New York, NY, April 2, 2003—PEN American Center today named Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, an independent journalist serving a six-year prison term for calling attention to rights violations in Cuba, and Zouhair Yahyaoui, a Tunisian Internet activist whose popular electronic magazine earned him a two-year prison term, as recipients of its 2003 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards. The awards, which honor international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression, will be presented at PEN’s Annual Gala on April 22, 2003, at the Pierre Hotel in New York City.

Distinguished writer, historian, and PEN member Barbara Goldsmith underwrites the two awards at $20,000 per year. Candidates are nominated by International PEN and any of its 132 constituent PEN Centers around the world and screened by PEN American Center and an Advisory Board comprised of some of the most distinguished experts in the field. The Advisory Board for the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards includes Carroll Bogert, Communications Director of Human Rights Watch; Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists; Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation; Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Vice President of International PEN; and Aryeh Neier, President of the Open Society Institute.

On August 14, 1997, State Security agents arrested independent journalist Bernardo Arévalo Padrón in Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba. Three days later he was released pending trial for defamation. The basis for the charge has never been publicly disclosed. However, reports indicate that he was charged either for alleging in interviews on Miami radio that military helicopters were transporting fresh meat to Communist Party officials in Havana while Cuban farmers went hungry, or for accusing the government of ignoring agreements it signed during the 1996 Ibero-American summit to respect parliamentary democracy, basic freedoms and human rights. A court sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment. The judgment was confirmed on appeal.

Mr. Arévalo Padrón is the founder of Linea Sur Press, an independent news agency based in Cienfuegos. He created the agency with the goal of making the Cuban public aware of the ways in which their government was violating their fundamental rights. He has vowed to continue his journalistic work even behind bars by reporting news of prison conditions.

Since he entered prison, Bernardo Arévalo Padrón has been transferred repeatedly from one labor camp to another, where tasks include weeding and cutting sugarcane. In March of 2002, Mr. Arévalo Padrón released information on prison conditions in the center where he was being held. He was instantly deprived of his wife’s visits and the following month prison authorities turned down his fourth request to be released on parole. According to colleagues, prison authorities told Mr. Arévalo Padrón that if he did not stop sending bulletins from jail, family visits for all of the prisoners in his prison unit would cease. They have also reportedly encouraged other prisoners to harass “the counter-revolutionary” on grounds that he is harming the prison’s reputation and grading.

On April 1, 2001, his application for conditional leave, for which all Cuban prisoners become eligible on serving half their sentence, was turned down by the authorities on the grounds that he had not been sufficiently “politically re-educated.”

On June 4, 2000, not long after his lively Internet magazine TUNeZINE invited readers to vote on whether Tunisia was “a republic, a kingdom, a zoo, or a prison,” Zouhair Yahyaoui was arrested at the Tunis cyber café where he worked by six plainclothes police officers. The officers, who had neither search nor arrest warrants, escorted him home, confiscated his personal computer files, and took him into custody. His whereabouts were unknown for five days. During that time he was reportedly subjected to three sessions of “suspension,” a method of torture in which the victim is suspended by his arms with his feet barely touching the ground. After the third session, he revealed his website’s access code, allowing the Tunisian authorities to remove TUNeZINE.com from the Internet.

On June 20, 2002, Mr. Yahyaoui was tried and sentenced to one year in prison for “propagation of false news” and an additional year and four months for “non-authorized usage of an Internet connection” and “theft from an employer.” He was re-tried on July 3, 2002. On July 10, his sentence was reduced on appeal from twenty-eight months to two years.

Zouhair Yahyaoui (whose pen name is “Ettounsi,” “the Tunisian”) founded TUNeZINE.com shortly after graduating from college to disseminate information on the struggle for democracy in Tunisia and publish opposition material. The e-magazine ran scathing reports of human rights violations in Tunisia, critiques of the fifteen-year-long regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, challenges to the tourism industry and discussion boards for visitors. What began as a one-man operation quickly expanded to a committed core of five people, and TUNeZINE became one of the most popular virtual spaces in Tunisia. Yahyaoui and his publication reached international prominence in July of 2001, when he published an open letter from his uncle, a prominent judge, to President Ben Ali denouncing complete lack of judicial independence in Tunisia.

Mr. Yahyaoui is currently imprisoned 28 kilometers from Tunis, where his health is believed to have seriously deteriorated. Meanwhile, his colleague and fiancée Sophie Elwarda has restarted TUNeZINE as a platform to campaign for his release.

In announcing the awards today in New York, PEN American Center Executive Director Michael Roberts praised their creativity and sacrifice. “The heroism of this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award recipients begins in a shared determination to write about the state of human rights in their respective countries, but it goes much further,” Roberts said. “Both Bernardo Arévalo Padrón in Cuba and Zouhair Yahyaoui in Tunisia had to create the means to disseminate the information they gathered, Arévalo Padrón by founding a news agency independent of government controls and Yahyaoui by launching a free, popular online magazine. Their success in circumventing existing restrictions has cost them dearly: they have become examples of the very limitations on dissent that they set out to publicize.”

Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems stressed the importance of this year’s awards in reminding the world of the daily struggle for freedom of expression in countries outside the current sphere of media coverage. “Even as our attention is justifiably focused on the human rights and freedom of expression implications of the war on terrorism and ongoing military operations, we must remain vigilant elsewhere as well. For example, on the day the U.S. launched its war on Iraq, the Cuban government rounded up at least a dozen more independent journalists, in clear violation of their right to freedom of expression. If history has taught anything, it is that those who would curtail essential rights are quick to take advantage when they believe the international community is distracted.”

This is the 17th year that the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards have honored international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. The awards are an extension of PEN’s year-round advocacy on behalf of the more than 1,150 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Thirty-three women and men have received the award since 1987; 21 of the 25 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.
 

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, lsiems@pen.org