2019 Egypt: Ibrahim al-Husseini

The situation for freedom of expression and opinion in Egypt has deteriorated sharply since the arrival of President al-Sisi into power in 2014. Many journalists and writers have been arrested or forced to flee the country. One of them, Ibrahim al-Husseini, 63 years old, is a writer and activist. He is the author of short stories including his latest collection entitled Leil which is published by the Supreme Council for Culture in Egypt. In his articles, al-Husseini criticized both dictatorships and religious extremism in Egypt. Al-Husseini has been defending social justice since the 1970s. Due to his peaceful activities and critical writing, he was previously subjected to arrests and detentions. He was again arrested in the early morning of 9 December 2018. On 23 December 2018, the State Security Prosecution ordered al-Husseini’s pre-trial detention for 15 days on a charge of “inciting a demonstration”. Al-Husseini’s pre-trial detention has been renewed on 5 January 2019 for another 15 days. PEN believes that the charge against al-Husseini is politically motivated, and calls for his immediate and unconditional release, and for him to be provided with adequate medical care. We also call on the Egyptian authorities to free all those held solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and association.


Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,
Office of the President,
Al-Ittihadia Palace,
Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt

January 8th 2019

Your Excellency,

PEN International and The Norwegian Writers in Prison Committee hereby urge you to unconditionally release Ibrahim al-Husseini from prison and drop all charges against him.

Al-Husseini was arrested at his home in Cairo in December 2018 and we have reason to believe this was due to social media posts he wrote about events in Egypt and France. Al-Husseini suffers from several serious health problems, which require regular medical care.

We are very concerned with his situation and his health and hope you will ensure that he is properly taken care of, pending his release, and additionally that he gets full access to family visits and legal representation.

PEN International and The Norwegian Writers in Prison Committee urge you to remember that al-Husseini was merely executing his right to freedom of expression. This right should be respected and is in accordance with the Egyptian Constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party.

We urge you to immediately and unconditionally release Ibrahim al-Husseini and drop all charges against him, and to free anyone else held solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and association.

Yours sincerely,

Mari Moen Holsve
Member of Writers in Prison Committee
Norwegian PEN

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Egyptian Embassy in Norway

2018: Egypt: Wael Abbas

Egyptian blogger and political activist Wael Abbas has been detained on charges connected to terrorist activities and spreading false news. Norwegian PEN believes that the charges against Abbas’ are related to his peaceful activism and writings critical of the Egyptian government.


President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Office of the President
Al-Ittihadia Palace
Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt

Your Excellency,

Norwegian PEN is deeply concerned about the detention of  the blogger and political activist Wael Abbas, who has been arbitrary detained since his arrest on 24 May 2018.

Abbas has been accused of “joining a terrorist group in realizing its objectives”, “spreading false news damaging public security and public interest” and using social media to spread ideas inciting to commit terrorist acts”. According to reports, Abbas’s file has been included in the judicial case No. 441 of 2018, which also includes journalists and activists such as Mostafa al-Asar, Hassan al-Banna and Ezzat Ghoneim who is a lawyer and the head of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms. Abbas remains detained at Tora prison pending the investigation.

PEN International believes that the charges against Abbas’ are related to his peaceful activism and writings critical of the Egyptian government.  Norwegian PEN will call for his immediate and unconditional release and for all charges against him to be dropped.

We ask Egyptian authorities to ensure that the right to freedom of expression in Egypt is fully respected in law and practice in accordance with the Egyptian Constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party.


Yous sincerely,

Brit Bildøen
Chair of Writers in Prison Committee
Norwegian PEN


The Egyptian Embassy in Norway
The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Minister of Justice Mohamed Hossam Abdel Rahim
Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar

Egypt: PEN publishes new work by imprisoned poet Galal El Behairy

Ahead of the expected verdict on 27 June, PEN centres are coming together to share a poem  has written in prison

Poet Galal El-Behairy was arrested in Egypt on 3 March 2018. He was held incommunicado for a week before appearing before the High State Security on 10 March, showing signs of severe torture. The High State Security Prosecution subsequently ordered for him to undergo a forensic medical examination: the findings of the examination have not been made public, nor shared with his lawyer.

