October 10, 2013
The prize you should be paying attention to today
by Sal Robinson
Someone will win the Nobel Prize for Literature today, and if past years are any indication, it’s probably going to be someone who seems expressly chosen to frustrate the Ladbrokes bookies. In fact, I often picture the Nobel Committee giving each other a small private high-five after the announcement of each year’s choice is made to the bewildered betting public. But the prize awarded this week that’s really worth paying attention to is the PEN Pinter Prize, given annually to both a British writer and an “international writer of courage.”
This year’s recipients are Tom Stoppard and the Belarusian journalist Irina Khalip, who writes for Novaya Gazeta and has consistently covered election fraud, human rights abuses, and the activities of the Belarusian security services, the KGB (not that KGB, but the successor to the same).
She’s been subject to many types of harassment, from, most recently, house arrest to raids on her apartment, the seizure of her recording equipment, the attempted censorship and outright closing of newspapers she has worked on, threats to place her son into foster custody, the imprisonment of her husband (opposition politician Andrei Sannikov), physical violence, and the fabricated charge of “organizing and participating in mass disorder.” This winter, the head of the corrections department of the Minsk City Police Directorate, Aleksandr Kupchenya, told Khalip that she should take advantage of the temporary lifting of her travel ban to emigrate permanently, in a clear attempt to intimidate her.
But Khalip has continued to work and to speak openly about her own case. In February, as cited in a blogpost by Muzaffar Suleymanov for the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists, she analyzed the lifting of the travel ban as a calculated move on the Belarusian government’s part:
“Authorities placed us all on sale in exchange for financial aid, Eastern Partnership [European Union’s cooperation program with developing nations], and removal of sanctions. I don’t doubt that Belarusian diplomats will portray my swift date with my husband as democratic progress,” she told independent news website Charter 97.
Khalip began her career as a journalist for the newspaper Soviet Byelorussia and, in an interview for the website Transitions Online, traced the beginning of her political involvement to her first experiences of censorship:
It was 1994, the year Lukashenko [Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus] came to power, and she was working for the Soviet Byelorussia newspaper, which she said was “influential, strong, and normal.” Normal, too, is how she described her professional life until one day in November 1994, when “for the first time in my life, I saw a newspaper with white patches in it because some material about corruption was forbidden and censored the night before it was printed,” she said.
Sometime later, “Lukashenko’s main spin doctor came to our office and said, ‘From now on, this newspaper is part of the ideological apparatus of Belarus,” she said. When the newspaper’s staff said they disagreed, “He smiled: ‘The decision is already made.’
“I wasn’t interested in politics until politics started to be interested in me,” Khalip recalled.
She has gone on to become one of the crusading voices of her country, even as Belarus’s government has turned increasingly repressive towards journalists—the CJR lists it as the 10th most censored nation in the world, right after Cuba. Its response to a publicity stunt in August 2012, in which a Swedish ad agency dropped hundreds of teddy bears bearing slogans about press freedom and human rights, is indicative: reporters were jailed and fined, and Lukashenko expelled the Swedish ambassador.
Khalip received the PEN Pinter award, which in previous years has gone to Samar Yazbek, Roberto Saviano and Lydia Cacho, on a significant date: October 7, the anniversary of the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, author of Is Journalism Worth Dying For? and, like Khalip, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta. Khalip paid a low-key but moving tribute to her in her acceptance speech, saying:
“I have to start my short speech with the name of Anna Politkovskaya… Seven years ago this day she was killed. She was a courageous journalist, a person who cared and my colleague.”
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.