Concerns over freedom of speech and the dangers faced by journalists in the state of Veracruz have led to a change of venue for the annual Hay Festival, held since 2011 in the state capital of Xalapa.
Organizers of the festival of literature announced yesterday that this year’s event will go digital in protest over the murders of 11 journalists and the disappearance of four more since 2010.
They were responding to a call made Monday by writers, intellectuals and journalists from around the world who asked that the festival be moved from Veracruz where, they suggest, it is being used for political ends by the administration of Gov. Javier Duarte.
Their request was made through an online petition at change.org, which was initially signed by more than 300 people. They said they recognized the festival’s role in the promotion of free speech and debate but expressed concern that those goals could not be met in Veracruz under its current government.
“The Hay Festival itself is being used as part of the government’s campaign to promote an appearance of intellectual liberty and cultural growth when in fact the Duarte administration has – without exaggeration – been one of Mexico’s fiercest enemies of the rights to freedom of expression, information and critical thought,” wrote the petitioners.
An official response from Duarte’s Institutional Revolutionary Party government expressed regret over the decision by festival organizers and offered a defense of its efforts to combat aggression towards journalists. It said every effort had been made to solve each of the cases of those who had been murdered or disappeared, and bring to justice those responsible.
All 15 cases took place since Duarte took office in 2010.
The government’s reply observed that it had a contractual agreement with the festival but would not seek to enforce it. Instead, it offered screens and locations for them to be installed for wider dissemination of festival events.
An announcement published on the website of the Hay Festival Mexico said organizers “stand by the words of our writers like Wole Soyinka, Carl Bernstein and Salman Rushdie, who have come to Xalapa and have been clear and passionate in their messages of condemnation for the targeting of journalists in Veracruz.
“We have always felt that we have more authority and impact to shine a light on these atrocities against freedom of speech by standing on stage on the ground where this situation continues to unfold. We believe in engagement with the local reality not withdrawal; we believe in speech not silence and vacuum,” said the message, signed by the festival’s Latin America director, Cristina Fuentes La Roche, and its director general, Peter Florence.
“The festival brings together thousands of people, the majority of them students, in a place where freedom of expression can be discussed and promoted. The response from many, many people in Xalapa makes clear that this is a platform that is treasured and rare.”
They noted that the response to the recent massacre of staff and collaborators at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo was not to close the magazine, but to increase the press run.
“This is our model.”
One of last year’s guests was British author Salman Rushdie, who has added his voice to those of other writers from around the world who have condemned the violence against journalists in Veracruz. He called for further investigation of their deaths.
American journalist Carl Bernstein has described Veracruz as the best example there is of an atmosphere that is hostile to the press.
The Hay Festival originated in 1988 in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, also known as “the town of books” for its many book stores. Since its inception it has expanded internationally with sister festivals taking place in about a dozen locations.