More than three months later, El-Behairy remains in detention, facing charges in both the Military Court and the High State Security Court. The charges are believed to relate to his latest book of poetry ‘The Finest Women on Earth’, published earlier this year. El-Behairy is also under investigation in relation to lyrics he wrote for artist Ramy Essam’s song ‘Balaha’, which criticises Egyptian government policies. Following the release of the song and music video on 26 February and prior to El-Behairy’s arrest, both he and Essam became victims of a smear campaign led by pro-government media.

On 6 May, El-Behairy attended a trial in the Military Court where he was informed that the verdict in relation to his book of poetry would be handed down three days later, on 9 May. The verdict was later postponed until 16 May, and is now expected on 27 June, El-Behairy’s birthday.

PEN believes that El-Behairy is being held in violation of his right to freedom of expression and urges the Egyptian authorities to release him and the many other writers and activists unlawfully detained in Egypt immediately and unconditionally.

To draw further international attention to his case ahead of the expected verdict, PEN centres – Danish PEN, English PEN, Finnish PEN, French PEN, German PEN, Norwegian PEN, PEN America, Swedish PEN – and our colleagues at ArabLit, Artists at Risk and FreeMuse are coming together to publish a new poem that El-Behairy has written while in detention, and to continue calls for his release.

Galal El-Behairy

From the Tora Prison in Cairo

May 2018

Translated from Egyptian Colloquial Arabic.[i]


A Letter from Tora Prison



You, something

in the heart, unspoken,


in the throat, the last wish

of a man on the gallows

when the hour of hanging comes,

the great need

for oblivion; you, prison

and death, free of charge;

you, the truest meaning of man,

the word “no”—

I kiss your hand

and, preparing for the trial,

put on a suit and pray

for your Eid to come.

I’m the one

who escaped from the Mamluks,

I’m the child

whose father’s name is Zahran,

and I swim in your name, addiction.

I’m the companion of outlawed poets.

O my oblivion, I’m the clay

that precedes the law of concrete.


In the heart of this night

I own nothing

but my smile.

I take my country in my arms

and talk to her

about all the prisoners’ lives… out there

beyond the prison’s borders,

beyond the jailer’s grasp,

and about man’s need… for his fellow man,

about a dream

that was licit

and possible,

about a burden

that could be borne

if everyone took part in it.


I laugh at a song

they call “criminal,”

which provoked them

to erect a hundred barricades.

On our account, they block out the sun

and the thoughts in the head.

They want to hide the past

behind locks and bolts,

preventing him from whispering

about how things once were.

They want to hide him

by appointing guards—

weak-minded foreigners

estranged from the people.

But what wonder is this?

His fate is written

in all the prison cells.

His cell has neither bricks

nor steel,

and he was not defeated

within it.

Outside… a squadron of slaves.

Inside… a crucified messiah.

The thorns above his brow

are witnesses: You betrayed his revolution

with your own hands.

With shame in your eyes, you

are the Judases of the past,

whatever your religion, whatever

miniscule vision you have.

We’ve come back

and we see you.


You who imprisoned

the light, that naked groaning.

The light doesn’t care

how tall the fence is;

it’s not hemmed in

by steel bars

or officers’ uniforms.

It cannot be forgotten.

You can take a public square away from us,

but there are thousands and thousands of others,

and I’ll be there, waiting for you.

Our land will not betray us.

With each olive branch

we’re weaving your shrouds.

And the young man you killed

has come back, awake now

and angry.

He’s got a bone to pick

with his killer.

He’s got a bone to pick

with the one who betrayed him,

the one who, on that night of hope,

acquiesced, fell silent, and slept.

His wound has healed; he’s come back,

a knight

without a bridle;

he’s setting up the trial

while an imam prays among us

and illumines the one who was blind;

he’s rolling up his sleeves, preparing

for a fight;

he was killed—yes, it’s true—and yet

he has his role in this epic;

he stands there now

and holds his ground.


We’ve returned

to call on God

and proclaim it: “We’ve come back,

come back

hand in hand.”

Again we proclaim it: “We’ve come back,

and we vow

to spread the light,

the new dawn,

the keen-sighted conscience.”

We’ve come back, and we can smell

the fear in in your veins;

and our cheers tonight

are the sweetest of all:

“We are not afraid.

