Author Archives: Aleksandar Macasev

In Praise of the Nameless

You’re a writer, and if not, you’re a reader. In all likelihood, you’ve written or read online today. What essay did you publish? What outrages did you tweet? What idea did you blog? Which picture did you share? What subversive thought did you post? If you are lucky, as I am, you exercised your freedom of expression without interference by the state. It is everyone’s right, protected by international law – but in a liberal democratic state, we as citizens rarely have cause to consider.Among the eight hundred and fifty recipients of Hellman-Hammett grants, one hundred and sixty-five required anonymity.The annual award announcements hint at what lies behind the need for anonymity: “Some of this year’s recipients have asked to remain anonymous because of possible continuing danger to them and their families… Other recipients will remain anonymous because of the dangerous circumstances in which they are living… Of the 48 winners this year, seven asked to remain anonymous to prevent further persecution.”

Sometimes we choose to escape into obscurity, unseen and unrecognized. But when anonymity comes by necessity, the celebration ends.

A few grantees from 2012:

  • Anonymous (Burundi): A radio journalist and editor who has been harassed and threatened by Burundi government authorities as a result of his work.
  • Anonymous (Rwanda). A journalist and editor who was repeatedly threatened by Rwandan state authorities, labeled an enemy of the state, and convicted of defamation.”
  • Four anonymous Tibetans (China): Four writers imprisoned for writing about protests in Tibet.

“Anonymity,” the US Supreme Court has held, “is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.” It allows a young adult to explore her sexuality online, an atheist in a religious state to search for like-minded thinkers, an activist to organize. Anonymity is the tool by which millions around the world form opinions in the face of hostile social mores. Anonymity “allows individuals to express themselves freely without fear of retribution or condemnation.” It is to be celebrated, legitimized, and protected.

Technologies provide the state with an almost endless amount of data about our lives, but sometimes we also need to escape into obscurity. We choose to do so. We download privacy-protection software and go explore, unseen and unrecognized.

Yet when anonymity comes by necessity, the celebration ends. The four Tibetan writers haunt me, because I know so little. Who are they? How and why did they come to be writers? What abuse did they witness that led the government to arrest them? What protests did they cover? Was this the first, the second, the forty-second protest they had seen in Tibet?

We don’t know the answers. The four writers remain anonymous (though, of course, only to me and you – not to their friends, families). We fight to protect the right to anonymity, but we must also denounce the obscurity that is forced upon writers by a repressive state.

David Kaye is the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and a professor of law at the University of California-Irvine.

What is to be done? Stop criminalizing defamation: that should be a civil matter. Raise the cases of writers behind bars: pressure from abroad matters. Shun governments who shut down their critics. Fight overly vague laws that open the way to criminalizing almost any activity if those in power feel threatened. Agitate against odious laws that make the discussion of some subjects – like LGBT issues – a crime. Reinforce, in all places, at all times, that people have a right to express themselves. That’s the essence of what it means to be human. Help Defend Human Rights & Save Lives. Donate at
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Death Beat: Covering the Colombian Cartels

Q&A with Maria Jimena Duzan, Grant Awarded 1990

Colombian paramilitaries at a demobilization ceremony © 2004 Stephen Ferry
Colombian paramilitaries at a demobilization ceremony © 2004 Stephen Ferry

In 2010 you published the book Mi Viaje al Infierno [My Journey to Hell] about the murder of your sister, who was killed by paramilitaries in 1990 while making a documentary about paramilitarism. Why did you decide to write the book 20 years after her death?

My first reaction to the murder of Silvia was that of fear. Fear that they would kill me, kill my mother. That fear paralyzed me as it does many victims. Initially attorneys were investigating the incidents, but nothing ever happened. And I never had the courage to file a report; I had to leave the country immediately, exiled, due to threats. It took many years for me to understand what happened.

Why was it so important for the truth about who killed your sister to come to light?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that victims of conflict need to know the truth. In the case of my sister, and the people killed with her, most of those who pulled the trigger are already dead, but the victims’ families are alive. For too long I believed that coming to terms with the fact that I myself was a victim was going to affect my journalism, but that was not the case. I think the truth has made me a better journalist.

