Creative Resistance: Report from ICORN Network Meeting 2015
Under the title Creative Resistance – Stories from the Edge of Freedom, writers, artists, activists, city officials and human rights defenders from all over the world gathered in Amsterdam for the joint ICORN Network Meeting and PEN International Writers in Prison Committee Conference in May, to scrutinize the condition of freedom of expression.
Our hosts, Dutch PEN, the city of Amsterdam and De Brakke Grund, welcomed ICORN with 170 participants from 45 countries, and our close partner and co-organizer, PEN International WiPC, so warmly and professionally. Altogether, we were 250 participants from 60 different countries brought together to examine the conditions of freedom of expression and the situation of the number of persecuted writers and artists around the globe who risk their lives in their fight for basic human rights and free speech.
During three inspiring days, people gathered in panel debates, screenings, workshops, speed dating and public manifestations, held in joint and separate sessions with PEN WiPC.
We heard stories from the edge of freedom, reminding us of why we do what we do and that freedom of expression should never be taken for granted. We learned from our partners and sister organisations. And we created new partnerships and opportunities within the fields of protection and promotion of writers and artists who risk their lives in exercising their right to freedom of speech.
Political cartooning, digital security, short-term shelter for writers and artists at risk, the rise of anti LGBT legislation, how music and other artistic expressions are provoking repressive regimes around the world, the strife to combat impunity in Asia and Latin America, and freedom after expression were among the topics fervently discussed.
Among the valuable interventions during the network meeting were the speech by Charlie Hebdo staff Zineb El Rhazoui’, who survived the killings in Paris in January, as well as Nawzat Shamdin from Iraq, Naeimeh Sanaye froom Iran and Ashur Etwebi from Libya who discussed experiences of working as journalist in conflict areas, as well as facing and fleeing persecution in the Middle East.
Day 1 – Tuesday 26 May
Testimonies from creative activists
The ICORN Network Meeting was officially opened with welcome speeches by Sabine Gimbrère, Head of the International Office City of Amsterdam (name) and the venue and Ronald Bos from Dutch PEN, followed by a presentation of all participants and updates on network developments. ICORN guest writers/artists, who have fled their countries and taken up residence in a city of refuge, spoke about their background, and their experiences as guest writers. Among them were Sahar Bayati (Iran/Haugesund), Idrak Abassov (Azerbaijan/Bø) and Abdul Hakim Hashemi (Afghanistan/Paris).
New cities on board
One of the main goals of the network meetings is to sustain, but also to grow the network, to be able to host more writers and artists at risk. In a symbolic gesture at the opening ceremony, three new cities were announced to sign in with ICORN during the network meeting, committing to host persecuted writers and artists in the years to come. In addition to the city of Luzern, two already close partners of ICORN, the cities of Pittsburgh and Ithaca New York signed the ICORN membership agreement, becoming the second and third American cities to join ICORN.
In a dynamic exchange of competences, experiences and challenges, ICORN guest writers and artists, cities and international cooperation partners were invited to present their work and to discuss relevant issues with interested parties, potentially creating new lines of cooperation. Among the participating organisations were Hivos, CAHR University of York, Justice & Peace, PEN International.
“We need to live with the cynicism of free speech“
By the beautiful canals of Amsterdam, the whole assembly met for a welcoming dinner at Restaurant NEL, which brought rich opportunity for networking with distant colleagues and friends. The official reception of the ICORN Network Meeting and PEN WiPC conference followed across the canal, at the old church, the Duif in Prinsengracht.
After a welcoming speech by the Mayor of Amsterdam Mr. Eberhard van der Laan, we heard interventions by PEN International WiPC Chair Marian Botsford Fraser, ICORN Chair of Board, Peter Ripken, President of PEN Netherlands Manon Uphoff and President of PEN International, John Ralston Saul.
They spoke about the significance of cities as spaces for refuge and human rights, and the importance of protecting free speech and its advocates; those who speak where others are silent, as Mr.Ripken put it. To move forward, John Ralston Saul said at the reception, “we need to live with the cynicism of free speech.” We remembered those who are not free and those who are no longer with us, simply because of exercising their right to free speech.