We are not afraid.”


We saw a country

rise from sleep

to trample a pharaoh

and cleanse the age

of the cane and cudgel.

We saw a country sing:

those were no slave songs,

no harbingers of doom, rather

songs fitting

for a new kind of steel.

We saw it.

We saw a country

where no one is oppressed.

[i] Due to the potential for political repercussions against himself and his family, the translator of this poem has chosen to remain anonymous.

The poem is also available in Arabic: https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/Arabic-Galal-El-Behairy-June-2018-web-piece-June-18.pdf


Spread the word
Join us in sharing Galal’s piece, details of his case and calls to action on social media. If possible, please join the Twitterstorm from 15 pm on Saturday 9 June. #FreeGalal

Sign the petition
Add your support to the petition for Galal’s release https://www.change.org/p/egyptian-regime-torture-beatings-and-prison-for-galal-el-behairy-for-ramy-essam-s-balaha-freegalal

For further background information, please see PEN’s open letter to the Egyptian authorities

Egypt’s grim blow on freedom of expression and human rights: the tortured poet Galal El-Behairy must be freed

The Nordic and Estonian PEN centres protest against the tortured and arrested poet Galal El-Behairy.

8 May 2018

The President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
The Egyptian Minister of Justice Mohamed Hossam Abdel-Rahim
The Egyptian Minister of the Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffa
The Egyptian Public Prosecutor
The Egyptian Military Public Prosecutor

The Egyptian poet Galal El-Behairy is currently detained and faces charges in the Military Court related to his latest book of poetry, ‘The Finest Women on Earth’ (خير نسوان الأرض), published earlier in 2018. El-Behairy likewise faces charges for writing the lyrics for artist Ramy Essam’s song ‘Balaha’ in a separate case investigated by the High State Security Prosecution. He was arrested, beaten and tortured after the release of the song.

On May 6, 2018, El-Behairy was given the information that the verdict will be given on May 9 by the Military Court. Charges against him in the Military Court case include insulting the military and spreading false news.

Ramy Essam’s song and music video Balaha was released on February 26, 2018. Soon after the release of the song, which criticizes the government and policies of Egypt, various pro-state TV hosts launched a smear campaign against Essam and El-Behairy.

On March 3, 2018 El-Behairy was arrested, and his whereabouts were not disclosed to his family or lawyers until he appeared before the High State Security Prosecution one week later, on March 10, 2018. He showed signs of severe torture and beating, and the High State Security Prosecution ordered him to undergo forensic medical examination.

On May 6, 2018 Galal El-Behairy attended a trial in the Military Court, and to a great surprise, was given the information that the verdict will be given already in three days, on May 9, on the case that handles the content of his book of poetry.

At the same time, El-Behairy is being investigated by the High State Security Prosecution for both ‘The Finest Women on Earth’ (خير نسوان الأرض) and the lyrics he wrote for ‘Balaha’. The High State Security charges against him include joining a terrorist organization, spreading false news, abuse of social media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion, and insulting the military. An arrest warrant in the same case has been issued against Ramy Essam related to the song ‘Balaha’.

We, the undersigned PEN centres, stand in solidarity with Galal El-Behairy and Ramy Essam and urge Egyptian authorities to:

  • Drop all charges against Galal El-Behairy, in both the Military Court and the High State Security Court, in connection with the book of poetry ‘The Finest Women on Earth’ and the lyrics of ‘Balaha’, and release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is being held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression;
  • Ensure that Galal El-Behairy receives a fair trial, full legal representation, adequate medical care, and full access to family visits whilst detained;
  • Ensure the safety of Galal El-Behairy and his family and end all forms of harassment, intimidation, and attacks against them;
  • Drop all charges against and the arrest warrant for Ramy Essam, as he too has been peacefully practicing his legal right of freedom of expression;
  • Ensure that the right to freedom of expression in Egypt is fully respected in law and practice as provided for under the Egyptian Constitution and under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party; and
  • Ensure that Egypt respects the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) to which Egypt is a state party.

