Since 1961, WAN-IFRA has presented the Golden Pen of Freedom – an award that recognises outstanding action, in writing or deed, of an individual, group or institution in the cause of press freedom.
The inaugural award went to Turkish journalist, author and professor Ahmet Emin Yalman, who faced banning, exile, attempted murder and imprisonment. Born in 1888, Yalman was the founding editor of the influential Turkish nationalist newspaper Vatan. He was also co-founder of the Liberal International in 1947 and the International Press Institute in 1950. He was released after a military coup in 1960, and died in 1972.
Another military coup – albeit a failed one, in 2016 – turned the world’s attention back to Turkey decades later. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded with mass arrests and large purges across the military, government and civil service. Under the state of emergency, an executive decree led to the closure of at least 180 media outlets and a crackdown on dissent that led to Turkey’s ignominy as the country with the most imprisoned journalists, according to Amnesty International.
In 2017, Erdogan consolidated his power by transforming the country’s parliamentary system to presidential, after a public referendum.
That year, the Golden Pen went to prominent journalist, columnist and documentarian Can Dündar.
Dündar had faced self-censorship, imprisonment, and an assassination attempt – and was even arrested on the same day. In exile in Germany, Dündar was sentenced to imprisonment in absentia in 2020, for “espionage and aiding an armed terrorist organisation.”
Iran, ranked at 178, has, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF): “reinforced its position as one of the world’s most repressive countries in terms of press freedom … Iran is now also one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists.”
Iran has a history of suppressing dissent by arrest, torture and even execution. While the constitution guarantees press freedom, amendments to the 1986 press law (with further amendments in 2000 and 2009 to include online publications) allow the authorities to ensure that journalists do not “endanger the Islamic Republic,” “do not offend the clergy and the Supreme Leader” and do not “spread false information”.
With such draconian rules, it’s hardly surprising that Iran now equals China as the country with the most Golden Pen recipients: five, over six decades of the award’s existence.
China has held the title of the world’s largest jailer of journalists several times over the years. Chinese journalists Dai Qing, Gao Yu, Shi Tao and Li Changqing each won the award in 1992, 1995, 2007 and 2008, respectively. And in 2021, jailed Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and the newsroom staff of his pro-democracy Apple Daily – now shuttered – were awarded the Golden Pen.
Iran’s inspiring voices
In 1999 journalist and literary critic Faraj Sarkohi became the first Iranian to win the Golden Pen award. Sarkuhi, the former co-founder and editor-in-chief of the banned monthly magazine Adineh, was imprisoned both before and after Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.
His open letter to his wife in Germany, while imprisoned, led to a worldwide outcry by human rights groups, and he was sentenced to a year in prison instead of being executed. Upon his release, further international intervention compelled the government to grant him an exit visa, and he joined his family in exile in Germany.
He is a German P.E.N. Center “Writers in Exile” fellow (2000-2006) and has, since 2006, been the Center’s human rights commissioner.
In 2006, leading investigative journalist Akbar Ganji became the second Iranian to receive a Golden Pen award, for his courageous refusal “to be silenced despite his imprisonment.” He is best known for having implicated several leading Iranian officials in the killing of four intellectuals and political dissidents in 1998.
Ganji was sentenced to six years in prison in 2001 on several charges, including “threatening Iran’s national security” and “insulting the country’s leaders.”
WAN-IFRA hailed Ganji’s resistance to repression and his refusal to be silenced as “an inspiration to journalists everywhere.”
He lives in exile in the United States, and his writings have been banned in Iran.
In 2010 imprisoned journalist, writer, academic and political analyst Ahmad Zeidabadi became the third Iranian to be awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom. Like Sarkuhi, Zeidabadi came to global prominence – he was known as a fearless political analyst – after penning an open letter from prison.
This one, though, was addressed directly to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, questioning his lack of tolerance for criticism. And it was written in 2007, shortly after a five-year ban on his writing was lifted.
In 2017, he wrote another open letter, protesting the judiciary’s treatment of imprisoned journalists. Despite best efforts to suppress it, the letter was widely circulated.
Despite being subjected to arrest, jail, torture, exile, and a lifetime ban from all public and political activity, including journalism, Zeidabadi remains active online, publishing articles exclusively on his Telegram channel called the “Other Perspective.”
Each Golden Pen Laureate has a story to share: some perhaps more horrific than others. Some have received awards while in prison, or exile; some, posthumously.
In Iran, the persecution of women has reached critical levels – which makes this year’s laureates so noteworthy. Elahe Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi are both imprisoned journalists, their fates uncertain, simply for reporting on the death and funeral of a young woman who died while in police custody for the ‘atrocity’ of not covering her head in public.
The world has changed considerably since the inception of the Golden Pen award, but the fight for press freedom – even in democratic countries – has become even more necessary and urgent, as trust in the media continues to decline.
See also: The selection procedure for the Golden Pen of Freedom award
This is why the Golden Pen of Freedom is such a vital highlight on the global media calendar. And why, in 2015, WAN-IFRA made a notable exception to the selection process, by awarding the Golden Pen of Freedom to Journalists Killed in the Line of Duty.
“This sends a powerful message to the perpetrators of crimes against the media as well as to legislators and those with the power to enact better laws and enforce stronger protections for news gatherers around the world.”
Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, the 2016 Golden Pen laureate (and co-recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace prize alongside Maria Ressa, another Golden Pen laureate), outlines the benefits of the award: “Only five percent of the population in this country understand the freedom of media as a prime, core value, while about 80% believe the main problem in Russia is poverty. Very few associate the two.
“Without freedom of speech, there is no way out of poverty. Freedom means that there is control over corruption and the state, which means that it impedes poverty. I believe your award will help us to further follow this way.” – Dmitry Muratov
Our Golden Pen of Freedom Laureates