As part of a peace agreement, the Colombian government is discussing potential amnesties for guerrillas and military officials who committed war crimes. If this happens, would it place an even greater burden on journalists like you to replace the justice system by establishing the truth?

Very few journalists in Colombia are genuinely interested in reporting about the negotiations and conflict-related stories. Many of us have had siblings or family members murdered. That is not something we can just put away and hide in a box while we continue to do our job as journalists. We must know, however, that as journalists we cannot work with vengeance.

To make matters worse, the story does not attract international interest, and the onus falls exclusively on Colombian journalists.

What story do you hope to tell in the book you’re currently writing about the peace process?

I am trying to tell the story of what I believe will be the first successful peace agreement in my country. We have been at war for almost 30 years! This is what I have done my whole life, and for once I’d like to write about peace. For the first time in my life, I will have this opportunity.

You earned your stripes as a journalist in the 1980s, under constant threat from drug traffickers and paramilitaries. Many of your colleagues were killed, including your mentor Guillermo Cano, the editor of El Espectador. What motivated you to continue reporting?

At first we didn’t know who had killed Guillermo Cano. We were not aware then that the drug trafficking world was so ruthless and that so many people would be killed; we never imagined that trafficking was going to be an even bigger monster than it was already. Just think: we did not even have evidence that Pablo Escobar, who was then a member of Congress, was also a drug lord! We had only published the truth on Pablo Escobar one year before he killed Cano. Later on, when Guillermo and many others were killed – including journalists, judges and political candidates – we realized that this was not just about drug trafficking but about politics in Colombia, and the ties between the country’s political and business establishment with drug trafficking, and how this in turn was interlinked with the emergence of a new monster, that of paramilitarism, and the extreme-right phenomenon.

And this is what mobilized me: I understood that we were dealing with a problem affecting the entire country and involving macabre alliances between drug trafficking, the political and business establishment, and large landowners. In other words, the problem was not only very serious and had been concealed, but was also deeply rooted in Colombia’s longstanding problems of inequality and injustice.

The dangers for reporters in Colombia continue to this day, especially for journalists like you who cover the armed conflict. In 2013, for example, your colleague at Semana magazine Ricardo Calderon survived an attempt on his life, apparently motivated by his reporting on military abuses. How does the ongoing threat of violence affect your work – and even personal life – as a journalist?

It has great impact on the stories you cover, because it means that you need bodyguards to access conflict zones that are far from urban areas. Having to travel to such an area escorted by a bodyguard and in armored cars in fact hampers our journalistic work. It does not stop me, because I go there anyway…despite all this. Only yesterday I received a call from the police commander in an area that I am planning to visit. He talked to my bodyguards and warned us not to go to the outlying areas, and he said that we should stay within the town center because there were FARC members [left-wing rebels] all over the place and my life could be at risk if there was any armed confrontation. But I have decided to go ahead, and that we will drive a local vehicle rather than an armored car, which can be too flashy, and the bodyguards will come with me wearing civilian clothes, but carrying guns. Still, it really is a dilemma.

The reason I have been given official bodyguards is that I am one of the journalists who has been most targeted by threats… Some FARC members believe that I am a spy and that I represent oppressive state institutions, while others [on the right], think that I am practically a member of the FARC.

The state has assigned me bodyguards also because in my book about those responsible for [my sister’s] killing I named the perpetrators, including a former army official and the then local police commander. None of them are in jail. This has affected my security since then.

I try to keep my husband and daughters out of this so that they can live a normal life, but it’s complicated, and for years I have had bodyguards… Sadly, I have to admit that I do feel safer when I leave the studio after my television show accompanied by a bodyguard. I long for the day when I will be able to be without a bodyguard, but for this to happen the war needs to come to an end.

As a victim of the conflict, what has it been like to interview FARC commanders for your book?

It’s been hard, because they too claim to be victims in this conflict, rather than perpetrators. That’s what’s so difficult about interviewing FARC commanders; I realized how different their vision of the conflict is from ours, and also from the way that much of the public perceives the FARC and their responsibility. Now, as a result of the peace talks, they are increasingly taking responsibility for their crimes, and as a victim I believe that this will be key to achieving peace in Colombia.

