The 1998 Hellman/Hammett grant recipients provide a fascinating look at the myriad ways that government repress freedom of speech. The forty-four writers who hail from nineteen countries have faced obstacles ranging from imprisonment and torture to having their works banned and their phone lines severed.
The Hellman/Hammett grants are given annually by Human Rights Watch to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution. The grant program began in 1989 when the estates of writers Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett asked Human Rights Watch to assist writers in financial need as a result of expressing their views. This year, grants totaled $170,000.
Writers from Vietnam, Turkey, and Nigeria received a major portion of the 1998 grants, reflecting the especially repressive climate for free expression in those three countries. But as harsh as the situation is for writers there, conditions are equally severe in other countries where the signs of repression are less visible. Licencing policies and intimidation silence many voices before they can be heard. The suppression is just as egregious when expression is inhibited before it is put into words as when the abuse of writers is open and obvious.
In Vietnam, writers have faced harsh restraints for decades. This year's eight awards testify to the fact that the repressive conditions continue unabated in the context of a stalling economy, backlash over security concerns raised by improved relations with the United States, and a stalemate over political succession and liberalization within the Communist Party.
Nigeria's the use of arbitrary detention, torture, and censorship to quash writers has been an international scandal since the trial and execution of the noted playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. The death last month of General Sani Abacha raises cautious hope for the release of political prisoners and implementation of the long stalled transition from military to civilian rule. But until Nigeria repeals the decrees that stifle free expression, writing there will remain a dangerous pursuit.
The eight Turkish recipients represent the wide range of thought (Islamist, Kurdish, leftist, and mainstream) for which writers are targeted in Turkey. Persecution is common for expressing views or reporting on the Kurdish question, the role of Islam in society, and the nature of the Turkish state. At the same time, great latitude is permitted on most other topics.
The writers selected to receive Hellman/Hammett grants in 1998 are a tiny portion of the many the world over whose books have been banned or who have been exiled, imprisoned, tortured,or harassed because of their work. In addition to the Vietnamese, Nigerian, and Turkish writers, this year's grant recipients include Miriam Tlali, a South African who vigorously condemned apartheid and paid the price for many years; Gordana Igric who, despite threats to her life, writes about human rights abuses in the former Yugoslavia; and Ahmad Taufik, an Indonesian journalist who has courageously covered taboo subjects like the wealth of the Soeharto family and human rights violations in East Timor.