The evening exceled with manifestations by Anna Funder (Australia), renowned novelist, human rights defender and an ardent advocate of ICORN; Ramy Essam (Egypt), known as the Voice of the Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring revolution, at present guest musician in Malmö City of Refuge; Dutch historian Geert Mak (Netherlands), and; the the Russian –American journalist and author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Masha Gessen, who spoke of the necessity of protest movements and of the tragic destinies of many of the pussy riot members and countless other writers, journalists and artists in Russia targeted by the government through physical attacks as well as new laws restricting liberty of action and basic human rights in the country. The moderator of the evening was Abdelkarim Benali (Netherlands)
Those who could stay awake were lucky to go on a magnificent sightseeing round-trip on the Amsterdam canals.
Day 2 – Wednesday 27 May
Report from the ICORN Administration
The second day started with updates and new developments from the ICORN Administration Centre by Marianne Hovdan and Elisabeth Dyvik.
ICORN is a fast growing organisation. Responding to the situation of the countless writers and artists in need of protection and a free space to continue their work, 2015 presents a large increase in cities and regions joining the network. By May, seven cities have joined ICORN in 2015, now constituting 53 cities.
ICORN has received a record number of applications from persecuted writers and artists, and works extensively on network building to continuously increase the capacity to help persecuted writers around the world.
The ICORN Administration Center salutes the development and strives to follow up each city and writer/artist. This also means a larger workload on the administration and poses a challenge, as the staff is not growing proportionally. The ICORN administration and board is continuously working on strategies for funding of core cost to enable the organisation to handle the expansion of the network.
A strengthened, diversified and multiplied network of relevant cooperation partners is a vital precondition for ICORN’s further development and growth. ICORN is working extensively together with and towards other organisations and institutions within the fields of human rights, artistic rights, migration and freedom of expression, to enable appropriate and sustainable solutions for the applicants.
New cities, new strategies
To find a suitable solution for each potential city to become and to run a city of refuge, ICORN works closely together with partners and political representatives in the respective cities. ICORN is also working extensively towards other continents than Europe, with very diverse strategies and consolidations to realize sustainable solutions for the programme in each city. For a long time, ICORN has been working with cities in Brazil, Australia and South Africa as well the cities in the United States.
Brazil. We heard reports from Brazil, where CABRA, an NGO founded by Sylvie Debs, ICORN ambassador to Brazil, to establish cities of refuge in Brazil, presented a plan to realize the ICORN programme in Ouro Preto and Minas Gerais/Belo Horizonte, in collaboration with local politicians and the cities’ universities. Lucia Castello Branco, Guiomar de Grammont and Leda Maria Martins, Director of Cultural Actions at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais/Belo Horizonte presented the locations, possible solutions and the work of the university.
Australia. We heard from Australia by Anna Funder who is working together with ICORN to establish the cities of refuge programme in Sidney and Melbourne.
USA. Henry Reese, the founder of Cities of Asylum in our new member city, Pittsburgh, spoke about how the city works to protect and promote the writers that they host through their already impressive programme for persecuted writers, and their strategy to integrate the programme in the local community.
South Africa. ICORN has been working extensively with South African PEN and journalist Michael Schmidt on establishing cities of refuge in South Africa. Michael Schmidt is consultant to the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) and started the South Africa Cities of Refuge Project in 2012. This May, the project invited Fredrik Elg, Parvin Ardalan and Ramy Essam from Malmö and ICORN's Elisabeth Dyvik to South Africa in order to get Johannesburg, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Grahamstown on board. Fredrik Elg presented the city of Malmö’s collaboration project with forces in South Africa. You can read more about the tour and collaboration project in our article ICORN in Cape Town!
Tailoring cities of refuge for artists and musicians
At the 2014 General Assembly in Ljubljana, the assembly voted for expansion of scope, to include musicians and artists. ICORN is working extensively towards expanding the network to include cooperation partners within the sector for artists’ rights and possibilities. On the subject, we heard from the Norwegian city of Harstad, the first official safe haven for musicians in the network, and their ICORN musician Abazar Hamid from Sudan. Anna Livion from Gävle told us about how the city will work as safe haven for artists, with the Gävle Konstsentrum (artcenter) as the managing institution.
The arts of hospitality and challenges of new beginnings
Separate ICORN workshop sessions followed on the themes of The Arts of Hospitality, New beginnings and Freedom after Expression, discussing benefits, challenges and cooperation options for ICORN cities as well as the opportunities and challenges of new beginnings for the ICORN residents.
At the workshop, The arts of hospitality, Jon Gnarr, comedian and previous Mayor of Reykjavik, told a story of a comedian who in political frustration founded a new party, the Best Party, and unexpectedly climbed the polls to become the Mayor of one of our most northern cities, a city where its first ICORN writer, Palestinian Mazen Marouf, was granted his first ever citizenship. He kept his promise and stayed his period. We continued to discuss the responsibilities of cities hosting the writers and artists.