I realized that they still weren’t aware of how badly they were being perceived by the Colombian community. They think it’s all manipulation, run by the media. They don’t believe in public opinion surveys. But nevertheless, to my surprise, I have realized that they are in fact great supporters of the constitution. That, for a “guerrilla” who has fought for sixty years, is a huge surprise.

Jon Lee Anderson is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World.

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Breaking the Blackout

Anna Politkovskaya, Grant Awarded 2002

Chechen women show portraits of their missing relatives © 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Chechen women show portraits of their missing relatives © 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

When I think of Anna Politkovskaya, the first thing I remember is a small flat in one of Grozny’s high rise Soviet-style buildings. This is where she often stayed while reporting out of Chechnya on Putin’s war, the war that largely brought him to power and that transformed Russia in a profound and dramatic way. The staircase had been bombed out. Walls were full of holes left by the fighting. In the courtyard, inhabitants would draw water from an improvised well. Colorful plastic tubes, like garden hoses, were used to bring water up from the ground to the upper floors of the building. It almost looked pretty: a myriad of bright red, green, blue, and yellow tubes springing out of the ground and running up the facade of the building, where buckets could be filled.

The small flat was where Natasha Estemirova lived. Natasha was an activist with the Russian human rights group Memorial, and a close friend of Anna Politkovskaya. She was half Chechen, half Russian. Natasha and Anna were roughly the same age. They had set themselves similar goals: to break the media blackout that the Kremlin was trying to impose on its operations in Chechnya, and to help the families of war crimes victims gather material that could be presented, one day, in front of the European Court of Human Rights. They not only wanted to break the silence around Chechnya, they wanted to make sure that, one day, justice would prevail.

© 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
© 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

I knew Natasha’s flat well, but I only later found out how familiar it was to Anna also. It was important to stay discreet about your networks and contacts when you reported out of Chechnya in a clandestine way. In 2004, Natasha and I travelled out of Grozny together, to the village of Duba Yurt, where the bodies of nine young local men had been found by the side of a road, bearing the marks of horrible torture. We visited the father of one of these young men. Sitting in his home, he described the kidnapping of his son by Russian soldiers, and how he was taken, alongside the other young men, to the Russian military base of Khankala, near Grozny, and then, the discovery of the bodies.

He insisted we write down his name and publish it, for the world to know, and because he wanted Natasha to help prepare a dossier for the European court. I hesitated. The danger of Russian retaliation was great. Most witnesses preferred to keep their identity confidential. But this man was adamant: “Print my name! Our sons are being massacred like sheep, the Russians don’t even ask their names!” So I wrote down his name: Sait Hussein Elmursayev. The following year, in May, I received a message from Chechnya: Sait Hussein Elmursayev’s body had been found, with a bullet wound to his head.

© 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
© 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

In October 2006, Anna was assassinated in Moscow. Less than three years later, in July 2009, Natasha was kidnapped by gunmen, just outside her apartment building in Grozny. Her body was found in neighboring Ingushetia. There was an obvious thread linking these two murders. After Anna’s death, Natasha had bravely pursued Anna’s task of gathering material in Chechnya. The nightmare of their deaths brought back what Stalin once said: “nyet cheloveka, nyet problemy” – get rid of the person and you get rid of the problem.

With hindsight, I can only say Anna Politkovskaya and Natasha Estemirova were like Sait Hussein Elmursayev. They deeply felt that it was essential to speak out publicly. It was their weapon against terror. Refusing to retreat into anonymity or silence was their way of resisting a universe of lies. It was not just courage, it was a question of pride. Like those colorful tubes bringing water to war ravaged homes, their legacy is vital, because it has to do with human dignity.

Natalie Nougayrède is a columnist for The Guardian and a member of its editorial board. She is the former editor and Moscow correspondent of Le Monde.

In 2012, Russia’s parliament adopted a law requiring nongovernmental organizations to register as “foreign agents” with the Ministry of Justice if they engage in “political activity” and receive foreign funding. The law’s definition of “political activity” is so vague, it can extend to all aspects of advocacy and human rights work. Help Defend Human Rights & Save Lives. Donate at
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“Anna, Anna!”

Anna Politkovskaya, Grant Awarded 2002

Anna Politkovskaya, age 40
Like a rock star to Chechens © Ksenia Bondareva

Back in the winter of 1999, I was in a camp for internally displaced people not far from the border of Chechnya. These were Chechens who had fled from the bombing and fighting and now were living in makeshift tents in the bitter winter. Whenever Human Rights Watch showed up at these camps, we were mobbed by crowds who wanted to share their stories.

