1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

The power of words

March 21, 2011

German celebrities kick off Europe's biggest literature festival, Lit.COLOGNE, with an event honoring Amnesty International's 50th anniversary. Amnesty aims to raise awareness for writers persecuted for their opinions.

A drawing of a face with tape over the mouth
Freedom of expression is crucial to artImage: Fotolia

More than 100 writers are imprisoned worldwide for their opinions and thousands more are under threat, according to Amnesty International. The human rights organization drew attention to their plight at the Lit.COLOGNE literature festival, which runs this week in the western German city.

"Amnesty international wants to increase pressure on governments ignoring freedom of opinion. The turnout of a 7,000-strong audience demonstrated Amnesty's strength," said Monkia Lüke, general secretary of Amnesty International, which has 110,000 members in Germany and 3 million activists worldwide.

Amnesty campaigns for people they class as prisoners of conscience - those jailed for their opinions. They say they achieve something for almost 40 percent of these prisoners, even if such successes are small victories like family members or a lawyer being able to visit a detainee.

In Germany, Amnesty's members continuously organize events, address governments, protest and campaign for human rights. At Lit.COLOGNE, German celebrities read texts written by authors who have been persecuted by or exiled from their own countries, including imprisoned Chinese writer and Nobel Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo.

"Liu Xiaobo is really a symbol for the importance of freedom of expression on the one hand and, on the other hand, for the injustice and the arbitrariness of governments in ignoring these rights and one has to say that the Chinese government is one of the worst," Lüke told Deutsche Welle.

Although freedom of expression is enshrined in the Chinese constitution, Lüke said that the government there employs over 30,000 people to control the Internet, therefore denying its citizens access to certain information.

Sihem Bensedrine
Bensedrine (right) has returned to Tunisia from years in exileImage: picture alliance/dpa

Importance of literature

"If a country bluntly ignores freedom of expression, it will also ignore political rights and suppress its population," Lüke said.

Amnesty International considers literature an essential tool in achieving human rights and being politically active.

"Literature is important; the information 'We stand for human rights, we're against torture' doesn't trigger a reaction because it's merely informative speak," said Roger Willemsen, a German TV presenter, who volunteered for Amnesty International. "But literature creates experiences and triggers experiences. We react to this and in this way literature is a medium that is very capable of highlighting human rights questions."

As an artist and musician, Max Herre feels all too keenly the importance of freedom of speech for creativity to flourish.

"What art is, in the end, is a free expression of what's on your mind and what you want to talk about. Art wouldn't be possible without this freedom of saying things," Herre told Deutsche Welle after his performance at the Lit.COLOGNE panel.

Herre also highlighted the importance of fighting for human rights in the political climate of the Arab world.

Campaigning for a freer Arab world

"Even though there is a charter, and Amnesty's 50 years old. it's not like every country is taking care of these rights," commented the artist and musician. "Now you can see with Libya and Bahrain and Yemen, it's very important that you have these NGOs that give this topic a platform."

In addition to Chinese author Liu Xiaobo, Amnesty also highlighted the plight of journalist Sihem Bensedrine, who is part of the human rights movement in Tunisia. After years in exile - with some of her time spent in Hamburg, Germany - she has just recently returned to Tunisia to engage in the reform movement there.

"This woman really fought for human rights for more than 20 years and has been one of those who has been supported by Amnesty," Monika Lüke said.

Although Bensedrine was granted political asylum, she is the exception in the Arab world, explained German actor, Benno Fürman.

German celebrities on stage at Lit.COLOGNE
Celebrities donated their time to raise awarenessImage: picture alliance/dpa

"The perception of the word 'asylum-seeker' has shifted from 'people searching for a better life' to 'people are trying to get into the European Union to take something from us, we need to shield ourselves from them' - and this is very, very wrong," said Fürmann, who regularly campaigns for Amnesty International.

With such strong attendance, the Amnesty event was certainly a scene-setter for the 10-day Cologne festival, which welcomes prominent authors, including Simon Beckett, Orhan Pamuk, and Daniel Sedaris.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg
Editor: Kate Bowen