Writers in Prison
DAY OF THE DEAD, MEXICO, DANGER FOR JOURNALISTS
DAY OF THE DEAD 2011
DAY OF THE DEAD, MEXICO, DANGER FOR JOURNALISTS
by HOMERO ARIDJIS
In ancient Mexico it was believed that people who drowned went to the heaven of Tláloc, the rain god, that soldiers who fell in combat became part of the Eastern sun, that the souls of women who had just given birth met the sun at its zenith and dwelled with earthly goddesses in the east, and that the north was governed by Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the Lord and Lady of death. In this funereal geography, these points in space were the destinations of the dead, the same points to which the plumed serpent, the god Quetzalcóatl blew. But death was not just myth and rite for the ancient Mexicans, it was everyday life and it had a physical body, it adorned temples and tombs, it had names and material forms and uses, it was vessels or clothing, it was clay or stone, it smelled of fire and copal, of water and blood.
Time itself had a tomb of years. On the day a Sun was born, a date was set for its death. In the subsequent invasions Mexico suffered in the 16th century, the discoverers, the conquistadors, the missionaries, and the settlers brought their own kind of death, the European notion of dying.
Indeed they brought two deaths: one physical, the product of arms and diseases – smallpox, measles and typhus – and the other spiritual, the one which follows death in the hereafter and leads the sinner to hell. The latter was preached and declared by the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians, who had inherited the medieval fear of death. Then in their spiritual conquest, which followed the temporary conquest by Hernán Cortés, the friars spread through the streets of New Spain images of the triumphant skeletons of the Dance of Death. The Aztecs, who made these foreign gods their own, including their manner of death, must have felt at home when the missionaries brought with them the worship of the relics of the saints – of their physical remains – to them, who lived with the bones and skulls of the sacrificed. We are the children of these two deaths, the Mexican and the European: the death of the Aztec lapidaries and the engravers Holbein and Durero, the death of the macabre artists of the tzompantli (the palisade where the Aztecs displayed the heads of the sacrificed) and the death of the sculptors of the arches and canopies of Romanesque churches, the death of ritual sacrifice and memento mori. In the Leyenda Dorada [Golden Legend], Jacopo de Voragine wrote that we, mortal men, in honouring the dead, are honouring ourselves in our future state of misery or glory.
Nowadays Mexico has become a huge cemetery for victims of major crimes. When it comes to violence our country is one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists. Not only for those who produce reports and write articles, but also for those who take photos, draws cartoons, or are witnesses to any bloody event, act of political corruption, or police injustice, and even those who have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For me, living in Mexico and reading both the national press and publications from remote villages and state capitals, reports of attacks are almost daily, and there are so many that there is hardly time to digest one before we hear about another. What is unsettling about these attacks, apart from the condition in which the victims are found, is that these attacks and killings are rarely investigated, and we almost never hear about the outcome of an inquiry or the arrest of the real perpetrator of a crime against a man or woman who risked their life, and the safety of their family, to do a journalist's job often for a meagre fee, or out of a professional responsibility to inform society and the world of the violence which is lashing the country these days.
But at this time, journalists are not only pursued by organised crime in all its forms, but also by local, state and federal governments, by police forces, the military, and even by people whose job is to impart justice. On these grounds the federal government not only has to guarantee the safety of journalists, but also resolve the cases pending and punish the criminals, regardless of whether they are within the government or not, because as time goes on the majority get caught up in a fog which has so many lines of investigation that the real one is (deliberately) lost.
A journalist friend was telling me about a notorious political crime, where the authorities present a new line of inquiry every once in a while which takes the investigation further away from reality, until it reaches the point where nobody knows anything, like playing a game of "follow the marble", concealing the truth. For example, with regard to the two women who were killed in Mexico City on 1 September this year1, because they were journalists investigating a property company, people started to talk about suspicious causes for their deaths, until the media practically stopped giving out information about what had happened, when the investigation was suspended they ended up linking the victims to criminals. The intention was to muddy the waters, and cast doubt on their professional integrity. Then came obscurity.