One day in the camp, I was talking to a group of women about their experiences. I had my notebook and pencil out, taking notes, when all of a sudden, the crowd that had been intently focused on me became distracted. Anna Politkovskaya! News of her arrival spread like wildfire through the camp and within seconds I had lost my captive audience. People from all over the camp ran to an approaching car. They were shouting, “Anna, Anna!”

She was like a rock star to the Chechens. They felt she was the only person carrying their voices into Russia. Seven years later she was murdered in the stairwell of her apartment in Moscow.

Diederik Lohman was the Moscow director at Human Rights Watch during the second war in Chechnya.

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From Dissident to President

Moncef Marzouki, Grant Awarded 2001

Protester taking a break during Tunisia’s Arab Spring © 2011 Alex Majoli/Magnum Photo
Protester taking a break during Tunisia’s Arab Spring © 2011 Alex Majoli/Magnum Photo

The first time Moncef Marzouki tried to become president of Tunisia, it didn’t end well. In 1994, he sought to run against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was seven years into what turned out to be a 24-year, iron-fisted reign. Marzouki was thrown in prison for his pains. By 2011, things had changed dramatically. The Arab Spring had deposed Ben Ali, and Marzouki, a doctor and human rights activist, was elected to the constituent assembly, and then as transitional president, a post he held until the end of December 2014. He is the only Hellman-Hammett grantee to have served as president of his country.

Marzouki grew up in an anti-establishment household. When Tunisia gained its independence in 1956, his father opposed the “father of the nation,” Habib Bourguiba, who ruled the country for 30 years. Marzouki was only 11 years old when his family chose to go into exile in Morocco.

Trained as a doctor in France, Marzouki also spent many years in exile in Paris, where he could be seen jogging diligently around the Parc Montsouris in the 14th arrondissement. The author of nearly 20 books in Arabic and French, he was successively attracted by the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, then by the Marxist ideals of socialism, but grew disappointed by both. He became president of the Arab Commission for Human Rights and experienced frequent harassment, jail and exile as a result of his human rights activism.

Marzouki after signing Tunisia’s new constitution © 2014 Getty Images

As president, he struggled to find a balance between the democratic wishes of the youth and the Islamist strength of the Ennahda party, which held a majority in parliament. He asserted his Arab roots by never wearing a Western necktie, but rather a traditional Berber burnous, or white woolen cloak, during official ceremonies. In 2014, he lifted a years-old state of emergency, and cut his own pay by two-thirds.

After a new constitution came into effect, Marzouki won only 46 percent of the direct vote, and went into semi-retirement.

Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber has been editor and publisher of more than 15 publications in France and Europe, currently CLÉS magazine. He is vice-chair of the board of Human Rights Watch and chair of its Paris Committee.

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Everywhere’s a Prison

Zone 9 Bloggers, Grant Awarded 2015

Ethiopian news consumers © 2011 Tom Cochrem/Getty Images
Ethiopian news consumers © 2011
Tom Cochrem/Getty Images

I was in Nairobi, Google-chatting to one of my fellow Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia when he told me: “The police are here for me, please call my family and let them know.” And then he went offline. I started calling the others, but no one answered.

It turned out the police had arrested six bloggers, as well as three journalists. I escaped, another blogger was in the US, and a third was outside Addis Ababa and he managed to flee.

Growing up in Addis, we listened to Voice of America in Amharic, and my dad bought several newspapers every day. He was part of a political movement, then he was imprisoned for four years and after that he stayed away – it was too dangerous to be involved in politics.

I worked as a lawyer providing legal aid to women caught up in court cases, trying to get a divorce, domestic violence, that kind of thing. This job let me travel all over the country; I liked my community work. The government passed a law limiting foreign funding for human rights work, which forced us to close these programs. I was so angry, I thought, maybe I should start speaking out.

We couldn’t discuss issues in the traditional media because only a few media houses remained after the 2009 election. So we started Zone 9, an online collective, under the motto: “We blog because we care.” Our first campaign was “Respect the Constitution” – we urged the government to follow the rules they had created, so we could position ourselves as moderate but critical voices.

