In Mexico, PEN Awards go to writers and journalists who embody freedom of expression

By Jade Magalhaes*

In an environment where widespread violence against journalists persists, five distinguished writers stood up for freedom of expression and were recognized for excellence in journalism, literature and their work for human rights.

PEN International, founded in 1921, was the first worldwide association of writers in defense of human rights and freedom of expression. According to PEN, the organization has always championed its “dedicated members fighting to ensure that the right to write, speak, read and publish is forever at the heart of world culture.”

Specifically, the PEN Mexico Awards commends Mexican journalists who promote a peaceful and uncensored media atmosphere in their home country. This year, PEN presented the awards Feb. 22 during PEN Pregunta, a public protest where journalists from Europe, Asia and America spoke about the issues surrounding press freedom in Mexico.

Among the recipients is Elena Poniatowska, a Mexican journalist who made it her life mission to explore the social injustices in her country.  One of her most famous pieces covered the killing of hundreds of student protesters in Mexico City in 1968.

Nearly a half-decade after her story was published, Poniatowska can still see vestiges of a similar muffling of public speech in Mexico. After receiving her award, the journalist paid homage to the 43 missing students who were killed in the state of Guerrero last September.

“Those of us here love Mexico and find it impossible to remove ourselves from the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students and the large pit  the state of Guerrero has become,” Poniatowska said in her acceptance speech. “We believe that if we act against the impunity, corruption and hypocrisy of our government, the whole country will have much to thank the PEN Club for, and may each of the parents in Guerrero, Michoacan or Ciudad Juárez go to bed with the security of knowing that their children are safe at school, in the park or on the street.”

Other 2015 prize recipients include an anonymous journalist from Aristegui News, who investigated the use of public money by the president of the PRI in Mexico City for sexual services; Federico Mastrogiovanni, author of “Ni Vivos Ni Muertos” (Neither Alive Nor Dead); Darío Ramírez, human rights defender and Director of Article 19 for Mexico and Central America; and journalist Paul Ferri, who revealed that the Mexican army killed 22 innocent civilians in the town of Tlatlaya.

The PEN Awards and PEN Pregunta represent only two Mexican writing initiatives intended to foster an environment of free speech and eliminate violence against journalists. Earlier this month, coordinators of annual literary Hay Festival cancelled an event slated to take place in Veracruz, denouncing the governor for his failure to protect freedom of expression in the state.

"Since Mr. Duarte [the governor] came into government in 2010 in Veracruz, 11 journalists have been murdered and four more have disappeared,” representatives from the festival said in a statement, according to BBC. "A festival of culture and freedom like the Hay Festival cannot take place in an environment of violence against culture and freedom."

With tensions between the government and the press running high, the future of freedom of expression in Mexico may continue to rest in the hands of courageous writers and journalists like those recently honored at the PEN Awards.

*Jade Magalhes is a student in the class "Journalism and Press Freedom in Latin America" at the University of Texas at Austin.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.