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South African poets show support for Chinese Nobel Laureate

 The Big Issue South Africa 02 May 2019

What do you get when you fill a room with South Africa’s most prominent poets, including former apartheid prisoners, for a protest against the ongoing detention of Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo? A very dangerous and powerful statement against any government that tries to impede any writer’s freedom of speech. (453 Words) - By Annabelle Cottee

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A masked South African poet shows his support for Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liesl Jobson/BOOK SA

And this is exactly what happened when more than 30 South African poets took part in a worldwide poetry reading to support the imprisoned Xiaobo on the eve of Human Rights Day in Cape Town.

Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power" after co-authoring Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights and an end to the one-party rule in China.

The Human Rights Day solidarity event was organised by Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin and was hosted locally by South Africa's PEN Writers in Prison committee. It was one of 90 similar events that took place around the world.

PEN SA's executive vice president, Margie Orford, said the event was especially significant at a time when South African journalists are increasingly restricted by what they can publish. "In South Africa, it's not yet writers of fiction who are under threat, but there's an increasing threat against what journalists can say," she said.

"Freedom of expression is the fundamental tenet of all democratic institutions, and it's something that people have struggled and fought for"

Orford referred to the Protection of Information Bill, which would enable sanctions against journalists for misconduct and criminalise information-gathering methods essential to investigative journalism. She said she hoped that the Bill would be "scuppered by its own stupidity".

"Freedom of expression is the fundamental tenet of all democratic institutions, and it's something that people have struggled and fought for. It's something you keep by being vigilant."

Many other writers in attendance echoed Orford and openly criticised any government that restricted its citizens' freedom of speech.

Internationally published poet Gabeba Baderoon said the poetry readings were "acts of solidarity made larger than themselves by the empathy and political insight with which they were expressed".

"Writers, like all citizens, nurture their freedom of expression, assembly and imagination; rights we all have the deepest responsibility for protecting," she said.

"In South Africa, these small but undaunted acts of solidarity with Liu Xiaobo were also acts of protection over our own rights to freedom and expression," she added. "By choosing with whom we stood, our small, individual gestures became part of an immense, global expression of freedom."

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