The government passed a law limiting foreign funding for human rights work, which forced us to close these programs. I was so angry, I thought, maybe I should start speaking out.

We took our name from a famous Ethiopian prison, Kality, which has eight zones. We heard the inmates call the outside world “Zone 9” – it’s beyond the walls, but it’s still a prison, because in Ethiopia our rights are limited.

We thought our friends would be released after a couple of days of questioning, but after 87 days in detention everyone was charged with terrorism. I was charged in absentia, so I can’t go home – I live in Washington, DC and I’m working on a campaign to #FreeZone9Bloggers.

We know they cannot get a fair trial so we’re trying to highlight the issue. The US and Britain are the two biggest bilateral donors of aid to Ethiopia, so they should say clearly that such behavior is not acceptable from a partner government. Is that really too much to ask?

Soleyana S. Gebremichael is a blogger for the Zone 9 collective, exiled from Ethiopia and living in Washington, DC.

Threats against journalists around the world are growing. In the first half of 2015, Human Rights Watch published reports on media crackdowns in Ethiopia (Journalism is Not a Crime), Afghanistan (Stop Reporting or We’ll Kill Your Family), and Libya (War on the Media). The good news: the Internet has made speech harder to control, and in many countries, private media have sprung up to challenge the old state-run channels. The bad news: governments are responding with harsh new laws, and sometimes violence. Help Defend Human Rights & Save Lives. Donate at
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Nobel Behind Bars

Liu Xiaobo, Grant Awarded 1992, 1997, 2009

Liu Xiaobo © Independent Chinese PEN Centre
Liu Xiaobo © Independent Chinese PEN Centre

Long before Liu Xiaobo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for what the committee called “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights,” he puzzled over the perils of renown. In 1986, Liu was a small-time poet and literary critic, who had grown up in China’s frigid northeast and received a PhD in literature at Beijing Normal University. At a conference that fall, he gave a speech in which he informed his startled peers that broad acclaim might be a problem — a sign that they were saving their readers “the trouble of thinking.” He said, “In my opinion, true liberation for the Chinese will only come when people learn to live for themselves, when they realize that life is what you make of it.”

Liu’s arguments against fame — inevitably, perhaps — established him as a famous new voice in Chinese intellectual circles. In the decades that followed, most of his writings were banned, even as he broadened his focus from literature to politics, philosophy, and religion, and emerged as China’s most unlikely icon: a gruff chain-smoker with a persistent stutter, a richly obscene vocabulary, and an unflagging desire to say what he believes. By 2008, he had also served three jail terms, beginning with a conviction for his role in the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. That fall, he and collaborators wrote Charter 08, a declaration calling for human rights and political reform. “The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law,” they wrote. They planned to release it on December 10, 2008 — the 60th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights — but two days prior, Liu was arrested at home, and later tried for “incitement to subvert state power.” In court, he said, “I hope that I will be the last victim in China’s long record of treating words as crimes.”

China has the largest cohort of Hellman-Hammett grantees (87), and not only because of its huge population. The current crackdown has swept up writers, activists, and even lawyers who had long worked within the system.

On Christmas Day 2009, the court sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison. The state press denounced Charter 08 as the seed of “violent revolution,” an attempt to “put an end to the progress of Chinese society and the happiness of the people.” When Liu was awarded the Nobel, in October 2010, the government was outraged, and it barred his wife, the artist Liu Xia, or anyone else, from going to Oslo to receive the award. It was the first time that a family member had been prevented from doing so since 1935, when Hitler barred relatives from going on behalf of Carl von Ossietzky, a German writer and pacifist, who was in a guarded hospital bed after having been in a concentration camp. Liu’s certificate was placed on an empty blue chair onstage.

In the years after the award, the government took steps to expunge Liu and his wife from the records of Chinese life. She was not accused of a crime, but, in an unusually harsh form of collective punishment, she was put under house arrest and barred from receiving visitors or using the Web or the telephone. After more than two years, reporters reached her front door (her guards were on lunch break); she wept at the sight of visitors and said, “I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this.”

