People sitting in front of a stage. Above it a huge canvas


Writers for Freedom – The global battle for freedom of speech

As part of the GLOBALE series »Writers for Freedom«, the ZKM | Karlsruhe is campaigning for persecuted and imprisoned writers.

Since the publication of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations have been committed to observing and protecting the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” In Germany, the freedom of expression is also anchored in Article 5 of the Grundgesetz (German constitution) and is considered to be one of the most important indicators of democratic rule of law. This provides artists of any genre with the opportunity to express themselves freely, to be critical of the society in which they live and to denounce injustice, without fear of reprisals.

But the fact that we are guaranteed this right seems to have become so taken for granted for many of us that it is all too easy to forget that there have also been times in Germany, when expressing an opinion or any critical written word was a risk to life. This means that the privileged situation in which we find ourselves today and the fact that freedom of expression is one of our most precious assets, to be protected at any price, frequently only enters the collective consciousness when we consider it threatened in our country, when for example German satirists are criticised in other countries due to expressing their opinions about politicians and heads of state. Then, media representatives and politicians of all persuasions are appalled and concerned, but mostly without emphatically denouncing at the same time the fact that infringements and restrictions on the freedom of expression are still unfortunately the order of the day in countries such as Turkey, the People’s Republic of China, Iran, Qatar, Cameroon, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia. Although these states should feel bound by the UN Declaration of Human Rights as members of the United Nations, artists and media representatives are still threatened by censorship, bans on publications, persecution and, sometimes, draconian punishments.

To resolutely oppose the strategy of muzzling critics in this way, it is essential to draw attention to the precarious situation in many countries and to the fate of those affected. The ZKM Karlsruhe was committed to this important task between August 2015 and March 2016 as part of the »Writers for Freedom« series of events. In cooperation with the PEN Zentrum Deutschland and the Literarische Gesellschaft Karlsruhe, there have been presentations about some of approximately 900 authors from around the world who are currently threatened and persecuted, subject to persistent harassment, imprisoned, tortured or even in fear of their life due to their literary work.

Contextualisation – The GLOBALE

In 2000, ZKM CEO Peter Weibel stated in an interview with the »Tagesspiegel« that artists should be seen as “critical mirrors”, mirrors of the technical, social and even political developments and that the task of art must be to open doors where no-one sees them.

About fifteen years after this interview, an art event began at the ZKM in June 2015 at the same time as the festivities for the 300th anniversary of the laying of the foundations of Karlsruhe. This art event reflected this demand for contemporary art in a special way: the GLOBALE.

Over a period of 300 days, visitors were given a global perspective of current artistic and technical processes and politically and socially relevant questions as part of numerous exhibitions, using various event formats. It goes without saying that the high level of importance of artistic freedom was given a critical role as part of such an art event. And in this way, the curatorial team around Peter Weibel defined the connection of art and law as a thematic focus of the GLOBALE early on. The concept paper, which had been presented to the district council back in June 2012, stated that “It goes without saying that [...] even juristic, legal and ethical questions, such as the protection of human rights [...], will be dealt with in parts of the exhibitions and accompanying symposiums.”

Projects such as Writers for Freedom and the GLOBAL CONTROL AND CENSORSHIP exhibition, which can still be seen in the Lichthöfen 1 and 2 until the end of July 2016, draw on exactly this point and are also to be understood as a continuation of a thematic line, which the ZKM has long been walking – for example, with exhibitions such as »CTRL [Space]. Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother« (2001/2002) and »Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy« (2005).

Specific planning – The concept of reading sponsorships as a central theme

The planning of the Writers for Freedom series was a challenge in many aspects. Firstly, it was necessary to make a selection from an enormous number of cases. In doing so, the topicality or urgency had to be taken into account, along with giving careful consideration to whether public attention was really wise or could even have a negative effect for the authors themselves or their families. Added to this was the fact that not all the information circulating online about a case can be considered verified. For this reason, close cooperation with the colleagues of PEN, who are in frequent contact with the families and lawyers of those concerned and who have carefully researched background information, was essential.

Based on the multitude of possible underlying constellations and facts, only one thing was clear from the very beginning: The series could not be designed as one format, with which all the events could be developed according to the same principle. Instead, the individual circumstances of the specific cases would essentially define the structure and procedure of the events. For this reason, a constant was needed, which would run through the entire project like a common thread and would provide a central theme to connect the various events.

This constant was found in the concept of the reading sponsorship, i.e. in the idea of inviting writers who would raise their voice for colleagues who were not bestowed with freedom of expression or who agreed to read from works of authors, whose literary voices would otherwise not reach us.