Another common practice in the media, in conspiracy with the authorities, is to trivialise a case so that people stop taking it seriously. This not only happens with journalists, but also with defenders of human rights who are victims of attacks.
This Day of the Dead, we passionately hope that Mexico does not continue to be a sacrificial altar for journalists and those fighting in defence of human rights and freedom of expression.
Which heaven will the journalists killed in Mexico go to?
Mexico City, 2 November 2011
*Homero Aridjis is a writer, journalist and Vice President of PEN International.
Freedom of Expression: An Introduction - Link
PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee Meeting - Brussels March 2011
PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee conference is held every two years. This year PEN Vlaanderen in Brussels hosted it. The conference took place over the weekend of the 24th to the 27th of March. I represented South African PEN at this meeting. I wished to find out in more detail what the WiPC does and to see how South African PEN can use the structures of this committee to further our work here on freedom of expression.
There were a number of frontline reports from countries in which the lives of writers are under threat, for example Belarus, Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, and Zimbabwe. Irish PEN also presented their work on new Irish blasphemy laws. Reports from Independent Chinese PEN attested to the ongoing persecution of writers and bloggers in China.
There was, however, much celebration of the Arab spring. The Tunisian writer, Naziha Rejiba, spoke about the revolution in Tunisia, the release of writers and journalists.
The conference took place at the same time as the Passaporta Literary Festival in Brussels. This focused on writing and exile and showcased a wide variety of writers living and writing in Europe because they faced persecution at home. The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) held a parallel conference. This organisation partners with particular cities to provide refuge to persecuted writers and their families. They expressed an interest in partnering with either Cape Town or Johannesburg.
The WiPC committee does the most visible work of PEN International as it monitors where writers are being imprisoned and persecuted. The main focus of work is PEN International’s tracking of the cases of imprisoned writers. This information is sent to all the PEN centres that have Writers in Prison Committees who in turn use that information to lobby their governments and to be in direct contact with imprisoned writers.
After the very busy Brussels meeting I spent a couple of weeks in London, a guest of English PEN who hosted a Free the Word! Festival. This afforded me the opportunity to discuss how South African PEN and English PEN could look at ways of working together in the future. Gillian Slovo is the current president of English PEN so there are, of course, many areas of overlap and interest. This is a relationship that will, I hope, flourish over the next couple of years.
South Africa has no imprisoned writers and freedom of expression is expressly protected in our constitution. However, we have a very recent history of the banning of books and the imprisonment of writers and journalists. South African PEN is in a good position to monitor the imprisonment and persecution of writers in Africa. It is for these reasons that South African PEN is establishing a Writers in Prison Committee. The South African WiPC will, I hope, act as a focal point for our planned work on freedom of expression.
ANGOLA: Reporter Armando José Chicoca released
14 April 2011
RAN 11/11 update #1
PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee welcomes the 6 April 2011 release on bail of reporter Armando José Chicoca, who was sentenced to one year in prison and a heavy fine on defamation charges on 3 March. Chicoca was freed on bail of $2,400 following an order by the Angolan Supreme Court. His appeal was initially rejected by a provincial court which said that it had been lodged after the expiry date. His lawyer filed a complaint to the Supreme Court arguing that the last day by which the appeal could be lodged was a holiday and so it had been submitted the following day. PEN welcomes Chicoca’s release, however it remains concerned that he has been convicted solely for reporting on sexual harassment allegations against a judge in the region, which is a clear breach of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Angola is party.
For more information on Chicoca’s case see RAN 11/11
Please send appeals
- Welcoming the release of reporter Armando José Chicoca;
- Expressing concern that the conviction against Armando José Chicoca has not been dropped;
- Pointing out that his conviction was a clear breach of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Angola is a signatory.
