PEN America, an important partner of Ithaca City of Asylum, has launched a campaign called Free Speech 2020 to “catalyze action across the country to defend press freedom, fight online harassment, combat disinformation, and uphold protest rights.”
The initiative seeks to promote the public discussion of free speech issues as America selects a new president and Congress. You can follow it on Twitter at #FreeSpeech2020.
Founded in 1922, PEN America works “to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.” With more than 100 partner centers around the world, PEN plays a crucial role in attracting and vetting writers in residence for ICOA and other organizations offering refuge to persecuted writers.
You can sign up here for PEN America’s Daily Alerts on Rights and Expression (DARE) newsletter.
In an emotional discussion before a rapt audience, ICOA’s three most recent writers-in-residence shared their stories of adjustment and perseverance while living in exile in Ithaca.
All three were forced to leave their home countries because of their work as journalists, and all three managed to continue that work while here.
Investigative reporter and editor Sonali Samarasinghe (resident from 2012-2014) told of her depression and despair after fleeing Sri Lanka after her husband’s assassination in 2009. It was only years later, after managing to collect her own writings from Sri Lanka, that she felt like she had regained control of her life.
Pakistani writer, editor, and commentator Raza Rumi (2015-2017) discussed his own grief and confusion following an attempt on his life in which a friend was killed. Now director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, Rumi shared his determination to expose injustice not just in Pakistan, but in the United States.
Political cartoonist Pedro X. Molina (2019-present) described his and his family’s flight from Nicaragua on Christmas Day 2018. They carried only cabin luggage so as not to raise suspicions at the airport and had little idea of what they were getting themselves into. A year later they are still dealing with challenges such as driver’s licenses and cell phones. But Molina has managed to send a cartoon back to Nicaragua each day during his exile.
Moderated by ICOA board chair Jonathan Miller, the November 16 “Journalism in Exile” event was part of “How Did We Get Here?”, a monthlong exhibit and event series on migration at the CAP ArtSpace Gallery on The Commons in Ithaca. ICOA co-organized the series with several other community groups under the name People’s Pop-Up Project. Pedro Molina curated a selection of political cartoons about migration from around the world.
A postscript: The day of the “Journalism in Exile” panel happened to be election day in Sri Lanka. The eventual winner has been implicated in Samarasinghe’s husband’s murder. In December, Samarasinghe was removed from her human rights post at Sri Lanka’s UN mission.
Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) is taking part in several community events in November. Each seeks to expand the local conversation on migration, immigration, displacement, and exile. Three are part of the monthlong exhibition and event series How Did We Get Here?.
Organized by the People’s Popup Project, How Did We Get Here? is a community response to the Cornell Johnson Museum’s current show how the light gets in. All events are free and open to the public.
How Did We Get Here?
Friday, November 1, 5-8 p.m., CAP ArtSpace Gallery, 110 N. Tioga St., The Commons
Join us for the First Friday Gallery Night opening of How Did We Get Here?, a monthlong exploration of migration, immigration, and displacement in Ithaca and beyond. The exhibition features political cartoons from around the world curated by ICOA artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina; documentary photography and text from the Their Story is Our Story project; immigration maps of Ithaca; and art from Ithaca College students. Many additional events are scheduled through the month. A full listing is here.
Getting Here: Personal Stories of Immigration, Migration, and Displacement
Saturday, November 9, 3 p.m., CAP ArtSpace Gallery, 110 N. Tioga St., The Commons
How did you get here? What kind of life did you find? How does it compare to the promise or myth of America? Local residents will tell their personal five-minute migration stories in a Moth-style storytelling event. At the end, host Raza Rumi, former ICOA writer-in-residence and now director of the Park Center for Independent Media, will moderate a Q&A session with the storytellers. The event will later be broadcast on WRFI, the community radio station for Ithaca and Watkins Glen.
Tuesday, November 12, 8 p.m., Barnes Hall, Cornell University
For Jews and Christians, the exile from Paradise is the beginning of history. For Muslims, it is the exile from Mecca. For political dissidents, exile is one of the principal forms of “reeducation,” punishment, or annihilation. Athens-based musician and scholar Kyriakos Kalaitzidis joins Boston’s Pharos Ensemble to present the original work “EXILE” as well as a repertoire of Greek traditional music. Organized by ICOA board member Gail Holst-Warhaft and cosponsored by Cornell’s Institute for European Studies and Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies; Cornell’s departments of music, Near Eastern studies, and religious studies; and Nick Lambrou of Lambrou Real Estate.
Journalism in Exile
Saturday, November 16, 3 p.m., CAP ArtSpace Gallery, 110 N. Tioga St., The Commons
Journalists Sonali Samarasinghe (Sri Lanka), Raza Rumi (Pakistan), and Pedro X. Molina (Nicaragua) were all deeply involved in their countries’ political life. All were forced to flee under the threat of violence. And all ended up in Ithaca as writers-in-residence with ICOA. In this informal discussion, they share their stories about the challenges and rewards of living, working, and staying connected in a faraway place very different from home. Cosponsored by Buffalo Street Books. A new coffee table book featuring Sonali will be available for purchase.
