PEN American Center announced today that it will honor jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova with the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award at the annual PEN Literary Gala on May 5, 2015, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Khadija Ismayilova is an award-winning reporter whose hard-hitting investigations have revealed corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan, including the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev. After years of escalating harassment by government and pro-government forces, she was arrested on December 5, 2014, on trumped-up charges of inciting a former colleague to suicide.
Dozens of America’s best-known sports journalists, including Bob Costas (NBC News and host of nine prime-time Olympic Games), Frank Deford (Sports Illustrated), Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada (ESPN), and David Remnick (The New Yorker), have joined PEN’s call for Ismayilova’s release in a letter to International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. In June, Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku is set to host the first-ever European Games, an Olympic-organized international sporting event. The letter implores the IOC to use its leverage to press Azerbaijan to “take immediate action to ensure that the spirit of the Olympic Charter is upheld and that the rights of Khadjia Ismayilova and her fellow journalists are vindicated.”
Azerbaijan is among the world’s most repressive media environments, with at least 26 writers jailed, detained, or on trial there in 2014. The country’s crackdown on independent journalists has gained steam since 2012 in the wake of an embarrassing exposé by Ismayilova detailing the presidential family’s lucrative—and illegal—business interests in Baku construction projects that were mounted ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest, Europe’s wildly popular televised singing competition. Rights advocates have pointed to Ismayilova’s detention as a government attempt to avoid similar humiliation on the eve of the European Games. Since her arrest in December, authorities have twice prolonged her pretrial detention and piled up four more spurious charges against her. She faces a prison sentence of up to twelve years if convicted.
“Khadija Ismayilova knows no fear. Again and again she has unearthed and exposed stories that have cast a harsh light on widespread corruption and self-dealing at the highest levels of the Azeri government,” said PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “She is truly irrepressible, sending inspiring missives drafted from her prison cell that that make clear her determination not to be silenced until all writers in Azerbaijan have the freedom to express themselves without fear of persecution.”
The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award is presented annually to a writer imprisoned or persecuted for his or her work. Since its inception in 1987, thirty-five of the 39 writers who were in prison at the time they won the award have been freed, due in part to the attention and pressure generated by the award. Fellow Azeri journalist and friend Emin Milli, who served his own 17-month prison sentence in 2009 on trumped-up charges of hooliganism, will accept the award on Ismayilova’s behalf at the Gala. “The Freedom to Write Award has proven to be an exceptionally potent tool in securing the freedom of some of the world’s most courageous writers,” said PEN President Andrew Solomon. “Khadija Ismayilova is firmly within that tradition and we hope the Azeri government will ensure her immediate release.”
PEN American Center’s May 5 Gala will also honor esteemed playwright Sir Tom Stoppard with the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for his extraordinary career. Paris-based satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo will be honored with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, to be received by staff member Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who arrived to work late on January 7 and barely escaped the attack that killed twelve. The Gala will also salute Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle for his leadership role in the global literary community.
Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is a community of 4,000 writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. Its distinguished members carry on the achievements in literature and advancement of human rights of such past members as Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, and Susan Sontag. To learn more, visitwww.pen.org.