PEN SA marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2017

17 Jan 2018
PEN SA Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2017

On 15 November 2017, PEN South Africa partnered with the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Creative Arts (ICA) to commemorate one of the most important dates on the PEN calendar: the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

The 2017 commemorative event, which was hosted at the Centre for the Book in Cape Town was supported in great numbers by the local literary community, especially considering that it coincided with two high-profile Cape Town book launches: of Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers, the attendance of which was restricted to 600 by its organisers; and PEN SA member Zapiro’s latest book, Hasta La Gupta, Baby!, which featured an appearance by former South African Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan.

In her opening address PEN SA President, Nadia Davids, highlighted the symbolic relevance of the empty chair that is a consistent feature of PEN events, which represents those writers who are and have been imprisoned for their work. Davids noted that the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, which is marked annually by PEN Centres and their allies across the globe, serves as an important marker of the right to freedom of expression and is celebrated through the promotion of literary culture, the celebration of the freedom to write, and calls for justice and freedom for writers imprisoned, threatened and murdered for engaging in free expression work. Davids acknowledged the presence of one of South Africa’s own formerly imprisoned writers, retired Constitutional Court Justice and PEN SA member, Albie Sachs.

In solidarity with imprisoned writers, South African writers Gabeba Baderoon, Damon Galgut, Mark Gevisser, Siphokazi Jonas, Nick Mulgrew, and Toni Stuart volunteered their talent and time to give voice to the emblematic cases of 2017.

Stuart highlighted the case of Cesario Alejandro Félix Padilla Figueroa, the journalist, student leader and founding member of PEN Honduras, who was convicted of ‘usurpation’ after participating in university protest action. Stuart noted the symbolic silence enshrouding Figueroa in the absence of any authored material by means of which to give him personal voice; she endorsed PEN SA’s plea to Honduran authorities to unconditionally release Figueroa.

Baderoon introduced the case of Vietnamese blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, popularly known by her pen name Me Nâm (Mother Mushroom), who is serving a prison sentence of ten years for publicly airing her concerns about environmental degradation in Vietnam. Baderoon shared that after observing dead fish clogging a local river as a result of toxic pollution, Me Nâm acquiesced to her children’s request to join her in a protest march, a decision that was met with widespread criticism. Me Nam’s response to detractors was to point out their hypocrisy in the light of muted responses to the toxic pollution and its broader health and social impacts. Baderoon added her voice to calls for Me Nâm’s immediate and unconditional release.

Nick Mulgrew drew attention to the case of Ramón Esono Ebalé, alias Jamón y Queso, the satirical cartoonist from Equitorial Guinea whose lampooning of President Obiang and other government officials saw him remanded pending the outcome of an investigation into his alleged money-laundering and -counterfeiting. Mulgrew noted that satirical writers such as Ebalé serve as contemporary court jesters, who frequently exploit what society deems vulgar to problematize and encourage the interrogation of the status quo. According to Mulgrew, however, it is precisely this subversive role which exposes such writers as Ebalé to the risk of persecution by political elites and regimes. Mulgrew read from his first published piece of long-form journalism, in which amateur stand-up comedians are censured for their work, before calling for Ebalé’s immediate release.

Mark Gevisser highlighted the case of Zehra Doğan, the Turkish journalist, painter and poet who in March of 2017 received a sentence of 2 years, 9 months and 22 days, ostensibly for ‘propagandising for a terrorist organisation.’ The sole evidentiary basis of this conviction was a painting by Doğan: a replica of a photograph shared by Turkish authorities on social media, which depicted their demolition of a settlement. Gevisser quoted Doğan who asserted in a letter to her family that ‘[w]hen they were coming to a verdict on my work exposing the destruction in Nusaybin, they asked “Did you create this picture?” and I replied “No, you did” and was arrested.’ Gevisser was encouraged by, and drew parallels between, Doğan’s activism and that of local writers, who use their craft to speak truth to power. Gevisser shared that Doğan notes in the same letter that “…[a] person’s imagination expands when imprisoned…You can imprison an artist but you can’t stop [t]he[i]r productivity.”

Damon Galgut focused on the case of Razan Zaitouneh, the Syrian human rights defender, blogger, lawyer and co-founder of the Violations Documentation Centre. Galgut shared that, in December of 2013, shortly after fleeing the Syrian government-controlled area where they had been documenting human rights violations, Zaitouneh and her colleagues Samira al-Khalil, Nazem Hamadi and Wa’el Hamada (her husband) were abducted by armed men during a raid on their offices in Douma close to Damascus. Reem Zaitouneh, also a writer and human rights activist, said this of her sister: “Her pen was very strong, which induced her enemy to try breaking it, so she was kidnapped and her kidnappers still refuse to admit it.” Reading an excerpt from his book, The Good Doctor, Galgut powerfully illustrated the slippery slope that can confront those people too fearful or timid to take a principled stand.

Siphokazi Jonas provided an update on the case of Dr Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan academic, political activist and poet who was a featured case in the 2016 Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Jonas pointed to Dr Nyanzi’s broad and diverse voice: which spans from the scholarly to what detractors characterise as crude, for example, the Facebook post in which she referred to Ugandan President Yaweri Museveni as a “pair of buttocks” for failing to uphold an election promise to provide free sanitary-ware to school-going women. In Jonas’ view, Dr Nyanzi’s detractors miss that she amplifies and provides nuanced and intersectional analysis on issues of concern to Uganda’s poor and marginalised communities.

Stuart closed the evening’s proceedings with a reading of Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour’s “Qawem Ya Sha’abi Qawemhum” (“Resist, My People, Resist Them”). Stuart further provided an update on the status of Tatour’s criminal proceedings – which were a featured case of PEN’s 2016 commemoration of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer – and pending which she is subject to house arrest in Israel. Stuart noted with concern that Tatour’s case was based on the interpretation of her poem, from Arabic to Hebrew, by a policeman reliant on high school-level Arabic literature instruction.

The cases featured in PEN’s International Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2017 point to the need to sustain advocacy efforts towards ensuring continued protection of the right to freedom of expression. States’ censorship measures as well as encroachment and legal reliance on citizen’s private online and other communications to intimidate critics and persecute those who refuse to be silenced is a worrying trend. PEN SA, with the support of its allies, will continue its efforts to contribute to an environment in which freedom of expression flourishes.

(Image courtesy of Lindsay Callaghan)

Click here to listen to an interview with PEN SA Centre Co-Ordinator Nokukhanya Mncwabe on SAfm Morning Talk, recorded on 15 November 2017.