The workshop New beginnings discussed the opportunities and challenges posed for writers and artists who take the opportunity an ICORN residency gives, to change direction and start new undertakings. At Freedom after expression Wilco Tuinebreijer, psychiatrist/ medical director of the Amsterdam dep. of mental health, presented ways of approaching the experiences of trauma, such as violence, intimidation/threats and being in exile, that often follow writers and artists who flee to take up residency in an ICORN city.
Charlie Hebdo survivor - is it still worth it?
After the lunch break the assembly had to go through extensive security measures to get into the venue. Zineb El Rhazoui, former ICORN writer in Ljubljana and Charlie Hebdo staff spoke about living with constant threats and still insisting on exercising freedom of expression. She emphasised that it is not a human right not to be offended. Is it worth it and why? See the video from the sincere speech by a strong freedom activist below.
The frontlines of freedom of expression: Keynote speech
Introduced by Human Rights ambassador to the Netherlands Kees van Baar, Prof. David Kaye, in his role as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, gave this video keynote speech for the Creative Resistance participants. He gave examples of gross violations on human rights and the crackdown on free speech around the world, and called the writers and artists of the network “the front lines of freedom of expression”. He emphasised states’ obligation not only to protect free speech, but also to promote it, and stressed that human rights law protects everyone:
Human rights law protects everyone—the professional journalist gathering and reporting information, the blogger and social media poster sharing information and opinions with the world, and everyone who enjoys or seeks access to other’s expression. It protects everyone’s right to challenge or even verify official narratives and conventional opinion by speaking and gathering information, analyzing it and interpreting it, sharing it through any media, regardless of frontiers.
Free speech vs. Hate speech
David Kaye was followed by a panel discussion led by Marian Botsford from PEN International WiPC on the subject “Free Speech vs Hate Speech: A conversation about Freedom of Expression Activism in a Globalized, 24/7 World”. In the panel: Larry Siems (USA), Masha Gessen (Russia/USA), Ashur Etwebi (Libya), Kamal Khan (Pakistan) and Frankie Asare-Donkoh (Ghana). The panel discussion was filmed, find it below:
Joint PEN/ICORN workshops followed, with a film screening, We are Journalists, a discussion on strategies to end impunity in Latin America and Asia, and a panel discussion about the tasks and challenges of cartoonists, led by Bro Russel of the CRNI, and joined by four ICORN cartoonists: Abdul Arts (Somalia) Arifur Rahman (Bangladesh), Mana Neyestani (Iran) and Fadi Hassan (Palestine/Syria).
The evening was rounded up with dinner at the Harkema Restaurant, and Café Liberte, curated by Paul Buekenhout. A Literary/artistic event of readings, music and dance, with Sjón (Iceland), Abdelkader Benali (NL), Beatrice Lamwaka Uganda), David van Reybrouck (B), Samar Yazbek (Syria), Nihad Sirees (Syria), Faraj Bayrakdar (Syria), Pablo Simonetti (Chile), Mana Neyestani (Iran), Fadi Hassan (Syria), Khaled Harara (Palestine), Meral Polat (NL), Mohsen Emadi (Iran), Ghayath Almadhoum (Syria), and the dancers Carl Refos (Suriname/Netherlands) and Tamara Robledo Oud (Spain/Netherlands).
Day 3 – Thursday 28 May
The day started with Joint ICORN/PEN workshops on diverse themes such as:Free to criticize, free to dissent on the decriminalizing libel and criminal defamation in Africa and beyond. The danger of Art on why and how is music and other artistic expressions are provoking repressive regimes around the world; Digital Security on how private persons and organizations can develop more secure and creative tools for the digital world of tomorrow, by Technology officer Menso Heus from Free Press Unlimited, in cooperation with ICORN writer and computer engineer Mohsen Emadi; At the Rise of anti-LGBT legislation & Freedom of Expression, a panel examined various aspects of the rise in anti-LGBT legislation and its impact on free expression. See the video below.
ICORN and PEN cooperate with a number of other organisations to be able to help even more writers and artists at risk as quickly and sustainable as possible. The workshop Shelter Unlimited presented organisations offering mainly short-term residencies to HRDs, writers, and artists at risk, exploring how to work together. Organisations present were: Justice & Peace (NL), Perpetuum Mobile (FI), CAHR University of York (UK) and HiaP (FI). The cooperation was personified in one of ICORN residents who first received a scholarship in York while waiting for a free residency in an ICORN city.
