Canadian essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul has been elected president of International PEN, the writers organization that works to advance freedom of expression.

Saul, 62, was named president by delegates at a PEN convention on Wednesday in Linz, Austria.

Saul is a past president of PEN Canada and has been involved with its writers-in-exile program which offers residencies for writers threatened in their own countries of origin.

He has been involved with International PEN since 1987, when he was elected to the board of PEN Canada.

"Almost 1,000 writers who are in prison or are in danger around the world look to us for help," he said in a statement.

"We have to invent new ways of turning back the rise of authoritarian controls. Threats to freedom of speech are expanding in new directions, especially with the rise of populism in the post 9/11 world."

Saul said he also hope to devise ways to protect minority and indigenous languages and cultures threatened with extinction.

Saul, married to former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, is author of The Collapse of Globalism and A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada.

He succeeds Czech writer Jiri Grusa, who has been International PEN president for the last four years.

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is also a vice-president of the international organization.