- 2016/2017 apexart New York City (NYC) Fellow
- 2014 Winner Burt Award for African Literature, Kenya Chapter
- 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing nominee
- Ist Prize, Adult Fiction Category – NBDCK Literary Awards, September 2008 Book Week
Creative Resistance – Stories from the Edge of Freedom
- Written by Moraa Gitaa
Created: 29 June 2015
Amsterdam. I was in a city famed for its long-established tolerance including its legendry Pride Fest dedicated ‘Homomonument’ commemorating gay war victims and its Red Light District. From the minute I landed at Schiphol International Airport and everywhere I went, I heard tourists say this is a city of integrity and free speech. No wonder the International Criminal Court is located here - The Hague for most of us and Den Haag to the Dutch. You may be forgiven for thinking there are no boundaries left unexplored in Amsterdam. This is a story for another day when I will share the history of how Amsterdam came to be - a city built mostly (by immigrants) from dams and dykes on a canal belt and thus the name Amsterdam. But for now, I was here in my capacity as the Vice President of the PEN Kenya centre to attend the PEN International / International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) Conference and Biennial Networking meeting.
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) 2014 Prison Census report for last year indicated that 221 journalists were jailed worldwide. This global tally was the second worst on record. Many other organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch back this up with horrific tales of executions and intimidations. Freedom of speech has long been under increasing pressure. Journalists, writers and artists are being persecuted, threatened and killed. This audacity has most recently been witnessed in Paris and Copenhagen in Europe, a continent where this rarely happens. PEN International’s WiPC and ICORN work jointly to protect writers and artists at risk, and to provide platforms for them to promote their work freely. During this conference held in Amsterdam from 26 to 29 May 2015, PEN and ICORN held several joint sessions/panels and discussions to assess the conditions for freedom of expression worldwide, and explored new and imaginative ways of confronting attacks on human rights by governments and other parties. Thus the clarion call for this year’s conference: ‘Creative Resistance – Stories from the Edge of Freedom.’ Almost 300 participants from PEN International centres globally and ICORN networks from 60 different countries convened in several exciting sessions and workshops covering a wide range of topics at De Brakke Grond and other venues. The official opening ceremony and reception was hosted and addressed by the Mayor of Amsterdam Mr. Eberhard van der Laan with speeches from Marian Botsford Fraser the Chair of PEN International’s WiPC, Peter Ripken the Chair of the Board of ICORN and Manon Uphoff the Chair of PEN Netherlands.
The Keynote Address was by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye who pointed out that PEN’s work on the frontlines of freedom of expression makes his work easier. He stressed that human rights law protects everyone’s right to question and analyze official narratives of events. He gave examples of gross violations of human rights including the brutal murder of blogger Evany José Metzker in Brazil and other brutal murders and incarcerations. The introduction was by Netherlands Human Rights Ambassador Kees van Baar. At PEN sessions there is always an empty seat which presents writers who are incarcerated. This year’s empty seat had the portrait of veteran 71 year-old Chinese journalist Gao Yu who was sentenced to seven years in prison in April this year for a charge of allegedly leaking state secrets and a document revealing the Party’s ideological battle plan to counter advocates of constitutional democracy, banning public discussions on topics ranging from press freedom, civil rights to judicial independence. As delegates at this year’s conference we signed a petition that was delivered to the Chinese Embassy in The Netherlands demanding for her release. We also sent her postcards to prison showing her our solidarity.
