Ithaca City of Asylum

Release of Myanmar journalists hints at power of public attention


Rohingya refugees flee what the UN termed “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar in 2017. Photo from Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons.

We were thrilled to learn that Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were freed on May 7 after more than 500 days in prison in Yangon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists had been sentenced to seven years in detention for receiving secret documents from security forces in Myanmar while researching a 2017 massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were among more than 6,000 prisoners released under a sweeping presidential pardon.

In April, Myanmar’s supreme court denied Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s final appeal. The government did not say why the two men were included in the pardon, but they were the subject of an intensive publicity campaign by human rights and press freedom groups around the world.

We join PEN America and the Committee to Protect Journalists in applauding the release, and support Amnesty International’s call for “genuine press freedom” in its wake. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch both point out that the Myanmar government continues to detain commentators and reporters for doing their work.

“[T]he crisis is not over for the literally dozens of other Burmese journalists and bloggers who are still facing baseless criminal charges for their reporting,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. 


World Press Freedom Day shines light on threats to journalists

On May 3, Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) joins human rights and free expression groups everywhere in recognizing World Press Freedom Day. This year’s theme is the free press in elections. Through events, social media campaigns, and other activities, we call attention not just to attacks or restrictions on people who engage in journalism, but to the vital role journalism plays in holding the powerful to account.

ICOA was founded to protect literary writers — poets, playwrights, and fiction writers — “whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, or whose languages are endangered.” This was not just a question of providing a quiet space for practicing artists; it was a public statement about the fundamental value of free expression.

Through the work and life stories of our first guests and residents, our community learned how unsettling the literary arts can be to regimes and other social forces that fear the power of words and ideas.

For many of those forces (not just governments, but religious, political, or social movements or other actors), journalism presents an even more direct threat, and they often lash out with alarming brutality. Our most recent residents reflect that reality.

The Committee to Protect Journalists keeps tabs on the killing, jailing, silencing, and harassment of journalists worldwide. PEN America and PEN International are also great resources.

Expression as Freedom on WRFI

ICOA Board President Gail Holst-Warhaft recently spoke with the Human Rights and Social Justice Program on WRFI 88.1 FM Ithaca / 91.9 FM Watkins Glen about our upcoming panel at the 2019 Spring Writes Festival. Listen below:

The event, focusing on the power of literature in exile and incarceration, will take place on Saturday, May 4 at 1pm in the CAP Gallery/Program Room at the Tompkins Center for History & Culture, and will feature conversations with K.E. von Wittelsbach, Andy Doyle, Cayley Crutchfield, Tony Sidle, and Pedro X. Molina.

Come to our Spring Writes 2019 panel Saturday, May 4

Ithaca City of Asylum will take part in Spring Writes, Ithaca’s literature festival, with a panel discussion on Saturday, May 4, 12:30 – 1:30pm at the Tompkins Center for History & Culture, CAP Gallery/Program Room.

The event will feature a lively discussion among members of local Amnesty International chapters and Ithaca City of Asylum. Both groups strive to achieve social justice and uphold human rights–and our various projects intersect with the act of writing in thought-provoking ways.

Expression as Freedom: The power of literature in exile and incarceration

Some journalists, poets, and novelists write their way INTO exile for speaking out against oppression or injustice, while people who are incarcerated sometimes write their way THROUGH or OUT. Ithaca City of Asylum and Amnesty International representatives present a panel discussion about the ways the exiled and the incarcerated express their experiences through the arts, and what Ithacans who believe in human rights and the power of the pen can do to promote justice through literature. Panelists include Gail Holst-Warhaft, K.E. von Wittelsbach, Andy Doyle, Cayley Crutchfield, Tony Sidle, and Pedro X. Molina, with moderator Barbara Adams.

And check out the full Spring Writes schedule for four days of 43 juried literary events.


“Journalism in an Age of Despots”

Ithaca City of Asylum writers-in-residence featured at 2019 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

With a theme of “Disruptions,” FLEFF 2019, hosted by Ithaca College, explored ideas of sustainability across all its forms, including the political, the cultural, and the aesthetic—and intersection that embraces the craft and art of writing.

onali Samarasinghe speaks at a table, backed by colorful banners

Sonali Samarasinghe, Sri Lankan delegate to the United Nations, speaks about threats to a free press in international spaces. Also on the panel: political cartoonist Pedro Molina (center) and Raza Rumi, director of the Park Center for Independent Media.

On April 3, two of ICOA’s former writers-in-residence shared their extensive knowledge and personal experience of international journalism: Sonali Samarasinghe, now Sri Lankan delegate to the United Nations; and Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi, now director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.