Such a reading sponsorship can essentially be created in two different ways. One is to acquire authors as reading partners, who can establish from the beginning a great personal proximity to the imprisoned colleague because they come from the same countries or because something similar has happened to them. In these cases, biographical parallels are often drawn together with content-related references in view of the work.

If these similarities do not exist, a reading sponsorship can also be possible and practical in terms of a literary approach. It is then increasingly about creating a consciousness for the different circumstances of the writing or the impact of literary texts which differs enormously from country to country.

However it might be arranged – a central aspect of the reading sponsorship is to make the texts of imprisoned authors accessible to a wide public and if possible even present them in a German translation. Unfortunately, this claim cannot always be realised, as it is rather the exception than the rule that a sizeable number of texts or even whole book publications are accessible, for which the authorship can really be guaranteed. It is not rare to find just a few short texts, in some cases even just a single poem, the publication of which has put an author behind bars. In these cases, it is the task of the reading sponsor to supplement or contrast such key texts with their own literary works, to show solidarity by reading their own texts.

By looking back on the individual events in the ZKM, the difference between each reading sponsorship can be highlighted again.

The events in detail

A man is sitting on a stage, making music with a  sound bowl while he is singing
Liao Yiwu while declaiming his poem »Für einen zum Tode Verurteilten«
© ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Photo: Fidelis Fuchs

To kick off the series on 12th August 2015, the Chinese author and musician Liao Yiwu was a guest in Karlsruhe. Due to the publication of his poem »Massacre«, he was imprisoned in China for four years, but managed to flee to Germany in 2011 and has lived in Berlin ever since. In Germany, he has already received multiple awards for his works, which are banned in China – among others, he received the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis in 2011 and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2012.

As a reading sponsor, Liao Yiwu raised his voice for his friend and former fellow inmate, Li Bifeng, and, accompanied by his interpreter Yeemei Guo, spoke to moderator Gerwig Epkes, providing powerful insights into the atrocious conditions in Chinese prisons for writers who are critical of the government. Based on selected passages from his witness report »For a Song and a Hundred Songs«, which was read aloud in German by actor Frank Stöckle, he bluntly told listeners how he faired in prison, how much the events still burden him today, and why he considers it his absolute duty to campaign tirelessly from exile for threatened and persecuted colleagues.

And he portrayed the fate of Li Bifeng powerfully, which is so intrinsically connected with his own not only in terms of their shared time in prison, but also due to the fact that the government of China wrongfully accused Li Bifeng of being involved in Liao Yiwu’s flight to Germany, thus sentencing him in 2012 to another twelve years of imprisonment.

A reading sponsor, who is able to give such personal insights into the life and work of an imprisoned author, is a rare find. For this reason, a heartfelt thank you goes to Liao Yiwu at this point for a moving event, excerpts of which could be heard on 29th September 2015 on the SWR2 LiteraturEN radio broadcast.

Three people are sitting on a stage while one of them, a man, is talking
Enoh Meyomesse with the interpreter Sabine Seubert and his reading mentor Hans Thill
© ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Photo: Fidelis Fuchs

On 4th November 2015, it was with great joy that we were able to welcome Cameroon poet and human rights activities Enoh Meyomesse to Karlsruhe for his first public appearance in Germany. Imprisoned in November 2011 following his candidature for the presidential elections in Cameroon and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment at the end of 2012, Meyomesse was unexpectedly freed from the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaoundé in April 2015 and currently has the opportunity to continue his writing activities in freedom due to the Elsbeth-Wolffheim literature grant from the city of Darmstadt and the Writers-in-Exile programme by the German PEN branch.

The poet, who has lived in Darmstadt since the beginning of October 2015, spoke with moderator Gerwig Epkes in the media theatre of the ZKM about his time in prison, about writing behind bars and about the central role that the PEN Zentrum played in his release. He reported that with the efforts surrounding him, his prison conditions were immediately and drastically improved. He was no longer subject to violent attacks and new judges were even allocated to him, who re-examined his case and ultimately acquitted him. Karlsruhe interpreter Sabine Seubert translated the interview, in which Meyomesse emphasised repeatedly how important it is to him to continue to campaign tirelessly for his country from Germany. Excerpts of the interview were also broadcast on SWR on 24th November 2015.

Enoh Meyomesse was accompanied by lyricist, translator and Writers for Peace representative of the German PEN, Hans Thill, who provided an interesting insight into the various options for supporting imprisoned writers, read aloud German translations of some of Meyomesse’s poems along with his own texts and who had already been acquired as a reading sponsor, when there had still been no mention of a release for Meyomesse. During this event, there was the very special constellation of being able to welcome both reading sponsor and the author in question, through which the concept of the reading sponsorship was illustrated to listeners in the form of a lively dialogue and exchange.

