Hounded writers tell of their woes

Friday November 22 2019

Ugandan academic, writer and activist Dr Stella Nyanzi is currently serving an 18-month sentence for what the state terms cyber-harassment. FILE PHOTO | NMG


When Eritrean author Goitom Sahle translated Sean Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens from English to Tigrinya, little did he know that he would end up incarcerated by his home government.

In the handbook about self-esteem and success, Covey advises teens on how to handle tough issues and life-changing decisions.

He provides a simple approach to help teens improve their self-image, build friendships, resist peer pressure, achieve their goals, and appreciate their parents, as well as tackle challenges like cyberbullying and social media.

The Eritrean regime considered Covey’s ideas contrary to its norms, and Sahle was arrested and imprisoned.

“I have had lots of ups and downs since that translation. I was detained for six months in 2016 in a mining town in northern Eritrea. I fled Eritrea in 2017 and came to Uganda. The Eritrean authorities have contacted my family back at home and hacked into my e-mail to see who contacts me. The problem is that Eritrean state agents keep following us in exile,” Sahle said.

He shared his experience in Kampala while marking the Day of the Imprisoned Writer event held on November 15. Activities included a panel discussion and readings on the theme Writing for a Freer World: Challenges and Opportunities.


The event, organised by PEN-Uganda, also focused on displaced (refugee) writers who spoke about writing in their country and in Uganda.

“Because we are refugees, we are not allowed to work in exile. So we have to depend on remittances sent to us by our relatives abroad,” Sahle said.

Eritrean poet Fishale Tesfai said: “I have no problems writing my poems here in Uganda.” He plans to publish his debut Tigrinya poetry collection that focuses on life challenges and political issues next year.

“Poetry is my way of expressing my feelings as a refugee,” he said.

Tesfai was forced to drop out of school to serve in the compulsory Eritrean national military service for three years. He fled Eritrea in February 2009 to Ethiopia, Sudan, and Israel, and ended up in Uganda in January 2017.

“Unfortunately, writers are aware of live wires around them so they censor themselves so as not to step on those wires,” author and PEN-Uganda vice president Beatrice Lamwaka said.

“We learnt about the plight of writers living here in exile and the hardships they encounter. I also learnt that as writers we need to be as vigilant,” Ugandan poet Peter Kagayi, said

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer is an annual, international event to recognise and support writers who stand up to attacks made against freedom of expression. It was started in 1981 by PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

This year, PEN International called for urgent international action to protect writers and journalists worldwide.

Every year, PEN highlights the cases of five persecuted writers—be they imprisoned, facing prosecution or otherwise at risk—that are emblematic of the type of threats and attacks faced around the world. This year PEN highlighed the cases of Lydia Cacho, Stella Nyanzi, Shakthika Sathkumara, Nedim Türfent and Galal El-Behairy.

Celebrated Mexican writer, journalist and activist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro has faced continued harassment, death threats and attacks due to her investigative journalism and activism.

Ugandan academic, writer and activist Dr Nyanzi is currently serving an 18-month sentence for “cyber harassment”, in relation to a poem she wrote on Facebook in September 2018 criticising Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (and his mother). Dr Nyanzi has served almost 11 months of her sentence.

Award-winning Sri Lankan writer and poet Shakthika Sathkumara faces legal proceedings that could see him sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

Turkish news editor, reporter and poet Nedim Türfent is serving an eight-year-and-nine-month prison sentence on trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which 19 witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him.

Egyptian poet, lyricist and activist Galal El-Behairy is currently serving a three-year sentence for “insulting the military” and “spreading false news”. He is being held in the maximum-security Tora prison in Cairo.