Send your appeals to:
Procurator General of the Republic
Dr João Maria Moreira de Sousa
Procurador Geral da República
Procuradoria Geral da República
Rua 17 Setembro
Luanda, República de Angola
Fax: + 244 222 333 170/ + 244 222 333 172
Minister of Justice
Guilhermina Contreiras da Costa Prata
Ministro da Justiça
Ministério da Justiça
Rua 17 Setembro, Luanda, República de Angola
Fax: +244 222 330 327/ +244 222 338 175
Please send also appeals to diplomatic representatives of Angola in your country. Details of some Angolan embassies around the world can be seen here:
***Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN International if sending appeals after 13 May 2011.***
Report on WiPC Brussels conference
Between 24 and 27 March 2011, the WiPC was in Brussels for our ninth conference; we were some 75 strong, from almost forty centres. It was spring in Brussels; we were comfortably settled into three hotels in the city centre and our events were all at easy walking distance. The conference was hosted by PEN Flanders, in association with the biennial literary festival Passaporta; in fact, three conferences were brought together under the umbrella of Passaporta: the WiPC, ICORN (the international network of cities of refuge, which Brussels has just joined) and HALMA, a European association of houses of literature. This exercise in partnering made the conference not only viable financially, cutting registration costs dramatically, but also mutually beneficial, especially for the WiPC and ICORN, who have an important, longstanding working relationship.
In fact, the WiPC conference could not have happened without the generous support and logistical management of Passaporta; we simply do not have the financial or staffing resources to organize and realize such an event. In addition, PEN Flanders found support from the Flemish Minister-President to fund writers from Africa and Asia, who otherwise could not have taken part. Several other writers were generously supported by the Norwegian and Swedish PEN centres. In addition to our guests, WiPC delegates and our intrepid staff, we were joined by International Secretary Hori Takeaki and President John Ralston Saul, Rudolf Geel and Jan Honout of the PEN Emergency Fund, and Sara Whyatt’s co-interim-Executive Director of PEN International, Frank Geary.
On Thursday, before the official conference, we had eight hours of meetings with European Parliament and European Commission, including three meetings with members of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss China; four hours with funding and programming officials, in company with our conference partner, ICORN, and a meeting with Viviane Reding, a Vice-President of the European Commission. With PEN Flanders president David van Reybrouck and PEN Flanders WiPC chair Hilde Keteleer, we met with the Minister-President of Flanders, Kris Peeters, who listened closely to the statements of four of our invited guests and invited media to meet them as well. All this before being formally welcomed to Brussels by the Lord Mayor, and taking part in the first of the Passaporta Literary Festival events.
Friday morning, the conference began. We had several objectives: to explore connections between WiPC/PEN and the European Community; to move forward with several key policy issues, including digital media, religious defamation and exploring the basis for a network of European centres. Over three days we heard six Frontline Reports, from individuals invited to Brussels to share their experiences and their analysis. Our guests were Deo Namujimba, in exile from the Congo, Parwez Kambakhsh, in exile from Afghanistan, Naziha Rejiba, now back in Tunisia, Arthur Gakwandi from Uganda, Andrej Khadanovich from Belarus, and Heng Sreang from the new PEN centre in Cambodia. We had also invited Ricardo Alfonso Gonzalez, living in Spain after his release from a Cuban prison last autumn, but because he is seeking asylum, he was unable to leave Spain and instead sent us a moving statement, which I read as part of my opening remarks on Friday morning; you’ll find links to both statements below, as well as a link to the provocative keynote address delivered by ICPC President Tienchi Liao Martin. (A shoutout to the online human rights magazine Sampsonia Way for showcasing our conference: www.sampsoniaway.org)
Highlights: I’ve heard from many of you that the Frontline Reports were especially valuable, and I would add to those the reports we heard during the Digital Media session, from Sri Lanka, Iran and China. We were very honoured to have with us Heidi Hautala, Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, who spoke frankly and knowledgably in a dialogue with John Ralston Saul. The session on MENA was exilerating, with our own WiPC staffer, Ghias al-Jundi’s overview illuminated by his personal experience on Syria, followed by his conversation/interpretation with Naziha Rejiba of Tunisia. We heard for the first time from Parwez Kambakhsh about his experience of serving 21 months in seven prisons, while awaiting either execution or a pardon from President Karzai, and how PEN centres worked together in an extraordinarily sophisticated manner with their own embassies and the UN to get him out of Afghanistan.