Vigil for Liu in Hong Kong © 2010 YM YIK/EPA/Corbis
Vigil for Liu in Hong Kong © 2010 YM YIK/EPA/Corbis

More than four years after Liu’s conviction, his wife remained under house arrest. In January 2014, a secretly filmed video emerged of her reading two poems, at her desk, in her apartment. She said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to draw birds on the tree?/I’m too old to see, blind/Perhaps you don’t know how to draw a bird at all?” In February 2014, Desmond Tutu and other Nobel Peace Prize winners wrote an open letter to the United Nations and the European Union calling for Liu Xiaobo’s release, but he remained in a prison in Jinzhou, in Liaoning Province.

In December 2014, the exile writer Liao Yiwu released a statement that he said been smuggled to him from Liu. “I am O.K. Here in prison, I have continually been able to read and think. In my studies, I have become even more convinced I have no personal enemies. The nimbus around me is shiny enough by now. I hope the world could pay more attention to other victims who are not well known, or not known at all!”

Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for non-fiction.

Human Rights Watch has to be very, very careful to protect sources, especially in repressive countries where risks are high. New surveillance technologies are making it harder to have private conversations by phone, email, or social media. Refugees and exiles can sometimes be important sources of information. Help Defend Human Rights & Save Lives. Donate at
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Between Two Worlds: Literary Pioneer

Miriam Tlali, Grant Awarded 1998

The first black woman to publish a novel in South Africa is now 81 and still living in the same house in Soweto. Human Rights Watch went to visit:

Miriam Tlali in Johannesburg in 2014, for photographer Adrian Steirn’s 21 Icons project. Photo by Gary Van Wyk
Miriam Tlali in Johannesburg in 2014, for photographer Adrian Steirn’s 21 Icons project. Photo by Gary Van Wyk

You say in the introduction to Between Two Worlds that had you not started writing in 1964, you would have lost your senses. Why?

I was suffering. And I was angry. But I was also trying to satisfy my mother. She had struggled hard to educate us as a widow and I dared not disappoint her. So I was studying and reading books all the time. I could not stay away from books. That is the only thing that kept me sane.

You finished the manuscript in 1969. It collected dust for six years. Did you ever think you would find a publisher?

No, never! My mother used to carry a copy of the manuscript around, wrapped in a cloth. There were quite a number [of publishers] whom I tried and they all turned it down. Finally, the system gradually changed, and in 1974 somebody told me about Raven Press. However, they changed the title to Muriel at Metropolitan and took out words and whole passages. They said it would be banned otherwise and they would not be making any money off it.

I refused for a year to give my permission to publish. “Not under that title,” I said. But my mother started complaining: “I am getting old and I shall die without seeing your book. Let them publish it.” And so it was published [and almost immediately banned].

What did you feel when you finally held a copy of your novel in your hand?

I felt like I had won some kind of battle against the system. I knew at least my words would be read somewhere in this world. But at the same time I felt ashamed about the title and the fact that they had taken so much out of the manuscript.

You once said that a book can remake a person. How did this book remake you?

It brought me up. It made me meet a lot people from all over the world. By the time I had gone through all the [book] tours, I was a different person altogether. The fact that my mother died a few months after the book was published contributed to my desire to go on fighting the system. Now I was going to fight them as a writer.

Now that South Africa has become a democracy, is there anything left to write about as a “struggle” writer?

I think the situation now is so different from what we looked forward to. You cannot say we are totally free. Seeing people living without toilets or jobs in a so-called free country, it’s debilitating. But at least what it has done, this freedom of ours, it has made our women become more confident and trust in themselves.

What did you spend the Hellman-Hammett grant on?

I built my study. Something my husband never thought could happen. He wanted me to build it upstairs, a double-story. I refused. I said, “You must improve the house, not me” [laughs]. There it is, outside, this place I am so proud of. Two rooms with a small kitchen, so that I did not have to move up and down all the time while writing, and a bathroom. I used to live in it. Sometimes I even slept in it. And all the letters I exchanged with the grantmakers are still there, on the shelves.

