PEN concerned by chill on discussions of Israel-Hamas war

PEN Canada is concerned by a growing chill on criticism and debate about the Israel-Hamas war and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. PEN calls on public agencies, institutions of higher learning and members of civil society to respect Canadians’ right to freedom of expression, and to resist intolerance of critical discussions of the war. 

The right to express peaceful dissent or support for a cause is never more important than during times of conflict and crisis.  

As a nonpartisan organization of writers committed to the defence of freedom of expression, PEN Canada abhors all expressions of hatred and violence. It condemns the mass slaughter and hostage-taking carried out by Hamas. PEN Canada also notes with profound concern a rising tide of antisemitism and Islamophobia in Canada that has created a climate of fear. Nevertheless, heightened political passions do not excuse the suppression of dissent — particularly at a moment when the extensive bombardment and displacement of the civilian population in Gaza has led to immense destruction and suffering. 

Governments in Canada are bound under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to respect the right to freedom of expression. But respect for freedom of expression more broadly on the part of institutions and individuals in civil society relies on a shared social value. Suppression of or reprisals against speech within civil society erodes this value in ways that are diffuse, opaque and not easily susceptible to factual confirmation. 

PEN notes with concern that there are reports of individuals in Canada, including media workers, being investigated, suspended and/or fired by their employers for expressing views in support of Palestinian rights on social media, under private circumstances the full facts of which are not ascertainable. More publicly, writers expressing such views have had events cancelled, and been prominently disinvited from literary events including the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Our colleges and universities have faced heated debate on the Israel-Hamas war, including a violent on-campus confrontation. As public institutions committed to academic freedom, they must rise to the challenge of defending freedom of speech in this fraught environment. Several universities have publicly condemned or disassociated themselves from highly-charged student council statements denouncing Israel and the war in Gaza, and have instituted reviews under their student codes of conduct. PEN calls on university administrations not to censor or suppress dissenting and controversial views as they address their communities and seek to ensure the safety of all. 

One need not agree with a given position to defend the right to express it. Indeed, that is the challenge of freedom of expression. Nor should one be surprised when expression of opinion on a controversial issue draws heated criticism and debate in response. This response too is a key part of freedom within a working democracy.