Pedro Molina, a political cartoonist from Nicaragua who is published widely in the international press, joined the panel for a wide-ranging discussion of the issues journalists face all over the world in an age of increasingly authoritarian and oppressive governments. Each panelist addressed the state of journalism in their own country. They also discussed systematic causes of repression.

The panel was moderated by Barbara Adams, professor of writing at Ithaca College and member of the ICOA board. Fifty people from the campus and community attended.


Spring events with ICOA

Ithaca City of Asylum has three events planned for spring 2019. Join us for these collaborations with other literary and human rights organizations:

  • Wednesday, April 3, 2019, 6 p.m. Handwerker Gallery, Ithaca College Library: A panel on “Journalism in an Age of Despots,” part of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF). Speakers include former ICOA writers-in-residence Sonali Samarasinghe, now Sri Lankan delegate to the United Nations; and Raza Rumi, now Director, Park Center for Independent Me as well as special guest Pedro Molina, a political cartoonist from Nicaragua.


  • Saturday, May 4, 2019, 12:30 p.m.Community Arts Partnership event space, Ithaca Commons: A Spring Writes panel, “Expression as Freedom: The Power of Literature in Exile and Incarceration.” Members of ICOA and local Amnesty International chapters discuss the ways the exiled and the incarcerated express their experiences through the arts.


  • Saturday, May 18, 2019, 1-3 p.m. Buffalo Street Books, 215 N. Cayuga St.: A reading by Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Ngyuen, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Co-sponsored by Buffalo Street Books and Ithaca City of Asylum.
Sonali Samarasinghe

Sonali Samarasinghe, former ICOA visiting writer from Sri Lanka. Photo by Dede Hatch

Raza Rumi

Raza Rumi, former ICOA visiting writer from Pakistan. Photo by Barbara Adams

ICOA is part of Spring Writes 2019

Today, we learned that an event proposed by Ithaca City of Asylum made it into Spring Writes 2019, which is set for May 2-5, 2019 in downtown Ithaca.


The competition to get in was keen this year, and we are pleased to return to Ithaca’s vibrant annual literary festival.

Together with local Amnesty International chapter 73 and the Ithaca College chapter of Amnesty International, ICOA will host a panel discussion: “Expression as Freedom: the power of literature in exile and incarceration.”

The date and time of this event is not scheduled yet–we’ll post about it as soon as we find out. Until then, plan to attend Spring Writes, which is a true celebration of Ithaca’s rich literary culture.


Music crossing borders

Upon the signing of a January 2017 executive order preventing foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, “numerous musicians, ensembles, and organizations responded by showcasing art from precisely those places,” the New Yorker points out this week.


A showcase of music on this border-transcending theme will celebrate the music of those seven countries on February 8 at Zankel Hall in midtown Manhattan.

We applaud Kronos Quartet for their concert, “Music for Change: The Banned Countries.” This ensemble, which has been innovating string quartet music for 45 years, will present a musical program of new and remixed music from the seven predominantly Muslim countries targeted by the 2017 travel ban. The program will feature newly composed pieces, songs featuring the Persian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat, and arranged Middle Eastern pop tunes.

The program, says Steve Smith in the New Yorker, amplifies “themes of dignity, resistance, and harmonious existence.”


2018 Seasons Greetings from ICORN

Year-end news from our friends and fellow cities of refuge at International Cities of Refuge Network:

2018 is coming towards an end and we look back at many achievements in our common work to advance freedom of expression, defend democratic values and promote international solidarity. But we also look back at a year where established democratic practice and institutions are being challenged, and where freedom of expression has been measured at its lowest point in ten years, increasing the pressure on human rights- and creative workers.

Santa. Cartoon by Khalid Albaih, ICORN residency in Copenhagen.

Santa. Cartoon by Khalid Albaih, ICORN residency in Copenhagen.

«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.

Moments from the Safe Not Silent, ICORN General Assembly in the City of Malmö 2-4 May 2018.

Moments from the Safe Not Silent, ICORN General Assembly in the City of Malmö 2-4 May 2018.

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.

Women ICORN writers/artists 2018: Souzan Ibrahim, Sahar Mousa, Maha Nasser, Wesam AlMadani, Supriti Dhar.

Women ICORN writers/artists 2018: Souzan Ibrahim, Sahar Mousa, Maha Nasser, Wesam AlMadani, Supriti Dhar.

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, when 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 exists a refuge to resort to. Let us honor the 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.

The Guardians: TIME honors journalists in 2018

Journalists made the cover of TIME as a collective Person of the Year, 2018. The December 24 cover story featured journalists who endeavored to keep telling the truth during a year of increased violence, censorship, and dismissal around the world.

With TIME, we keep advocating for the “guardians” who keep reporting, creating, and storytelling in the face of wars against the truth worldwide.

time guardians covers