Last night on November 15th it was imprisoned writers’ day. It was commemorated with interviews with four and book sellings by two authors at Malmoe City Library. The event was an arrangement between Malmoe City Library, Internationell författarscen/International Author Stage and Swedish PEN. In the big hall Ljusets Kalender/The Calendar of Light at the library lots of people had gathered, both young and old, women and men who were interested to hear what the invited journalists/writers had to say. Those who arranged it all had put up one table for the book signings later, one with some refreshments: soda, water and potato chips and in the back towards the vast glass walls heading towards the street outside the stage was put. On the podium three orange chairs were standing and a small table in one corner. Per Bergström in the picture above, (project leader of International Author Stage), says: “Attacks, imprisonment and threats against a single writer is so much more than the oppression of the individual; it is also a threat against the democracy, the freedom of speech and freedom of press”. Swedish PEN had invited the Italian writer Roberto Saviano, but he was unable to come because of a court trial going on. All the same some writers had come to tell us their stories. They were the Russian journalist Alex Tor, the Iranian journalist, writer, poet now Asylum author here in Malmoe, Naeimeh Doostdar, the Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye and the Ethiopian journalist Mezgevu Habtewold. Rakel Chukri who is Chief of the Culture pages at Sydsvenskan/The South Swede, (born and raised in Sweden, but by parents with Assyrian background) interviewed Alex Tor and Naeimeh Doostdar. Per Svensson also from Sydsvenskan interviewed Martin Schibbye and Mezgebu Habtewold. The event should begin at seven p.m. and go on for a little more than two hours. At 5.30 I sent a message on Facebook to Naeimeh Doostdar that I would come and listen and she gladly welcomed me. We met on the stairs on the way up when she came with her daughter, and I greeted her husband too.
We in the audience learned yesterday that ca 700 journalists are imprisoned worldwide because of their writing, and last year in 2012 at least 44 journalists were killed also for their articles and investigations. Being a journalist can be very dangerous if you say or write something that powerful people do not like, if you critisize the government, the local rule, the corruption, or write about companies, maffia connections, pollution, human rights etc. Rakel Chukri entered the stage together with the Russian journalist Alex Tor. That is not his real name, and because he has conceiled identity I won’t show any pictures of him.The first photo above that you see I took last night from a publication from Swedish PEN, called “Fängslade författares dag – Ryssland 2013″/Imprisoned writers’ day – Russia 2013”. It contains an introduction by Ola Larsmo, followed by texts in Swedish translation originally written by Aleksei Polikovskiy, Michael Shishkin, Arkadiy Babchenko, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Dmitriy Bykov. At the end a text by Larry Siems called “What’s wrong with digital espionage?” and one by PEN called “Declaration on Digital Freedom”. Alex Tor was an ordinary journalist who explained that he has been writing about the wars in Chechnia and Inguzia in northern Caucasus. But he explained that the press is censored, and it’s seen as very sensitive to write about the situation in Russia, about human rights issues, about the young protesting women in Pussy Riot. His colleague Dimitriy Bykov wrote earlier this year about it: “Believe me. I don’t know where ever something similar would have been possible: the world’s most famous Russian (after the president of course) is on some unknown place, and as long as it is so she might suffer anything – and all this within the framework of the law. Since Nadezjda Tolkonnikova was moved from Mordvinia it is legally kept secret her new residing address. Has her situation worsened or improved? Does she get medical care? Do they unleash the other prisoners on her, as in Mordvinia? All these questions have no answers. “Never start messing” -That is, I guess, the signal they want to send, not only to the prisoners in the country, but to the nation’s entire population. Nadezjda Tolkonnikova can’t be assassinated, mutilated or beaten – she’s too famous. But they can, without breaking the letter of the law, poison her last three months in prison to such an extent that she, when once released, first must look for medical treatment for a long time, and then have to struggle with the torture of memory during her remaining life.” So far Dimitry Bykov, now back to Alex Tor. He has been writing for a long time, but he said for example that the national budget is hollowed out and destroyed by big sports events, and corruption, but also that free speech is hindered in many ways. There do exist a few inidependent papers like Novaya Gazetta and radio stations in Moscow critisizing the government and Putin, (though under surveillance), but in the Caucasus area it’s more or less impossible to make independent investigations or write anything not dictated from the authorities. He himself now has to live in exile in Europe with an alias in order to survive.
