«The Guardians and the War on Truth»: Just a few years back we would have had difficulties imagining that four persecuted journalists and a haunted newspaper would be declared the TIME Person of Year. Or that the Christmas edition of the same magazine in its entirety reads as a campaign journal for journalists at risk and freedom of expression. These are the times we find ourselves in towards the end of 2018.
On 7 October 2006, Russian writer, journalist and human rights defender Anna Politkovskaya was brutally murdered. During her tireless fight to reveal abuse of power and politically motivated killings in Russia and Chechnya, she received several offers of respite and refuge in Europe. Always on the move and alert to uncover atrocities and human rights violations, she declined her offers. Only the fatal shots in the elevator of her Moscow apartment block could silence her voice.
12 years later, 2 October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went into his nation’s consulate in Istanbul, and never came back out. What the Arab world needs most is freedom of expression was the title of the article his assistant sent to Washington Post after he disappeared. Khashoggi’s editor Karen Attiah held it back awaiting his arrival, but finally sent it for publishing, noting that the column - perfectly captures his commitment and passion for freedom in the Arab world. A freedom he apparently gave his life for.
The period between the killings of these two witnesses of their time, ICORN was formed and has mobilised 70 cities worldwide to offer an alternative to silence. Since 2006, more than 200 persecuted poets, journalists, musicians, bloggers, cartoonists, novelists, painters, playwrights, non-fiction writers, translators and film makers have found refuge in an ICORN City. Be it in Uddevalla or Berlin, Pittsburgh or Barcelona, Skien or Paris, persecuted freedom fighters and trouble makers have found the safe spaces to continue their struggle for democratic values, human rights and freedom. They are, as was duly marked and celebrated during the ICORN General Assembly in Malmö in May this year - safe not silent.
For the first time, more women than men have found refuge in an ICORN city in 2018; strong female voices from Syria, Iran, Bangladesh, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan. Never has ICORN received so many applications from persecuted writers and artists; compared to last years record of 119 application, ICORN has so far this year received 149 applications. During the year, ICORN is in continuous contact with between 300 and 400 new and former applicants; writers, journalists and artists under severe threats and persecution, in their home country or already on the run.
The good news is therefore that more and more cities are joining ICORN to offer the protection necessary to continue to be vocal. 2018 welcomed 7 new cities to the network; Berlin, Leiden, Asker, Poitier, Vestfold County, Helsinki, Östersund, with Warsaw, Bern and Las Vegas among those in the pipeline to join in 2019.
- I don’t believe in nationalities, says Wesam Al Madani, who recently found refuge with ICORN. She continues:- I was born in Sudan, grew up in Egypt and later established myself in Gaza, Palestine. Under the title At Home, Everywhere, more than 300 writers, artists, city representatives, activists, experts and sister networks will gather in Rotterdam 29-31 May 2019 for the ICORN Network Meeting & PEN International WiPC Conference in Rotterdam, to explore what it means to be at home in today’s world, and what it means to be bereft of it. We will discuss the role of cities in supporting writers and artists at risk, so that they can continue to raise awareness globally and be change actors for democratic values and freedom of expression.
So far in 2018, the year when we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reports that 80 journalists around the world have been killed in line of duty, 348 are imprisoned and 60 are being held hostage. It reminds us that it is more important than ever to stand together and fight for the values and ideas we believe in. Based on the first external evaluation of ICORN, the organisation has developed and set into motion a new strategic plan for 2018-2022, preparing to meet the challenges ahead. ICORN’s vision is clear: Improved conditions for freedom of expression world wide. The mission follows in logic order: ICORN enables cities around the world to provide safe havens for persecuted writers and artists, working together to advance freedom of expression, defend democratic values and promote international solidarity.
Back in 2006, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk saluted the birth of ICORN, he hoped for himself that he did not have to resort to shelter. However, he continued, the knowledge that such a global initiative exists and prospers, encourages writers, journalists, artists, human rights defenders worldwide to keep on writing and creating, assured that if the pressure becomes unbearable, there exist refuge to resort to. Let us honor their memory and courage of those who are silenced forever by giving the last words to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (1938-2018): - Freedom of the press ensures that the abuse of every other freedom can be known, can be challenged and even defeated.