Challenges: The overall scheduling was determined by the co-ordination of three conferences under the umbrella of Passaporta; as a result we did have fewer hours solely for our meetings than we had in Glasgow, for example. The good news is that we heard from every centre present, and the bad news is that while many people spoke succinctly, not everyone did. I personally believe that centre reports are essential to a conference, as we all otherwise focus almost entirely on our centre work and it is valuable to make comparisons and gather new ideas. Unfortunately this (and a few other scheduling issues) meant that other sections of the agenda had to be shortened, for which I apologize, and thank you all for working within these constraints. I know that spirited conversations took place outside the conference room. But I know that many people share my regret that there was not sufficient time for planning our next steps.
Outcomes: The situation in Belarus came into focus and many centres indicated a desire to learn more and work on this issue. We agreed to a statement of support for Turkish PEN, and to a statement of support for the Irish PEN Centre, in their campaign to get a constitutional referendum on the issue of blasphemy before the end of the year. We began work on a new strategy for Mexico, following up on a recent study carried out by PEN Canada. There was a fruitful session on how European centres should work together as a network. We began a lively discussion about the role of the WiPC in PEN International and our work on a wide range of freedom of expression issues, but this discussion was cut short. A strong proposal from Scottish PEN on cooperative fundraising involving PEN International and the centres was introduced, but needs further conversations, with both the PEN International board and with more centres. Following an excellent discussion on the challenges of digital media, a number of individuals agreed to work on this subject to see it might be the topic for an open session involving all centres at the next Congress. There was agreement that we need to develop a policy concerning digital media. We received about 15 questionnaires, for which thanks, and we’re in the process of analyzing and summarizing those.
During our committee meeting at the Congress, in September, I hope we can pick up directly on many of the conversations we began in Brussels and set policy and campaign objectives for the next year.
A footnote: On Sunday, after our final session we learned that the United Nations Human Right Council had unanimously passed a resolution affirming the protection of individual rights to religious beliefs and practices, which means that the campaign to make blasphemy a crime has been abandoned. There’s a link below to the news release issued by PEN International several days after the conference.
Thank you: The idea of having a conference in Brussels was quietly suggested to us in Glasgow in 2008 by Hilde Keteeler, and she then went about making it happen, with stalwart support from PEN Flanders president David Van Reybrouck and centre members. My thanks to Hilde for her dedication, and for the grace notes of flowers for the interpreters and birthday celebrants, and exquisite chocolates for our colleagues who came from Japan at a time of great personal tragedy. I’d also like to acknowledge the brilliance of Paul Buekenhout and the Passaporta team and the enormous work done by ICORN’s Helge Lunde in preparing for the conferences and meetings with EU officials.
Thank you very much to all who moderated sessions, and to those who were not unhappy to be consulted before the event on agenda issues. My very warm thanks to Ghias and Azar, who interpreted with great spirit and generosity, and also to the three interpreters provided through Passaporta. Tamsin, Ghias, Cathal, and Cathy were of enormous help to Sara and me as we made preparations for the conference, Cathy and Ghias also cheerfully indispensable in Brussels, and I’d especially like to acknowledge Sara’s indefatigable leadership of the team, done while balancing two large hats on her head.
I look forward to seeing you all at the Congress in September, and to working with you until then on various issues. Do contact me at my personal email address, below, which I see more frequently.
Marian Botsford Fraser
Writers in Prison Committee
MBF remarks at the opening session of the conference:
Ricardo Alfonso Gonzalez’ letter to WiPC conference:
Tienchi Liao’s keynote address at opening session:
PEN International March 31st news release on UNHRC Religious Defamation Resolution:http://bit.ly/dRfIRx