Human rights can be controversial and are often viewed with suspicion as a “Western” idea that doesn’t apply to other societies. Those who challenge these rights are almost never the victims of abuse themselves – it is those in power who tend to see rights as a threat. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and affirmed in 1948 by diplomats from a wide range of cultures. But it is not encased in amber. Every generation must fight for human rights on its own terms. Over time, the idea of human rights has won broad acceptance. Help Defend Human Rights & Save Lives. Donate at

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Getting Into Trouble, and Out of It

Gustavo Gorriti, Grant Awarded 1992

Gorriti in Vizcatan, Peru © 2008 Oscar Medrano/Caretas

Over the last three decades, Gustavo Gorriti’s relationship with the Committee to Protect Journalists has been pretty simple. He does everything he can to get into trouble. We do everything we can to get him out of it.

As a reporter covering the conflict between the government of Peru and the “Shining Path” rebels, Gorriti carried out investigations into the misdeeds of a cashiered army officer, alleged spy, and narco-lawyer named Vladimiro Montesinos. In 1990, Montesinos was appointed intelligence adviser in the new administration of President Alberto Fujimori.

On April 5, 1992, Fujimori dissolved Congress and started rounding up his political enemies. That night at 3 a.m., after the streets around Gorriti’s home in Lima were cordoned off, heavily armed commandos dressed in civilian clothes climbed over an external wall. A second team banged on the front door and took Gorriti into custody. Gorriti had imagined just such a scenario, and had a plan. His wife, Esther, immediately called the Committee to Protect Journalists, human rights groups, and the international media. Gorriti was released after two days. He credits the quick global response with saving his life.

Gorriti and his family soon relocated to Panama where he took up a position as associate editor of the national daily La Prensa. The newspaper had been founded to confront the dictatorship of Omar Torrijos, so the editors were accustomed to pressure and controversy. La Prensa’s publisher Juan Arias Zubieta promised Gorriti free rein, but perhaps without fully comprehending what this might mean.

Gorriti assembled an investigative team, and promptly pursued the most sensitive stories in Panama. The country was awash in corruption, much of which implicated senior government officials including President Ernesto Pérez Balladares. An agent of the Colombia-based Cali Cartel had even contributed $51,000 to the Pérez Balladares election campaign, Gorriti reported. When Gorriti’s work visa came up for renewal, Panamanian authorities balked.

Gorriti refused to leave the country. He holed up in La Prensa’s newsroom, sleeping on a cot and daring the authorities to launch a raid. From CPJ’s office in New York, I helped organize an international campaign that included statements from luminaries and op-eds in major newspapers. The government backed down.

Gorriti also accused the country’s attorney general, José Antonio Sossa of his own entanglements with criminal organizations. Sossa launched a series of legal actions seeking to prosecute Gorriti under Panama’s notorious “gag law.” In September 1999 a CPJ delegation traveled to Panama to meet with President Mireya Moscoso and express its concern. The gag law was repealed three months later.

In 2000, Gorriti returned to Peru, not as a journalist but as an adviser to the presidential campaign of Alejandro Toledo. I was not thrilled with this arrangement because I felt it could compromise Gorriti’s standing as an independent journalist. But he was hardly the first journalist to make a foray into politics. Gorriti argued that the best thing he could do for Peru was to ensure the political defeat of Alberto Fujimori.

In fact, once Toledo prevailed, Gorriti went back to being a journalist, and a highly critical one. Meanwhile, Fujimori is in prison, convicted and sentenced in 2009 for a series of grave human rights abuses, among them the raid on Gorriti’s home. Montesinos is also in prison, having been convicted of some charges with many others still pending.

In 2003, I asked Gorriti to undertake a clandestine trip to Cuba on behalf of CPJ to meet with the families of dissident journalists who had been arrested in a sweeping crackdown. His detailed report formed for the basis for a decade-long advocacy campaign that eventually won their release.

Since then, Gorriti has gotten in some additional journalistic scrapes and tussles. But Peru is a different country today, and trouble is harder to find. That means we’re in less regular touch, and in fact the last time I saw Gorriti was in August during a vacation to Peru, when our families gathered in the upscale Lima neighborhood of Miraflores to eat crêpes.

I’ve known many investigative journalists who are driven by anger or righteous indignation. Frankly, they can get tiresome. Gorriti stands out because he is driven by joy. I have powerful memories of the almost child-like glee Gorriti exudes when he is on a journalistic crusade. If Gorriti has taken tremendous pleasure in afflicting the powerful, I’ve taken nearly as much pleasure in helping him do it.

Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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