Two men are sitting on a stage, a third is standing a desk and talks
Jan Wagner is reading Mohammed al Ajamis Poem »Tunisian Jasmine«
© ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Photo: Fidelis Fuchs

At the third event of the series, the German writer and translator Jan Wagner was a guest on 27th January 2016, as the reading sponsor for the poet Mohammed al-Ajami, who was imprisoned in Qatar but has happily since been freed. In the discussion, which was once again moderated by SWR2 Literature editor Gerwig Epkes, he discussed the question of the impact of lyrics together with the PEN Vice President and Writers in Prison representative Sascha Feuchert and highlights the fundamentally different circumstances of writing in Germany and Qatar. Al-Ajami’s poem, »Tunisian Jasmine«, whose publication in 2011 led to his imprisonment and which was recited in a German translation done by Mahmoud Hassanein and Hans Thill, Wagner contrasted this with excerpts from his »Regentonnenvariationen« volume of poetry, which was awarded the 2015 Leipzig Book Fair Prize.

Although very little verified information was available about the backgrounds of the case and the specific prison conditions of al-Ajami and no other texts were read out apart from his »Jasmine« poem, Jan Wagner, who is about al-Ajami’s age, made his colleague’s fate accessible in a remarkably personal manner. He disclosed to those present that Mohammed al-Ajami had to spend his 40th birthday behind bars because he is a poet, while he himself was able to spend his big day as a scholar at the Villa Massimo in Rome because he is a poet. In light of this striking contrast, Wagner came to the conclusion that even those who are not explicitly political poets must develop an awareness of the privileged situation they have in Germany and how terrible it is that colleagues in other countries are not granted the same privilege.

Three people are sitting on a stage while the one in the middle, a woman, is talking
Herta Müller is talking with Sascha Feuchert (left) and Gerwig Epkes (right)
© ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Photo: Felix Grünschloß

The series came to an impressive end on 8th March 2016, International Women’s Day, on which winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Herta Müller had come to the ZKM to draw the attention of about 550 members of the audience to the fate of Liu Xia, who has been under strict house arrest in China for more than five years.

With Herta Müller, it was possible to acquire a reading sponsor, who – perhaps also due to her own history – has long since campaigned for freedom of expression and who relentlessly and repeatedly examines the horror of totalitarianism in her works. Raised in Romania, she experienced for herself in the dictatorship of Ceauşescu what it means to be subject to constant surveillance and to live in a country, in which your own critical stance can become a danger.

With the appropriate sensitivity, the winner of the Noble Prize for Literature spoke with Gerwig Epkes and PEN Vice President Sascha Feuchert, providing insights into the life of the Chinese artist and poet, whose only “crime”, according to Müller, is to be married to Liu Xiaobo. Since her husband was awarded the Noble Prize for Peace in October 2010, Liu Xia has not been permitted to leave her home unaccompanied, receive visitors or telephone when or with whom she wishes. The woman, who suffers from heart disease and severe depression, is not even allowed to choose her own doctor. She is a prisoner in her own four walls, constantly monitored and completely cut off from the outside world. This insidious type of punishment, explains Müller powerfully, is just one of the monstrous measures, which the government of the People’s Republic of China has thought up to destroy the lives of the cleverest and most sensitive people in the country.

As a reading sponsor, Herta Müller not only had a good picture of the backgrounds of this specific case and the general (culturo-)political developments in China, with the support of interpreter Yeemei Guo, she also developed new German versions of some of Liu Xia’s poems in the run-up to the event. With this wonderful gesture, she not only continued her years of commitment to her Chinese peer, she also made a special contribution to supporting the previously mentioned efforts of the PEN to make texts of imprisoned and threatened authors accessible in German. She deserves the heartfelt thanks of all those involved in the project for her great commitment.

Summary and prospects

With the »Writers for Freedom« project the ZKM has been dedicated to a subject, which unfortunately plays virtually no role in media reporting despite the enormous number of people affected (the official figure is 900 but the estimated number of unreported cases is expected to be much higher). It is only rarely that human rights organisations manage to make cases, such as that of the Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, the subject of public debate.

It is all the more important that nationally and internationally renowned authors are committed publically to the freedom of expression, demand the release of imprisoned colleagues in letters or declare their solidarity as part of a reading sponsorship.

During the design of the series it has been clearly demonstrated that the willingness to do this is tremendous. For this reason, it remains to hope that other prominent cultural institutions will embrace this important theme in the future, initiate reading sponsorships and include events like these in their programme. Because sadly, only one thing is certain: The cases that our attention must be drawn to will not die down due to the current developments in countries such as Turkey and China.

About the Author

Martina Hofmann works at the publications departement of ZKM | Center for Art and Media. She was in charge of the »Writers for Freedom« project from the beginning till the end.

Category: Society