The title ‘Creative Resistance’ manifests the urgency and actuality of threat to journalists and writers in countries in North-Africa, the Middle-East, Asia and many other countries. Especially more so after the Arab Spring resistance, in line with this a talk show with readings and music about freedom of expression in this world-wide crisis was moderated by writer Abdelkader Benali and included Geert Mak, human rights lawyer and writer Anna Funder and journalist and LGBTQI activist Masha Gessen. This session was musical courtesy of Egyptian singer Ramy Essam who rose to prominence from the Tahir Square rebellion in 2011. Several other illuminating sessions were The Arts of Hospitality which touched on benefits, challenges and cooperation options for ICORN member cities. Exit Strategies-New Beginnings on what are the post placement options and challenges for writers, artists and human rights defenders. Others were Freedom after Expression? On how to deal with the effects of torture and trauma of persecution after reaching a safe haven. Free Speech vs Hate Speech – Most participants concurred that there is a thin line between these two and the pertinent question being addressed in this session was Freedom of Expression and Activism in a Globalized 24/7 World.
For me, the most interesting session was ‘After Charlie.’ What tasks, challenges and opportunities are cartoonists facing after 7 January 2015? This session was hosted by Robert Russell (Cartoonist Rights Network) and included Bangladeshi Arifur Rahman, Abdul Arts from Somalia, Iranian Mana Neyestani and Syrian Fadi Hassan. There was a special appearance by Charlie Hebdo editor/journalist Zineb El Rhazoui. Zineb escaped the massacre by a whisker because she was home in Morocco on holiday. After the attack she got a letter from ISIS telling her that she just got lucky and they will still come for her, not to mention two viral hashtags condemning her. She is now under full police protection 24/7. Referring to the Safe Space ideology emerging in the US, Zineb avers that the right not to be offended does not exist but that the right to freedom of expression does. Some have propagated that one has the right to switch off the television and not watch, the right to not listen, the right to walk away, the right to not buy that newspaper or magazine and the right to not read them. I had a short discussion post-panel with Zineb and we touched on the Westgate, Mandera, Garissa and other cowardly terror attacks in Kenya and her stand is the same –the right not to be offended does not exist. We are Journalists was a documentary screening of the new film by Ahmad Farahani on the persecution of journalists and their struggles for freedom of expression in Iran. The docu-film covers a decade of Iranian journalists struggle to survive in Iran under the Ahmedinejad regime. Farahani, the director of the film is an exiled Iranian film-maker and journalist who was persecuted and tortured by the Ahmedinejad regime and the film is based on his personal story covering five years. Apart from several PEN and ICORN joint sessions where global centres presented the progress of their advocacy and lobbying in their countries, there were other sessions including: Latin America and Asian Writers on the Frontline and Free to Criticize-Free to Dissent which touched on decriminalizing libel and criminal defamation in Africa and beyond. Here the Zone 9 Ethiopian Bloggers were discussed prominently. These are the bloggers and journalists connected to Zone 9 an independent collective of bloggers who campaign against political repression and human rights abuses in Ethiopia. Contributing bloggers Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnael Feleke, Befeqadu Hailu, Zelalem Kiberet, Abel Wabela and independent journalists Tesfalem Waldyes, Asmamaw Haile Gorgis and Edom Kassaye were arrested on 25 and 26 April 2014 in a series of coordinated arrests. They were formally charged with intending to ‘destabilize the nation’ and links to terrorism and outlawed groups like Ginbot7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). In addition, Solian Shimeles also a contributor to Zone 9 was charged in absentia. Since their detention, their trail has been adjourned at least 26 times according to Trial Tracker Blog, a blog which publishes regular updates on their case. The Danger of Art: Why and how does music and other arts forms provoke repressive regimes of today’s world? And Digital Security: How to navigate safely in today’s digital world of surveillance and suppression. Shelter Unlimited: This session was on how to run and develop short term shelter for writers/artists and human rights defenders at risk, and also how to learn from each other and cooperate beyond genres and borders.
One session that always has almost equal representation on either side of the debate is: The Rise of Anti-LGBT Legislation and Freedom of Expression. A panel of writers from around the world discussed various aspects of the rise in anti-LGBTQI legislation in great depth. What is behind this apparently growing anti-LGBTQI sentiment? What can writers and organizations like PEN do to defend LGBTQI free expression? It was not all panels, sessions and discussions though! There were several plays and presentations in the evenings among them, The Prisoner, a short performance that consisted largely of a monologue in which we follow the thoughts of a prisoner as a he attempts to define his relationship to the world. Searching for something to hold on to, he grapples with the inability to communicate. The Prisoner is about our great capacity for thought.
