Novib / PEN Awards for persecuted writers

december 2005 -
Sihem Bensedrine with the Novib / PEN Award (Foto: Novib)

On 19 November, in a ceremony that was part of the Crossing Border Festival held in The Hague, the Tunisian journalist Sihem Bensedrine received one of the five Novib / PEN Awards, from the hands of the Dutch former TV programme maker and weblogger Wim de Bie. The award is an initiative of the Novib development organisation that is co-organised with the Emergency Fund of the international writers" organisation PEN, which gives financial support to writers who find themselves in dire straits. Sihem Bensedrine was given the award for her ongoing struggle to achieve freedom of speech in her native Tunisia. Fellow journalist and fellow countrywoman Neziha Rejiba, along with Sarah Mkhonza from Swaziland, Claudia Anthony from Sierra Leone and Duong Thu Huong from Vietnam received the other Novib / PEN Awards. Unfortunately, they were not able to receive their awards in person…

Sihem Bensedrine and Neziha Rejiba are both editors of the online current affairs programme Kalima, whose broadcasts are blocked in Tunisia by the Tunisian authorities, who have accused her of "defamation" and broadcasting "false news". Novelist and columnist Sarah Mkhonza had to flee from Swaziland because she wrote openly about the violation of human rights in her country. The same fate befell Claudia Anthony from Sierra Leone, whose critical articles in the newspaper For Di People were a constant thorn in the side of the authorities. In the late 1990s, Anthony was forced to take refuge in Germany.

The novels of Duong Thu Huong are not explicitly political, but they were enough for her persecution and imprisonment by the Vietnamese government. In his introduction to the prize-giving ceremony, cabaret performer Paul Haenen pointed out how different this situation is to the Dutch experience: whereas in many countries it is dangerous or illegal to express your own opinions, in the Netherlands many people almost feel obliged to do so. "I am now suffering from "opinion fatigue"," says Haenen. Sihem Bensedrine is very encouraged by the award: "We all believe that the pen is mightier than the sword and that despite all the difficult times that we still have to go through, better times will come. The Novib / PEN Award backs us up in our belief."