NEW YORK — The literary writer’s organization PEN America is expanding its support of writers around the world who face imprisonment for their work by hiring human rights advocate Liesl Gerntholtz to head the new PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center.
The new center will build on PEN America’s work advocating for imprisoned writers like the Ukrainian freelance journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, who was first arrested in 2021 in Crimea and remains imprisoned. PEN America awarded him the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award in 2022 to draw attention to his case in hopes that he will be freed, like many of the prize’s prior recipients, thanks to the award’s profile and the advocacy of other major international writers.
Yesypenko’s wife will accept the award in his stead later this month in New York and PEN America highlighted his case at a demonstration outside the Russian embassy last year and through press releases following his arrest and sentencing to six years in prison in February.
Under Gerntholtz leadership, the new center will help PEN America monitor more cases of imprisoned writers in real time and try to help them leave their country or otherwise protect themselves. This work is often done out of the public eye because of the hostile environment the writers from countries like Egypt, China and Myanmar face.
Gerntholtz, who formerly led the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch among other roles, said the center already has a database of some 700 “writers, intellectuals, visual artists, journalists under threat,” adding that list will be updated and expanded.
Men are disproportionately represented among imprisoned writers, “which means that we are obviously missing the ways that women are silenced,” said Gerntholtz, who is a native of South Africa.
The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center was created with a $10 million gift in October and represents the first donation in a fundraising campaign marking PEN America’s 100th year. It builds on the organization’s relationship with retired media executive Peter Barbey and his family, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said.
“We’ve raised our budget anew every year, and so it’s a big step forward for us to be raising more multiyear support,” Nossel said. “PEN was not built to last but we’ve nevertheless survived for 100 years and we’re trying to put that right and undergird the organization with the foundation it deserves.”
She called the gift a “catalytic” contribution as PEN America looks to start an endowment for more financial stability, as well as support for its programming.
Since 2016, donations from the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust have supported the PEN America award for imprisoned writers. Barbey, his wife, Pamela, and son, Matt, advise the fund, which is managed by the Arizona Community Foundation.
Barbey joined PEN America’s board in 2021, and as the organization was planning for its second century, Nossel said she reached out to the Barbeys.
“I felt comfortable enough to put forward what I felt we really needed to make a transformational change in our work and I was very moved, I think I was moved to tears when they said they would be willing to consider participating at that level,” Nossel said.
The Barbey gift represents a large portion of what PEN America has raised annually through donations in recent years. In 2019, it reported $11.4 million in donations and $14.3 million in 2020, PEN America said.
Barbey served as president for several years of a media company in eastern Pennsylvania, Reading Eagle Company, that his family members have operated for generations until it was sold in 2019. He also purchased the weekly left-leaning chronicle of New York life, the Village Voice, in 2015 but couldn’t rescue it. The paper shuttered in 2018 but has since resumed publication under new management.
“What I think is unique about publishing is you become an advocate for free expression just by the nature of the business,” said Barbey, adding he has carried that over into his philanthropy supporting PEN America and other journalism organizations.
The charitable trust, which is a donor advised fund, has also given $1 million to The Markup, a nonprofit investigative digital news organization, Barbey said.
Barbey’s father, Edwin Barbey, established the fund before he died in 2015.
The family’s wealth also comes from a textile business, now known as VF Corp, that was founded in Pennsylvania in 1899. The company, which is now publicly owned, owns clothing brands like Timberland, Vans, Jansport and Supreme.
In another measure of the state of free expression around the world, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists documented the imprisonment of 293 journalists as of Dec. 1, the sixth year in a row that its documented more than 250 detained reporters. Within the U.S., CPJ found that 59 journalists were arrested in 2021, usually while they were covering protests.
Barbey said he thinks PEN America’s advocacy for imprisoned writers “reaffirms to the American public and press that it’s important.”
“PEN America representing our country really is a stalwart activist defender of the freedom to write and freedom of speech,” he said.
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