More than 100 people gathered at the Community School of Music and Arts on October 4 to welcome Pedro X. Molina, his wife Urania Espinoza, and their two sons to Ithaca with music, food, dance, and conversation.
“Voices of Freedom 2019” was highlighted by a folkloric dance demonstration by Espinoza and an illustrated talk by Molina on the power of political cartooning and the deeply disturbing situation in his native Nicaragua.
Alderman Seph Murtagh read a proclamation from Mayor Svante Myrick extending a formal welcome to the Molina family and declaring the day “Ithaca City of Asylum Day” in the City of Ithaca.
Molina is Ithaca City of Asylum’s seventh writer-in-residence. He is the first cartoonist and the first from Latin America.
In his talk, he described how cartoonists have rankled – and sometimes helped unseat – the powerful for centuries. He showed examples of the work of the 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast, who bedeviled New York political operator William “Boss” Tweed, and Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, who landed on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” in the 1970s.
“You can see the trend here: the more ridiculous, abusive and corrupt a politician is, the more they hate humor and criticism,” Molina said.
He reserved his most forceful remarks for Nicaragua’s current president, Daniel Ortega, and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo. Ortega, who led a popular revolution in the 1970s, has come to resemble the brutal dictator he helped depose, Molina said.
“Fraud, repression, corruption, abuses and killings have been rising steadily for a decade,” he said as he displayed several of his own cartoons. He then described how the situation rapidly deteriorated after nationwide protests against a change in the social security law in April 2018. Since then, he said, roughly 400 people have been killed by police or vigilantes, most from single bullets to the head or chest. About 800 people have been jailed.
“The situation for independent journalism of course also got worse and worse,” he continued. “Journalists were harassed, beaten, and robbed in the streets by the forces of the regime. Radio stations were burned and newspapers started having problems printing their daily editions because the government wouldn’t let them import the paper they needed for the presses.”
He described his own family’s frantic departure on Christmas Day last year, soon after the offices of his main outlet, Confidencial, were raided and subsequently taken over by the police. Cartoonists’ and journalists’ organizations referred him to the International Cities of Asylum Network, which alerted ICOA of his situation. Board member Gail Holst-Warhaft fronted the airfare with her personal credit card, and the group went about finding the family housing, winter clothes, a car, and legal representation.
“Thanks to them, I’m safe, my family is safe, and despite everything that we have gone through, I haven’t missed a single day of posting my daily cartoon denouncing what is happening in my country,” Molina said, holding back tears.
ICOA also connected Molina to Ithaca College, which offered him a position as a Visiting International Scholar in Residence in the Honors Program.
The event was cosponsored by the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County, Group 73 of Amnesty International, Buffalo Street Books, Cornell’s Latin American Studies Program, and PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection. It was supported by funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, administered by the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County.
In brief opening remarks, ICOA board chair Jonathan Miller explained that the annual Voices of Freedom event is meant to align with Banned Books Week, which calls attention to the importance of free expression and the dangers of censorship.
“Tonight we celebrate messy, energetic, provocative discussion in the media and the arts,” Miller said. “We celebrate the pushing and stretching and crossing of boundaries. We celebrate a blossoming international movement to provide refuge to people at risk, and we celebrate Ithaca’s place in that movement.”
The event also served as an opportunity for community members to support ICOA’s work. If you would like to help, please visit the “donate” page on this site or go directly to the online giving portal on GiveGab.
In an in-depth interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, ICOA artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina says “independent journalism has become one of the basic needs of the population” in Nicaragua since the government cracked down on dissent following street protests last year.
Molina fled Nicaragua last December but has continued to contribute cartoons to news outlets on a daily basis.
“[W]ith the closure of spaces to denounce and protest, not only in the media, but at a general level, where people cannot express themselves, nor march, nor organize, nor sometimes even carry the national flag, criticism and humor has become an escape valve for people, a source of encouragement to resist and persevere in the search for change,” he explains.
Molina will accept the Maria Moors Cabot Award from Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City on October 16.
A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review caught our attention. Writer Sam Thielman describes how political cartoons are, in some ways, the perfect media for our times, delivering their messages swiftly and straight to the gut. But they have also gotten their creators into serious trouble.
Our new artist-in-residence, Pedro X. Molina, will share his own take on the power and perils of political cartooning at our “Voices of Freedom” event on Friday, October 4, at 8 p.m. at the Community School of Music and Arts, 330 E Martin Luther King Jr St. in Ithaca.
Pedro X. Molina, an internationally acclaimed political cartoonist who fled his native Nicaragua during a violent crackdown on journalists and government critics, has been named ICOA’s seventh resident artist.
Pedro and his family left in a rush on Christmas Day 2018 after police killed a journalist, jailed two others, and ransacked the offices of his newspaper, Confidencial. ICOA covered their airfare and has provided financial and logistical support since they arrived. We also acted as a bridge to Ithaca College, where Pedro will work as a Visiting International Scholar in Residence in the Honors Program.
In addition to teaching, he will take part in local exhibitions and events, travel for fellowships and speaking engagements, and continue to contribute cartoons to Nicaraguan and international outlets.
Please join us in welcoming the Molina family at our annual “Voices of Freedom” fundraising event on Friday, October 4 at 8 p.m. at the Community School of Music and Arts in Ithaca. Pedro will make a presentation about cartooning and then we will celebrate with a Latin-themed party with food and music. The event is free and open to the public.
Pedro is the first cartoonist we have hosted since our founding in 2001 and our first resident from Latin America.
He has been published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Courrier International (France), and many other publications, and has been widely recognized for his artistic ability and his political commentary.
This summer, he won a prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Award from Columbia Journalism School for “career excellence and coverage of the Western Hemisphere that furthers inter-American understanding.”
The awards committee called him “one of Nicaragua’s sharpest observers” and wrote that “Molina uses his pen and wit to take aim not only at the repressive government of President Daniel Ortega, but also at human rights abuses throughout the Americas and the world.”
Many of his cartoons target Ortega and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo. Ortega was a popular revolutionary leader when he and a group of fellow commanders first took power in 1979. He served as president from 1985 to 1990, then returned to office in 2007. Since then, he has consolidated his hold on power and rewritten the constitution to allow him to remain indefinitely.
The human rights situation worsened after street protests in April 2018, as the government cracked down on dissent, killing more than 300 and jailing hundreds more. Human Rights Watch noted “a pattern of systematic abuse against anti-government protesters and opponents,” including assassination, rape, and torture. More than 50 journalists have gone into exile.
The Norway-based International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) alerted ICOA about Pedro’s situation and we quickly agreed to take him in.
In an event co-sponsored by Ithaca City of Asylum, Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, spoke at Buffalo Street Books on May 18. He shared his own experience as a refugee and the importance of making many refugee voices heard. Jack Wang, chair of the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, interviewed Nguyen about The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which Nguyen edited.
In The Displaced, Nguyen gathers a collection of essays by nineteen prominent refugee writers from around the world. His conversation with Wang addressed questions of identity, agency, and voice of displaced people.
“Refugees lose their own voice,” Nguyen said to the audience.
According to the United Nations, there are 65.5 million displaced persons in the world today, a population that could, as Nguyen points out in his introduction to The Displaced, be their own country, “smaller than Thailand but bigger than France.”
Nguyen counts himself a citizen of this country of displaced persons. Forced to flee Vietnam with his family in 1975, when he was four, he intentionally holds on to his identity as a refugee, although, he says, it would be easier to call himself an immigrant by this point.
“Refugees lose their own voice.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen
“‘Immigrant’ indicates a strategic, voluntary choice made over time, technically welcomed,” he said during the talk. “‘Refugee’ is different, not voluntary. Moving as a mass of many people.”
The term “refugee” causes fear, particularly in America because “refugees indicate broken countries, failed states,” said Nguyen. “We Americans can never come from a failed state–or so the mythology goes.”
The Displaced illuminates the humanity of the individual refugee and underscoring the important role writers play in upholding human rights for 65.5 million refugees–the world’s displaced nation.
The BBC has produced a powerful account of the 2009 assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, founder and editor of The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka, as part of its Witness History podcast. The 11-minute piece is built around an interview with Wickrematunge’s widow, Sonali Samarasinghe, who was ICOA’s resident writer from 2012 to 2014.
Wickrematunge was ambushed by eight men on motorcycles at the height of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers rebel group. The Sunday Leader took no position on the war but reported on atrocities committed by both sides. A practicing lawyer, Samarasinghe worked as a consulting editor and investigative journalist for the paper. She and Wickrematunge had received many death threats but remained committed to independent journalism.
“I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom, but as an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts.”
Lasantha Wickrematunge, Sri Lankan journalist murdered in 2009
“Never did we even privately think about changing our jobs, or not doing what we were doing,” Samarasinghe told the BBC. “We were there fighting for democracy, so it never entered our mind to give this up.”
Wickrematunge was murdered exactly two months after the two were married. After he died, The Sunday Leader and other news outlets published a 2,500-word column he had written for publication in the event of his murder. “I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom, but as an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts,” he wrote. The piece went viral. “I think it shook the world,” Samarasinghe said.
Fearing for herself and her family, Samarasinghe left the country two weeks after the murder. In exile, she went on to found and edit the weekly Morning Leader. She now works as a diplomat in Sri Lanka’s mission to the United Nations. You can listen to the podcast on the BBC’s Witness History website.
“As we lurch into the future, in this blitzkrieg of idiocy, Facebook ‘likes,’ fascist marches, fake-news coups, and what looks like a race toward extinction,” she said, “what is literature’s place? What counts as literature? Who decides?”
There is no single answer, she said. Rather, she approached this large question by sharing her own experience of being a writer and activist in recent years.
“The place for literature is built by writers and readers,” she said. “It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds.”
We join Roy in thanking PEN, one of our partner organizations, for, in Roy’s words, “the work it does to protect writers and journalists who are have been imprisoned, prosecuted, censored and worse.”