Venla Hiidensalo, President, Finnish PEN
Per Øhrgaard, President, Danish PEN
William Nygaard, President, Norwegian PEN
Jesper Bengtsson, President, Swedish PEN
Kätlin Kaldmaa, President, Estonian PEN

URGENT: Please sign and share the petition for the release of Galal El-Behairy

See the video

More informationon Ramy Essam’s homepage.

#PrisonersofBalaha #FreeGalal

2017: Egypt: Hesham Gaafar

Egyptian journalist and human rights activist Hesham Gaafar has been detained on charges of international bribery and membership of an outlawed organization. Since his detention he has been denied sufficient health care and has supposedly suffered physical assault from a security officer.


President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Office of the President
al-Ittihadia Palace
Arab Republic of Egypt

Oslo 16th October 2017

Your Excellency,

Norwegian PEN is strongly concerned about the wellfare of writer and head of The Mada Foundation for Media Development (MADA), Hesham Gaafar.

Gaafar was arrested on 21st October 2015 by armed agents from the Egyptian security services when they raided MADA’s offices. Gaafar has since then been held in arbitrary detention without trial in accordance with international fair trial standards. His family has only been permitted to visit him sporadically and his health has deteriorated seriously due to insufficient medical care whilst in detention. He is now at a high risk of becoming totally blind and also has signs of untreated prostate cancer.

Norwegian PEN is concerned that Gaafar is being detained because of his writing and civil society activism. We call for Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally end the prosecution and drop the criminal charges against Gaafar, and to release him without delay. We equally call for him being given immediate access to adequate medical treatment.

Norwegian PEN urges Egyptian authorities to ensure Gaafar’s right to freedom of expression and opinion in accordance with Egypt’s Constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party.


Yours sincerely,

Ms Johanne Fronth-Nygren
Member of Writers in Prison Committee
Norwegian PEN

2016 Egypt: Ahmed Naji

Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji remains imprisoned on his birthday:

After nearly seven months in prison, novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji’s motions for a stay of execution have been denied, and he continues to await a date for his appeal, despite his lawyer’s having filed for one in late April.

Naji’s imprisonment began in February 2016, after published excerpts from his 2014 novel, Istikhdam al-Hayat (The Use of Life), were deemed to ‘violate public modesty’ under article 178 of Egypt’s penal code, largely because the work described scenes of drug use and sexuality.  Alongside Naji’s arrest and two-year sentence comes also a conviction and fine for his publisher Tarek El Taher, editor of Akhbar al-Adab magazine.

Ahmed Naji’s work was approved before publication by the Publications Censorship Authority, and as a work of fiction, is clearly a legitimate exercise of his freedom of expression under international law.  Criminal charges were brought against Naji because of an individual reader’s complaint, and though the former was originally acquitted on 2 January 2016, he continues to be persecuted and unjustly imprisoned by the Egyptian judiciary.

PEN International reports that “over 500 Egyptian writers and artists have signed a statement in solidarity with Naji, and in May over 120 international writers, editors and artists joined a PEN America statement calling on President Sisi to drop the charges against Naji, and to release him immediately.”  Furthermore, Naji has been awarded the 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

Sadly, in recent months there has been a steady decline for respect of freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Egypt.  Naji is just one of many writers, poets, publishers, and journalists, and activists whose voices are being punished or silenced for their dissenting, or merely creative, opinions.

According to PEN International, “Restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt have also been accompanied by a crackdown on cultural houses, [..] publishing house[s], and […] human rights defenders, with NGO workers repeatedly being summoned for questioning, banned from travelling and having their assets frozen”.

Norwegian PEN and the Writers in Prison Committee take this opportunity to stand in solidarity with Naji and his fellow artists, and call for his immediate and unconditional release.

Click here to read our letter to the Egyptian authorities.

An English translation of Chapter 6 of Istikhdam al-Hayah (The Use of Life) by Ahmed Naji is  available here.

Al Jazeera-journalist i sultestreik – frykt for hans liv etter flytting til ukjent sted

Al Jazeera Arabic journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, who has been on hunger strike in an Egyptian prison for the past 112 days, has been taken from his prison cell to an undisclosed location, sources say.

Monday’s development came a day after his lawyer asked Egyptian authorities to transfer him to hospital within 48 hours.

