.'' There is much hyperbole in that statement, and the man who once toasted Ferdinand Marcos for his human rights record and who recently had little to say about the state terrorism directed at Salman Rushdie is hardly a credible source. But he has a point. For those of us who monitor the state of the freedom to write around the world, there is certainly the feeling that we are living in a time of ferment - a clamor for democracy that is fast dissolving many taboos in a country like the Soviet Union with a long record of repression. The extraordinary threat against Mr. Rushdie - which remains in force after 100 days, despite the end of the media feeding frenzy - for a brief time focused unusual attention on the plight of endangered writers, of whom there are far too many.

But there may also be a trend away from the grosser forms of human rights abuse. Six honorary members of PEN American Center - selected by its Freedom-to-Write Committee for particular attention - have been released since October. By another measure, PEN's London-based International Writers-in-Prison Committee reported in January that there were no writers in prisons, labor camps, psychiatric hospitals, or internal exile anywhere in the USSR - where only a year ago there were over 70.

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Despite these amazing developments, the USSR still has a long way to go toward meeting internationally accepted standards of freedom of expression. And there are few signs of glasnost in neighboring Czechoslovakia, where hundreds of demonstrators commemorating the 20th anniversary of the self-immolation of Jan Palach were arrested in January in Wenceslas Square. Among them was the country's leading playwright, Vaclav Havel, who served yet another prison sentence, this time on charges of ``disturbing the peace'' and ``hooliganism.'' The poet and journalist Ivan Jirous has been detained since October for ``damaging the interests of the state abroad'' - in other words, protesting human rights violations by the regime.

Yet even in Czechoslovakia, the ``winds of change'' are blowing. A new generation of activists - like the young editors of Revolver Revue, a samizdat journal - refuses to accept the deception and stultifying control of the authorities. The same phenomenon is driving the movement for change in China. On the other hand, the younger generation in traditionally democratic nations like England and Israel seems much too disposed to accept the erosion of individual liberties by governments that invoke the devalued talisman of ``national security'' to silence critics or restrain protesters.

Perhaps the single greatest change in the human rights picture in recent years is the recognition by most governments that they must at least pay lip service to the concept, and that the way they treat their citizens is not simply an internal affair.

For instance, the February coup in Paraguay that displaced the repressive regime of President Alfredo Stroessner was led by officials who were part of the old guard, and there is reason to be skeptical that they will make good on their promises of democracy and greater respect for human rights. But among the first acts of the new government was to call home from exile the country's leading novelist, Augusto Roa Bastos, and permit the reopening of an independent newspaper and radio station.

This sensitivity to world opinion could be a strong lever in the case of Turkey, whose brutal treatment of writers and other political prisoners is in flagrant violation of international human rights conventions it has ratified, and may be a serious obstacle to its government's application for acceptance into the European Economic Community.

The greatest challenge for writers who care about human rights is to keep events moving in the right direction without settling for symbolic public-relations gestures, like South Africa's ``release'' of New Nation founder Zwelakhe Sisulu and other detained writers under conditions that confine them to home in the evenings, require them to report twice daily to authorities, and bar them from most writing and interviews and from taking part in any meeting of more than 10 people. South Africa's government appears to be gambling that emptying its prisons of writers and human rights activists under these gagged conditions of near-total surveillance will be sufficient to divert the attention of the international human rights community.

Let us hope it is mistaken. Liberty of thought and expression, like all fundamental rights, can never be entrusted to government, but survives only, in Thomas Jefferson's words, through ``eternal vigilance.'' Writers must work with the ``winds of change'' to steer a clear course, focused on the plight of writers like Salman Rushdie, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Vaclav Havel, and Ivan Jirous, and to keep the pressure on Paraguay, Turkey, and the dozens of other countries that censor, harass, imprison, and kill men and women for what they think, say, and write.

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