Village Voice Owner Peter Barbey Underwrites Award to Highlight Growing Threats to Free Expression Worldwide

NEW YORK – PEN America announced today that it will confer the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award upon imprisoned Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji at its annual Literary Gala on May 16 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The Edwin Barbey Charitable Fund, directed by Peter Barbey and his wife, Pamela, will underwrite the new award. Last year, Barbey purchased New York’s iconic Village Voice newspaper co-founded by former PEN President Norman Mailer in 1955.

Naji, 30, is the author of three books and a journalist at the state-funded Akhbar al-Adab literary magazine. He is a frequent contributor to other newspapers and websites, including Al Modon and Al Masry Al Youm, and has been a vocal critic of official corruption under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In 2015, Naji was charged with “violating public modesty” after a private citizen complained that an excerpt from Naji’s novel The Use of Life published in the state-run literary journal Akhbar al-Adab had given the reader heart palpitations due to its sexual content. State prosecutors then brought a case against Naji despite the Egyptian censorship board’s previous approval of the literary text. When a trial court found him not guilty, prosecutors appealed to a higher court that in February 2016 delivered a guilty verdict and imposed the maximum sentence of two years in prison. More than 500 Egyptian writers and artists signed a statement protesting the conviction and criticizing the government’s “multi-armed attack on a number of writers and journalists because of their opinions.”

Egypt has in recent years joined the ranks of the world’s worst jailers of writers. Over the past several months, the government’s crackdown has rapidly expanded beyond repression of press freedom and public demonstrations to also target artistic and cultural spaces, including the arrests of writers and raids of a number of art galleries, theaters, and publishing houses. The new Egyptian Constitution, adopted in 2014, forbids the jailing of writers and artists for publishing their work.  In February, seven members of the drafting committee published a statement condemning Naji’s sentencing as unconstitutional.

“Naji’s case is emblematic of Egypt’s escalating crackdown on artistic freedom in flagrant disregard for its own constitutional protections and at the expense of the country’s rich cultural traditions,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “PEN hopes that this award will spur writers, readers, advocates, and world leaders to press Egypt to release Naji immediately and to stop treating creativity as a crime.”

Since 1987, PEN America has honored more than 50 individual writers worldwide with awards recognizing their struggle in the face of adversity for the right to free expression. Of the 40 writers who were in prison at the time they received a PEN award, 35 have been freed due in part to the attention and pressure generated by it.

“Free expression is under attack from all sides, whether from autocrats around the globe or elements of our own government,” said Barbey. “The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award represents a chance to join PEN’s long tradition of championing writers whose voices and art are under threat and to bring their plight to the world’s attention.”

PEN America’s May 16 Literary Gala will also salute Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling with the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for engendering a love of literature among children worldwide. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and LeeAnne Walters will accept the 2016 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award for their brave efforts to expose the water crisis in Flint, MI. Additionally, the gala will applaud its Publisher Honoree, Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch, for his leadership in the fight against censorship.

CONTACT
Sarah Edkins, Deputy Director for Communications: +1 646-779-4830, sedkins@pen.org