Shaaban Saeed said his client could die if he is not given immediate help

Elshamy’s health has been deteriorating rapidly with blood tests conducted on May 8 showing that he was suffering from acute anaemia, decreasing red blood cells and kidney dysfunction.

«He has started to have impaired liver and kidney function,» Dr Mohamed Ussama Al Homsi, the doctor who reviewed the test results, told Al Jazeera. «All of these can cause big problems for him. This means that his organs are in danger.»Elshamy has been imprisoned in Egypt for 271 days and during his hunger strike, he has lost a third of his body weight. Three other Al Jazeera journalists are also being held in an Egyptian jail.

Homsi said Elshamy’s condition was life-threatening and he could «die within a few days».

He added that the journalist’s hunger strike has gone beyond all records and he should stop immediately.

«He should be transferred to an intensive care unit,» Homsi said. «I’m worried about what his situation might be now.»

Elshamy sent a letter from prison on May 6, describing how guards tried to convince him to start eating.

A guard talked «about the importance of looking after my health, trying to be friendly by saying he would refer my case to the prosecutor and to the court as if that had not been done already,» Elshamy wrote.

‘Contesting the ill-treatment’

Besides Elshamy, Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed of Al Jazeera English have been incarcerated in Egypt’s Tora prison for 133 days.

On World Press Freedom Day, Fahmy commented on Elshamy’s hunger strike, saying that the «dozens of prisoners enduring weeks of genuine, life-threatening hunger strikes, are noble men who have no other way to contest the ill-treatment they face in prison.»

Journalists covering Elshamy’s court hearing on May 3 recorded him as saying that he had not seen a doctor or a lawyer since he was jailed.

Al Jazeera’s journalists stand accused of spreading false news and aligning with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that the current Egyptian government considers to be a «terrorist» organisation.

The trial of Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed has been adjourned until May 15.

Al Jazeera strongly denies the accusations made against its staff and has called on the Egyptian authorities to free them immediately.

Egyptiske kunstnere, skribenter og journalister ber om støtte i kampen for full ytringsfrihet

The National Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Expression (NCDFE) in Egypt

Cairo, Egypt 20 March, 2013

Dear Sir/Mme,

We are writing on behalf of the National Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Expression (NCDFE) in Egypt, an organization made up of some of the country’s most prominent novelists, writers, journalists and others working in the fields of media and art. The main reason we decided to form this group a year ago was our deep concern and alarm over the state of freedom of opinion and expression in Egypt, even though we hoped that after a great revolution like the one we had on 25 January, 2011, we would witness an unprecedented expansion in those fields. After all, one of the key demands of that popular uprising that toppled the former regime after 30 years in office was “freedom,” together with “bread and social justice.”

Nevertheless, after the country’s ruling group, the Muslim Brotherhood, took control, and the election of one of its members, Mohamed Morsi, as president on 30 June, 2012, Egypt has experienced a sharp and speedy deterioration in the state of freedom of expression. The president, and top leaders of the Brotherhood including its General Guide, Mohamed Badie, have repeatedly attacked the media, and demanded to limit freedoms. The media is being held responsible for the decaying state of security and economy, and increasing levels of violence, while disregarding the failures of the current president and government.  We kindly seek your support and solidarity in facing those attacks, mainly because we believe freedom of expression is one of those universal values that all human beings should enjoy.

On Saturday 16 March, 2013, journalists gathered in front of the main headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo to cover a protest that was scheduled to take place in front of the building. However, Muslim Brotherhood guards, who cannot be described except as members of an organized militia, brutally attacked journalists and protesters. One photographer was chased in the streets, and was badly beaten by members of the Muslim Brotherhood militia, breaking his leg. Others needed stitches, their equipment was broken, and they were verbally and physically abused.

The NCDFE strongly condemns such acts, and rejects the claims made by Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen to justify the behavior of its members in attacking journalists, alleging they took part in the protest, or that they provoked the guards standing in front of building.

We believe this last attack against journalists is part of a general pattern aimed at threatening and limiting freedom of the media, and a violation of the rights of citizens to receive credible information and objective coverage without restrictions from any political group. The physical attack against journalists by Muslim Brotherhood members also followed repeated statements by the President and leaders of the group attacking the media, accusing particular newspapers and television stations of providing false facts and threatening to take measures against them. In reality, they only want to control the media, and use it as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, exactly like the ousted regime did.