Archive 1,336-1,337 – a theatre performance
Archive 1,336-1,337, a moving theatre collective performance reflecting upon a regime‘s attempt to silence an artist and his political voice, as well as the expansion of private life into the public sphere. It was directed and performed by Valborg Frøysnes her Ethiopian co-actor and ICORN writer, Hika Dugassa.
ICORN Plenary session
The network was wrapped at the end of the day with speeches by writer Anna Funder and by Helge Lunde, ICORN’s Executive Director, who summed up a fantastic network meeting, highlighting the important work that the cities and regions, writers and artists in the network are doing. Without them, ICORN would never be able to do the work it does, let alone exist. Lunde emphasised the possibilities within the network of intercity collaboration and promotion opportunities for writers and artists.
The new ICORN webpage was launched by Cathrine Helland (ICORN).
Representativeto the writer/artist
The Ethiopian Journalist Girma Fantaye takes over the role as the ICORN writers and artists' representative, and takes a place at the ICORN Board Meetings.
Announcement: ICORN General Assembly 2016 in Paris
Representative to city of refuge Paris, Sophie Boulè, announced the extraordinary news that the 2016 ICORN General Assembly will be hosted by the city of Paris at Hotel de Ville, marking the 10th anniversary of the network. The message came simultaneously with Paris’ Mayor, Anne Hidalgo’s official presentation of their prioritised commitment towards human rights and freedom of expressions, and particularly during the first half of 2016, with the ICORN General Assembly as an important part.
Urgency and timeliness
ICORN’s programme director Elisabeth Dyvik spoke about how ICORN works and collaborate with other organisations, about the brilliant work that the cities, writers and artists do, as well as how to handle the urgency of cases.
Shortly before the Network Meeting, we were painfully reminded of the vulnerable situation of many of our applicants, and in particular, the terrible state of affairs of freedom of expression in Bangladesh, where 84 atheist bloggers are put on a death-list orchestrated by a group of religious fundamentalists. 6 have already been brutally attacked and killed. The blogger Ananta Bijoy, who was killed in the streets of Sylhet is the first applicant on ICORNs placement list that has been killed before we were able to help.
Bijoy had applied to ICORN, and was on the waiting list for a residency when he was stabbed to death in the city of Sylhet by a masked gang on 12 May 2015. In the wake of these killings more than 150 writers from across the globe spoke out, calling on Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajed and her government to do all in their power to ensure that the tragic events were not repeated and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
By May, ICORN has received applications for residencies from 13 Bangladeshi bloggers. Together with other organisations working on assistance and re-location we monitor the situation for over 30 bloggers at risk.
A minute of silence for Ananta.
A special thanks to our great hosts in Amsterdam, who welcomed all of us, 170 participants from 45 countries, so warmly and professionally, and to our close partner and co-organizer, PEN International WiPC. Altogether, we were 250 participants from 60 different countries! We would like to thank those of you who contributed with vital expertise in workshops and debates. Thanks to each and every one of you for sharing your experiences with us and for all that you do to move this important work forward.
PEN International promotes literature and freedom of expression. Founded in London in 1921 and now with over 140 independent centres across the globe, PEN International connects an international community of writers. It is a forum where writers meet freely to discuss their work. It is also a voice speaking out for writers silenced in their own countries through its Writers in Prison Committee, established in 1960 which also offers practical protection measures to persecuted writers. PEN International is a non-political organisation which holds Special Consultative Status at the UN and Associate Status at UNESCO.
The Writers in Prison Committee holds a biannual Conference where members from affiliated committees in its centres meet to discuss developments in freedom of expression around the world, to share experiences in campaigning and to bring public attention to egregious violations of the freedom of expression of individual writers through a programme of public and restricted events which fuse its literary and human rights work.
Each year, ICORN facilitates an annual meeting between the many different actors and stakeholders in the network; guest writers and artists, city coordinators, cultural institutions, human rights and cultural organisations, partner organisations, funders, politicians and the like. They are essential to consolidate and strengthen the network and to boost the network’s capacity to protect, promote and participate in human rights and the freedom of speech.
ICORN organizes a General Assembly every second year and every other year a Network Meeting. The latter three network meetings have been held in a meaningful cooperation with ICORN’s closest partner, PEN Internationals Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC).