Today on World Refugee Day (June 20), PEN is highlighting its work to protect writers at risk. Much of this work happens under the radar, and in partnership with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which now has members in more than 40 cities in Europe and North America. PEN centers also have a crucial role to play in developing a response to the protection and humanitarian needs of writers at risk and in exile.

The growing number of writers reaching out to PEN and ICORN for protection come from all continents—from countries as far ranging as Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, Mexico, Honduras Brazil, Russia, and Vietnam. In 2013 the number of writers reaching out to ICORN for protection almost doubled. Some of the most vulnerable are refugee writers living without status and in extreme economic hardship. One such writer is Iranian journalist Sahar Bayati, who spent more than two years without refugee status in Malaysia before being given refuge in Norway. 

Sahar Bayati first came under pressure in May 2010 when intelligence officers raided the offices of the Daypress news agency in Tehran, where she worked. Daypress is believed to have been targeted for its reporting on high-level government corruption. Shortly afterwards, Bayati was arrested, fired from her job with the daily Hamshahri, and later charged with defamation. She was sentenced to three years in prison (suspended on appeal) and banned from working as a journalist for five years. Bayati continued to try and write under an alias, but it proved too difficult and she decided to leave Iran with her husband. The couple fled to Malaysia on July 6, 2011, where she worked as a freelance journalist. Her reports include an investigation into the alleged involvement of the Iranian intelligence services in the drug trade and money-laundering in Malaysia.  Finally in 2014, Sahar Bayati arrived in Haugesund city of refuge, Norway, where she is now working on a magazine on freedom in art and literature, as well as writing a collection of short stories and a novel. She continues her job reporting for the London-based IranWire

PEN International spoke to her about her experiences of fleeing persecution and of living as a writer in exile.


Were you aware of the risks involved working as an investigative journalist in Iran?

Before the 2009 election things weren’t so bad. There were some risky topics but editors were the only ones at risk of arrest. When I began my work it wasn’t too bad, I didn’t consider any risks, but after 2009 [when mass protests at the disputed election result were brutally repressed], everything changed. The government finally understood the importance of journalism and journalists to the Iranian movement. Everything was risky. You wrote about culture, it was risky; you wrote about women, it was risky. The only thing that wasn’t risky was following the party line.

Tell me about your experience of being arrested and sentenced to a three-year prison term.

I don’t think I was brave, I didn’t feel it—I was scared. The situation suddenly becomes so dark, you can’t imagine your future. You wonder what will happen to you. You can’t imagine it. You think back over your articles—what was it that I wrote? Will I be able to answer their questions? It’s really frightening. You can’t help thinking about the friends and colleagues who have gone before you and sentenced to 10, 12, 15 years in prison. You can’t help but wonder if that will be your fate too. I was scared.

As a woman were you treated differently?

The problem for women in Iran isn’t exclusive to journalists. Iran is a country for men. They are trying to systematically remove women from all public activity and life; just last week women were prevented from attending a national stadium to watch a volleyball tournament. The same applies to football. You’d expect to face the same kind of difficulties at work. In Iran they don’t want women in the professional sphere. Women journalists are respected for sure, but never allowed to take up a leadership position. There is not a single female editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Iran (there might be a few in magazines). It’s simply not allowed.

What made you decide to leave Iran?

After 2009, I worked for nine different media outlets in two years because of government pressure. Two months here, three months there. Many newspapers were closed down, and of those that remained open, no-one wanted to employ me. When I received my three-year suspended sentence I felt suffocated. If I’d written something that they didn’t like I would have been immediately taken to prison to serve out my original sentence in addition to whatever time they handed down for my new ‘offense’. You can’t write anything in that situation. It’s all compounded by the fact that a conviction essentially renders you untouchable; newspaper and website managers won’t work with you for fear of becoming the next target of the regime. I had to leave Iran to continue my work.

You have lived as a refugee first in Malaysia, and now in Norway—tell me about these experiences.

Malaysia was awful—you aren’t welcome there. Your status as a refugee isn’t recognized or protected by the government.  It’s a really precarious position. While I was there I began researching and writing about drug trafficking after I witnessed it first-hand. That just added to the danger.

In Norway I am accepted by the government, and feel safe. You can live a normal life as a refugee here. But, any writer who is an immigrant faces problems: when you move to a foreign land you immediately lose your main strength—your language. Language is everything for a writer and it’s also the first thing you lose. You’re writing for a strange culture, you don’t know these people—how do you write for them? You have to start from scratch. I lost all my connections when I left Iran—literally and metaphorically. In a new society you don’t have all the contacts you would normally turn to for interviews that you had in your homeland. It makes it difficult to write. I left my address book in Iran when I fled. I’ve literally lost all my contacts. I tried to get in touch with some, but they won’t work with me because I left Iran. It takes time to adjust to a new people, culture and government. It takes a long time.   

Do you feel able to write freely in exile?

I don’t know really. It’s difficult to answer. First you have the language differences, and like I said, a new country is the great unknown. PEN Norway and ICORN have been a great help. Without it, my life would be much harder.

At the moment, I can’t really imagine what my future will be. People tell me that I can write freely in Norway, make a life for myself. I’m not sure yet.

I write in Persian, which is my treasure—I can play with words and explore, whereas in Norwegian I feel like a baby dependent on others. In exile I started writing short stories, and I am now working on a novel. I am also planning to turn my articles on drug trafficking in Malaysia into a book. I had such difficulty publishing them before because the publisher received threats so he took them down. So now I’m assuming the risk for myself. I will judge how freely I can write here after two to three years.

How have things changed under President Rouhani, if at all?

Nothing has changed. Foreign policy has changed, but this is just cosmetic. Arrests are continuing, and human rights and women’s rights are still suppressed. Two weeks ago, two more journalists were arrested and nothing is known about them. Several months ago, three other journalists returned to Iran from exile in the hope of a more liberal climate; one of these has been arrested, one sentenced to six years in prison, and one summoned daily for interrogation. There are currently 35 journalists in prison in Iran. Newspapers are still shut down; nothing has changed for journalists, human rights, women’s rights – the list goes on.

What can PEN do to better support writers in need of protection?

You are already doing it! Just take my experience in Malaysia as an example. I was going to have to wait for two years for my appointment with the UNHCR until you wrote a letter. They moved my appointment immediately, and I only had to wait one month.

What we exiled writers really need is a way to publish our work, a network of sorts. It’s something we were talking about at the ICORN AGM. Where do we turn to publish our work? We’re finally safe thanks to ICORN and PEN, but we need more help to be able to continue our work.

Pressure on Iran will also help, and international solidarity. I’d like to see international journalists coordinating one week where they boycott covering Iran in symbolic protest. You know, refuse to write about Iran, reject interviews with officials, boycott press conferences and tell them why – say ‘35 of my Iranian colleagues are in prison’. It would have a big impact. With foreign pressure we could do something. The government can’t lie if no one is listening.


For more about PEN’s work with ICORN for writers at risk click here.