Under the Muslim Brotherhood rule, their militias directly attacked journalists, and of our colleagues, Al-Husseini Abu Deif, was killed while covering clashes between supporters of President Morsi, and his opponents in front of the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis on 5 December, 2012. The NCDFE believes that the slow reaction by legal authorities in prosecuting suspected killers of Abu Deif, and others involved in attacks against journalists, has encouraged such aggressive action against the media.

We are extremely alarmed and dismayed that, until today, no suspects were presented to trial in the cases of Abu-Deif, the siege of the Media City, at 6th of October town, near Cairo in December, 2012 by members of an extremist Islamist group, and three arson attacks against the headquarters of Al-Wafd and Al-Watan newspapers. We also call upon legal authorities to consider seriously the official complaints filed by the six journalists who were brutally beaten and attacked on Saturday 16 March in front of the Brotherhood’s headquarters, and to put on trial those involved. The NCDEF expresses solidarity with a similar complaint presented to the Prosecutor-General by the Egyptian Press Syndicate, demanding the questioning of the Brotherhood’s General Guide, Mr. Mohamed Badie, and his deputy, Mr. Khairat Al-Shater, to find out whether they issued orders to members of their militias to attack journalists.

In its last meeting on Sunday 17 March, 2013, the NCDEF board headed by prominent novelist, Mr. Bahaa Tahar, and former Press Syndicate Chairman, Galal Aref, decided the following:

1-    To call for a peaceful protest in front of the headquarters of the Egyptian Press Syndicate on 20 March, 2013 in which all those concerned with freedom of expression, including prominent intellectuals, artists and those working in the media were invited to take part.
2-    We call upon political parties, non-governmental organizations, associations defending freedom of thought and expression, in Egypt and worldwide, to take a clear stand in defense of freedom of expression in Egypt, the right to peaceful protest, and the right of journalists and those working in the media to perform their work in a peaceful environment.
3-    We express solidarity with the Press Syndicate in the complaint filed to the Prosecutor-General against the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and his deputy, and any further steps the Syndicate will decide upon in the next stage.
4-    We will address local and international human rights groups, and others concerned with freedom of the press, and freedom of opinion and expression, including the UN Committee on Human Rights, the International Committee to Protect Journalists, Journalists without Borders, Article 19 and others to demand their solidarity with Egyptian journalists against attacks they have been subjected to.
5-    We hold the President, the Interior Minister, and the Prosecutor-General responsible for the dangerous consequences of turning a blind eye against violent practices of illegal militias that belong to political parties and groups.
6-    We strongly condemn the statements made by Information Minister, Mr. Salah Abdel-Maqsoud, in Qatar, and those made by the president’s advisor on foreign affairs, Mr. Essam Hadad, in Germany, attacking the Egyptian media, and blaming them for the failures of the current Muslim Brotherhood president and government.
7-    We call for the formation of an Independent Media Council that will seek to fulfill the goals of the 25 January Revolution, one of which was to end state control over the media, assure the independence of the press and that it wouldn’t be used to serve the political agenda of the ruling regime, and the right of the Egyptian people to a free media.

Political and religious populism threatens freedom of expression

Oslo 8. March 2012

To the board of PEN International

Political and religious populism threatens freedom of expression

Political use of religious symbols and play on religious feelings undermine freedom of speech and political debate in many parts of the world. Populist politicians exploit human insecurity and powerlessness by stirring demonstrations, public rage and violent actions against members for alleged blasphemy, unbelief and lack of respect for sacred symbols.

Religious based law and scripture interpretation restrict human freedom. Statutory or politically interpreted commands and prohibitions define shame, honor and punishment in violation of basic human rights for women, children, religious and sexual minorities and make political and artistic criticism impossible.

In the battle for the evangelical Christian conservative votes in the United States, the remaining candidates in the race to be nominated for the Republican presidential candidate become increasingly clear on religious affiliation and religiously motivated political views. Questions about abortion, homosexuality and so-called Christian family values become central, well-defined issues. Former President Jimmy Carter is one of many who is now warning against excessive use of religion and religious symbols in the political nomination battle.