Next guest was Naeimeh Doostdar whose book “Så småningom gick jag inte hem – Censurerade dikter och noveller”/After a while I didn’t go back home – Censored poems and short stories” I now read. Naeimeh (to the right above) told us and Rakel Chukri that she wasn’t a political journalist in Iran, but focused on social issues, family stuff, women’s issues, but that too was sensitive. According to Naeimeh the Islamic rule and religion was and is very oppressive when it comes to women’s rights and gender equality. There does exist a women’s movement in Iran, but it has in recent years become more and more oppressed by the government. Naeimeh told us about the censorship, about how they checked every letter and word and told the journalists and writers to take away words and whole passages from their texts if they wanted them published. She remembered e.g. how her love poems, erotic passages or only just tender and affectionate ones in her articles, stories or poems were harshly censored. Also when she wrote about women’s issues and when she once described a meeting where people in protest of the message had thrown papers on the floor. She was not allowed to write that. Naeimeh also told us that ca 20 years ago there was a wave of author-killings in Iran where the security forces assassinated many Iranian writers. Since 2009 the situation has worsened, but the dreams of true democracy hasn’t died in the population. The authorities censored her texts, put her in jail for a while, but she then applied for a job in the Czhech Republic. Eventually Naiemeh and her husband managed to get out of the country and fly to Indonesia. There she learned of ICORN, International Cities of Refuge Network, and she is 2012-2014 asylum writer here in Malmoe. She has contacts with some of her colleagues in Iran, and tries to write as well she can, is active on a Persian radio station and writes articles while she studies Swedish for immigrants, so called Sfi.
After this interview the actor Håkan Paaske entered the stage and read an article by Dawit Isaak who is a Swedish journalist with his roots in Eritrea. He has now been imprisoned in Eritrea without any court sentence for 13 years and three months. Before he was taken to jail Dawit Isaak wrote several articles and this one was about the spread and threat of HIV in Eritrea. Years have passed, but the fact that Dawit Isaak is in jail is now and again highlighted in Swedish media, and the Swedish authorities accused of not doing enough to get him free. His family, wife and children are still waiting worryingly.
Per Svensson to the left in the photos above then interviewed the journalist Mezgebu Habtewold from Ethiopia and the Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye who was imprisoned in Ethiopia together with his colleague Johan Persson a couple of years ago. Mezgebu Habtewold has been writing for the newspaper Addis Nega in the capital city Addis Abeba, and was almost taken to jail, but managed to escape in time, and now lives in exile. He says that he loves his country, and would love to see it excell and thrive, and other countries make investments there to help it prosper. He all the same adds that many grand building projects are started, but many of them also are neglected, stopped or the processes prolonged by negligence or corruption. Habtewold has written many articles and seen the various good and bad aspects of his home country. Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson went in the summer of 2011 first to Somalia and then over the borders into Ethiopia to make reports about the situation in the region. There they were taken captives, accused of terrorism and put in prison. The Swedish state tried to intervene, foreign minister Carl Bildt made diplomatic efforts with the Foreign Ministry, while the Ethiopian authorities maintained a harsh line. I remember a journalist conference here in Malmoe in January 2012. I was then working with some journalists so I participated, and we then gathered money to the release of Schibbye and Persson. Carl Bildt’s involvement in the company Lundin Oil has been a problem though, since they are active in Ethiopia, and the fact that our Swedish foreign minister has stock holds in that company became sensitive.
Martin Schibbye told us that he and Johan Persson had invented a language with abbreviations, J for journalism, T for terrorism, M for the leader of the country etc to keep the content of their discussions secret. They knew that they were spied upon, and the prison atmosphere harsh to say the least. Prisoners snitching on each other to get benefits, and the two Swedes also realised that they shouldn’t try to get free by telling that they were journalists, not terrorists. In the same jail there were several journalist as captives, simply because they were journalists. These were treated very harshly. Schibbye has a great belief in the younger generations of Ethiopia where he sees another awareness, modernity and eagerness for democracy. He also told us that many things were smuggled in and out of the prison: cocain, hashish, weapons, but one thing was more or less impossible, because the leaders were so frightened of it: books. Some books were accepted such as stories by Astrid Lindgren, “The Old and the Sea” by Ernest Hemmingway, but most magazines and books were labelled as forbidden.
At the end of the evening Naeimeh Doostdar, (whose anthology I’ve written about a few weeks ago here on this weblog) and Martin Schibbye were signing copies of their books for those who wanted to buy them. Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson have written about their experiences in the Ethiopian prison. That book can be seen here below. I didn’t have the possibility to buy it yesterday, but I certainly will. It’s an interesting topic. Maybe also something for you to at least consider the importance of free speech for our present and future societies?
Anders Moberg, November 16th 2013