The Potomac River in Washington is frozen, though only with a light crust of ice, not like the Charles River in Boston which appears a solid block that one might stomp across all the way to Cambridge, though in the center a soft spot could crack open at any moment. Measuring the solidity of surfaces can be a matter of life and death.
The image of frozen surfaces arose as I was reviewing for a talk the appeals sent on behalf of writers in prison or killed for their work in the past year. Around 90 Rapid Action alerts (RANs) were sent out by PEN International, which tracks the situation of writers worldwide. I’d sent appeals on approximately half of these. I reviewed the risk and judgment of the writers in these countries. Some regimes were relentless; others, more arbitrary. Governments, like China and Iran, appear to be solid authoritarian regimes that brook little dissent, yet beneath the surface and at the edges, writers and others chip away, laying the groundwork for change that might yet crack open their societies.
The suppression of the writer is a barometer for political freedom in a country and can often be a predictor of events to come.
In July, the arrest of Fahem Boukaddous, a journalist sentenced to four years in prison for “harming public order” by covering demonstrations, foreshadowed both the recent suppression and the protests in Tunisia where the government’s crackdown on writers preceded the fall of the regime itself. Boukaddous and seven other writers have now been released.
In May, the arrests of Belarusian writers, including Vladimir Neklyayev, President of Belarus PEN, for “dissemination of false information” foreshadowed the sweeping arrests of writers, activists and opposition leaders during the presidential elections in December when Neklyayev and others were also candidates. It remains to be seen how the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenko will hold, given the widespread charges of a flawed election and unrest in the population.
At the beginning of the year, the Chinese government detained and arrested writers, including Zhao Shiying, Secretary General of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Zhao protested the arrest and sentencing of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo to 11 years for his role in drafting Charter ’08, a document that called for democratic reform in China. The year continued with the detention of Chinese writers supporting Liu and democracy and also the arrests of writers in Tibet and the Uyghur Autonomous Region. If the suppression of writers is inversely proportional to freedom and democratic change in a society, then China remains at the top of the list of frozen governments.
The year also began with writers, journalists and bloggers in prison in Iran, followed by further crackdowns on writers, including Nasrin Sotoudeh. Sotoudeh, a writer and lawyer, was sentenced to 11 years on charges that included: “cooperating with the Association of Human Rights Defenders,” “conspiracy to disturb order,” and “propaganda against the state.” Other charges brought against writers in Iran included “congregation and mutiny with intent to commit crimes against national security,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” “insulting the President,” and “disruption of public order.” The arrests, imprisonments and executions in Iran may give the appearance of a solid block of state power, but it is a block that may yet crack from the edges and the center as citizens continue to stomp across it.
It is worth remembering the precipitous fall 20 years ago of the Soviet Union as pressure for freedom sent fissures through the system that eventually broke the harsh authoritarian surface. As the world watches the current upheavals in the Middle East, one can track back and note the suppression of writers in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt. The writers and their words are like a heat source that regimes try to trap beneath the surface but instead they soften up the ice.
As a young mother, I used to tell stories to my two sons constantly—on the way to school, standing in long lines anywhere, on car, plane or bike rides, on hikes. I would ask each to give me two things (people, ideas, places, plots) they would like in the story, and then I would weave the disparate ingredients into a tale. Their elements might include something like a dog, a butterfly, a battle of some sort, and a waterfall…the possibilities were open and endless, though usually there was some battle involved and some animal in most of the stories.
Over the last year and a half, partly urged by my now adult sons, I’ve committed to writing a blog post once a month. For me the process is a bit similar to the earlier exercise as I look over the month and try to wrap ideas, thoughts, events into 600 words. This month’s elements are particularly rich, probably too rich for a 600-word essay, though the literary form of the blog hasn’t been established or defined so it can, I suppose, be whatever one wants.
I began June at an International PEN Writers in Prison conference joined to the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression conference in Oslo, Norway, where the sun doesn’t set in the summer. In Oslo, activists from organizations around the globe discussed, debated, and strategized into the summer nights about the state of freedom of expression around the world and the mechanisms to protect it. Everyone understood that societies without this freedom are most often without political and civil freedoms as well so the defense of freedom of expression is the front line.
The timing of the conference coincided with the 20th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in China. This year of 2009 is also the 20th anniversary of the popular uprising against the military government in Burma/Myanmar after the election of Aung San Sui Kyi, who was re-arrested this May; it is the 20th anniversary of the fatwa in Iran against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses, and it is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The year 1989 was a threshold year. So where have we come twenty years later?
After Oslo, I went briefly to Paris en route to Normandy, where the 65th anniversary of the World War II invasion was being celebrated. I was headed to Normandy for a bike trip through the countryside and the historical sites, not for the official celebrations, but I was in Paris the day President Obama and his family arrived. It was also the day of the men’s semi-finals of the French Open in tennis. (You see the elements of this blog complicating…)
Driving back to the hotel after Federer beat Del Potro and Soderling beat Gonzalez, I was talking in my broken French with the taxi driver talking in his broken English about the matches and about the arrival of Obama and about world politics in general. The driver was ebullient—an oxymoron perhaps for a French taxi driver—but he was ebullient nonetheless.
“The world…the U.S….France…Europe…it is hopening,” he said, gesturing with his arms, trying to explain what he meant about the opening he saw in the world and the hope he felt. “We have hopening between us!”
This optimism was more circumspect but also cautiously present among many monitoring free expression. There are serious problems in countries like China, Iran and Burma/Myanmar where writers who speak out are given long prison terms and in countries like Mexico where writers without sufficient protection from the state are killed by criminal cartels, but at the same time citizens are speaking out. One can look at indices that track and analyze freedoms within societies and see that the trend has been towards opening.
That day in Paris the sun was shining, but for the rest of the week and most of the bike ride through Normandy, the skies were grey and drizzling, not dissimilar to the weather during the Normandy invasion. Every now and then the sun would shoot through as we pedaled into the rain and the wind along the coast. At both the American and European cemeteries we—all children of the generation who fought the war—paid quiet homage and in the German cemetery we stood in sober reflection.
The war of our parents was the last world war, though there have been plenty of regional wars and battles since. But in the last twenty years at least, societies have been unlocking and the citizens’ voices have grown in volume and strength. However, neither on the wind-swept coast of Normandy nor on the light-filled avenues of Oslo, did any of us predict that only a few weeks later hundreds of thousands of Iranians would fill their streets. Their call for reform and the opening up of their society still hangs in the air.
In Normandy we met a gentleman now in his late 80’s who worked in the French Resistance during the war. He lived across from the German headquarters, and the night of the invasion his task was to report on what went on there as the Germans realized that the invasion had begun. He was in his early twenties at the time. He spent the rest of his life as a professor, but his participation on the right side of history, his small, but crucial acts remain central to his memory and were honored at the celebrations. Looking back, he could see the long arc of history which at each moment can appear as disparate and unconnected as the separate elements of a story…a dog, a butterfly, a battle, a waterfall…but with the knitting of time and the shaping of history can render a story that almost makes sense.