In Nigeria, religion and religious identity is being exploited in order to strengthen regional and ethnic borders. Politicization of Islam through the introduction of sharia in several states in this declaredly secular republic has led to increased political tension and has triggered regional, violent conflicts between Muslim and Christian groups.

In Iran and Iraq there has been a shift from secular to Islamic constitutions. The Iranian Constitution, which states that all other legislation must be based on Islamic criteria, is the strictest. The Afghan Constitution of 2004, Article 2, states that «no law can be contrary to the teachings and laws of Islam.» This has weakened the position of human rights in the country´s legislation.  It has limited the number of religions that are approved as a recognized religion and weakened freedom of expression and equality.

Egypt’s first democratic elections has given the Muslim parties an overwhelming majority in Parliament. What consequences this will have on the design of the new Egyptian constitution, remains to be seen. The country’s Coptic Christian minority is experiencing various forms of sectarian harassment, and fears increased discrimination including greater influence from radical Islamist parties. Many women fear the introduction of sharia, which will severely restrict their rights and freedoms. Author Nawal El Saadavi is among the most outspoken critics of the fact that the commission, which has started to work on a proposed new constitution, was formed without the participation of women.

In Pakistan weak politicians allow themselves to be dictated by small religious populist parties, which exploit the strong anti-Western trends in the country in its struggle to preserve the country’s inhumane blasphemy laws. A law that involves the possibility of accusations, imprisonment and brutal punishment of women and children, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and political critics.

Indian politicians like to describe the country as the world’s most populous democracy. Author Salman Rushdie was recently forced to withdraw from India’s largest literary festival in Jaipur in northwest India. Muslim extremists claimed that Rushdie’s expressions violate Islam and that criminals should be hired to eliminate the author. Again, Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses from 1988 is being used to justify threats from Muslim activists and populist politicians. An Iranian fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 involved a death sentence for the author and all his translators and publishers. The fatwa still formally exists. Satanic Verses was banned in India shortly after its release and is still blacklisted. The ban came after pressure from Muslim populist politicians. The novel became a symbol for the strengthening of support among Muslim voters and led to pressure against PM Ranjiv Gandhi and the Congress Party, which was dependent on Muslim votes. Roughly 23 years later the Congress Party is back in power, but chooses silently to let the threats from extremists set the agenda in the political power struggle.

Norwegian PEN warns against a trend in which religiously based politics, at both national and international levels, weakens freedom of expression and undermine basic human rights for individuals and groups. Norwegian PEN urges PEN International, the national PEN clubs, other human rights organizations and  institutions, and national and international authors´-, journalists´-  and publishers´ organizations to challenge a political development in which populist politicians abuse religious feelings and symbols in order to set groups up against each other, undermine the rights of individuals and groups and weaken freedom of expression.

On behalf of the board of Norwegian PEN

Ann-Magrit Austenå                   Carl Morten Iversen
boardmember                             secretary general

Egyptisk PEN støtter opprørerne og krever full ytringsfrihet

Statement by Egypt PEN

18 February 2011

Egypt PEN reiterates its support for the Egyptian Youths’ Revolution and their calls for free expression along with political and economic reform. The first stage of this revolution is over. Before we move on, this is the time to send our condolences to all those families whose children were sacrificed while struggling for the liberation of our country from a corrupted regime that had usurped power for 30 years. We, of Egypt PEN, associate ourselves with their demands.

The Youths’ Revolution unified the people of Egypt in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt around the common goals of reconstructing our society and addressing the unacceptable levels of inequality and poverty in the country. This can only be accomplished through the restoration of full freedom of expression, which means freedom of the mass media – whether print, radio, television, or Internet. We call for the end of all forms of censorship of creativity, the end of book seizures, and an end to the censorship of dramatic works. We call for the abolishment of all penal laws that imprison people on grounds of their political or religious views. All of this can only be accomplished with the ending of the Emergency Laws.

The Youths’ Revolution has demonstrated that both free expression and ideas based on facts are powerful weapons when people are faced with oppression. What has been lost over three decades cannot be restored over night. However, we call upon the Council of the Armed Forces to uphold the promise of the Youths’ Revolution by adhering to the principles of free expression and transparent democracy.

Eqbal Baraka
Egyptian PEN President