Café Liberty was a literary/artistic public theatre event. The audience was presented with a live centre of Amsterdam on a terrace of a pub situated at a public square - A terrace where people gather and tell stories. Back to Aleppo – Stories from Syrian Writers in Exile was a literary evening with performances, short films, talks, poems, music and interviews about the situation in Syria and perspectives from the writers. And the influences on their work: Is it now possible to write poetry and fiction? The moderator was Maarten Zeegars and performing artists were Faraj Bayrakdar a poet who had been in prison for 15 years and Ghayath Almadhoun a Syrian-born Palestinian poet now an immigrant in Sweden, Samar Yazbek and Nihad Sirees. Ghayath brought up the perennial issue of writers in the diaspora, identity and authenticity (he was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria) when he said that when in Palestine he is referred to as the Swedish-Palestine, when in Sweden he is referred to as the Palestine-Syrian and when in Syria he is referred to as Syrian-Palestine! Archive 1,336-1,337: was a moving theatre collective performance exploring the expansion of private life into the public sphere. The play questions the position of crying and tears in public life and how it influences an audience, whether on stage, in the media or in the world of politics. This play brought me closer to home to when our DP William Ruto cried in church in public, and the nuances this invoked in the public sphere. The novelist/writer in me couldn’t resist a boat ride to gather information on the immigrant connection, especially of Jewish immigrants who lived in Amsterdam from the sixteenth century and helped build the city, a visit to The Hague and another to the Rembrandt Square a major bustling public square in central Amsterdam named after the famous painter Rembrandt van Rijn. But these are stories for another day.
I gathered a lot at this networking conference. It’s obvious that even in humour we sometimes have a top-down system in power relations. Sometimes a cartoon that I immediately see as very funny, rubs someone else the wrong way. Figures in authority have always been ridiculed. But the big question for all of us is, we do know what is sacred in society but how do we make people laugh at that and not self-sensor?
I will end this article by words from a speech given by PEN International president John Ralston Saul in Switzerland titled ‘In the Aftermath of Charlie Hebdo’: ‘’There can be no doubt: within the community of writers there is solidarity. Giving offence or taking offence is not an excuse for violence, to say nothing of murder … The vast majority (of writers/journalists) are not killed by Islamic extremists or any other form of religious extremism. Who then kills and imprisons writers? Mainly governments, police, armies, corporations, organized crime. Often they work together – an unholy trinity of corruption, violence and impunity. And then there are the religious extremist killers. At the heart of free expression is humour. The most powerful tool we have. Anyone with power hates being made fun of. Throughout history humour has been the writer’s weapon of choice in times of crisis. But humour is almost always local. Even provincial. What makes each of us laugh is a reflection of our particular civilization, society, reality, experience … there is always a gun aimed at writers, but the target moves over time and from country to country. Today it is fixed on journalists … Our job is to stand firm and to hold people to account, whether the president of a country, a self-interested security official, a religious fanatic or a corrupt leader working with organized crime. Our defence of free expression must demonstrate the possibility of living together with free expression.’’
As a writer I also need to interrogate myself - that in politics, family, community, society and religion there is a subtle tension. This tension, the balance, the conflict of writing - What does it mean to me a writer, to a journalist, to an artist and a creative? This is indeed writing stories from the edge of freedom. It’s an edge that is always being negotiated and re-negotiated constantly because each individual’s freedom intersects with other people’s freedom. Not offending is not the same as self-censoring. Is it a fundamental human right not to be offended? Where does this leave us as writers in Africa? This is because some of our African leaders guarantee us freedom of expression (in some of our constitutions) but they can’t guarantee us our liberty after we exercise this free speech.