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NPR media correspondent and former Sun editor in chief David Folkenflik ’91 led a panel discussion entitled, “Dissident Writers: A Conversation,” exploring the topic of international freedom of expression.

April 25, 2024

From Suppressive Governments to College Campuses: Academics and Journalists Discuss the Power to Dissent

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NPR media correspondent and former Sun editor in chief David Folkenflik ’91 led a Freedom of Expression panel discussion on April 17 entitled, “Dissident Writers: A Conversation,” exploring the role of writing and journalism in challenging established government systems in authoritarian states. 

Folkenflik — the College of Arts and Science’s 2023-2024 Zubrow Distinguished Visiting Journalist — spoke to the chief executive officer of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, and Prof. Valzhyna Mort, English, in front of about 30 in-person attendees in the Meshri Family Auditorium, in addition to a live-stream audience. He asked them about idea suppression and the lack of freedom of expression in countries like China, Russia and Belarus. 

Folkenflik asked Nossel to define “dissident,” as there are many different understandings of the term in part because of the variety between different societies’ limits on speech. 

The dissident writer can be understood as someone who takes a significant risk in communicating certain information in a society that attempts to restrict that speech, Nossel said. Nossel, whose organization’s mission is to protect and promote free speech worldwide, discussed the increase of censorship in the U.S. in recent years, referring to book bans and online threats that quell controversial speech. She compared these conditions to the experiences of writers in more restrictive countries. 

“It has to be put in context in terms of what writers around the world confront,” Nossel said. “Threats to their livelihoods, their family, their safety, their very freedom, as a cost for speaking their mind.”

Nossel explained that in China, Iran and Turkey, discussing human rights issues, publishing sexual novels and presenting alternative views of what society should look like have been grounds for the arrest and imprisonment of writers. 

She turned to more surprising cases that PEN America has recently grappled with, listing Hungary, Poland and India as countries that accuse dissident writers of conspiracy or treason. These accusations set a precedent of fear of speaking out in these societies, Nossel explained, often preventing others from discussing or writing similarly in the future. 

The conversation turned back to the U.S., particularly to Cornell’s campus. Nossel discussed how — despite the protections the First Amendment provides U.S. students — she has found that both students and professors are afraid to speak their minds about recent events.

“We do a lot of work on college campuses, and we hear increasingly from students who say that the kind of open debate they were expecting is just not happening because — particularly in the context of Israel and Gaza — people are afraid to speak out,” Nossel said. “It feels like anything you say can and will be used against you.”

Around halfway through the event, Mort joined the conversation. Worried about the high-profile identities of her co-panelists and the sensitivity of her panel topic, she asked for the live stream to end for her portion of the event. 

Born in Minsk, Belarus, Mort discussed the lack of independent media in her home country, and how this fills her with a sense of responsibility to speak out about what is happening there. She told the story of a self-exiled Belarusian man, Sasha Filipenko, who currently writes in Europe and whose father was arrested on his behalf back in Belarus. 

Both Filipenka and Mort’s stories illustrate the reach of authoritarian states such as Belarus, and the dangerous yet important work that dissidents do in hopes of a freer future. 

“With our media sources all closed in the blink of an eye and journalists jailed, who is there to tell the story?” Mort said. 

In an interview with The Sun, Folkenflik emphasized the importance of freedom of expression at the college level. 

“Particularly being an undergraduate is a time where you’re both exploring, testing, seeking — you’re learning about the world and the limits of reasoning,” Folkenflik said. “But it’s also a time to be unreasonable. The question is whether you can do that in a way that isn’t shutting down the ability of others to tell you something worth considering.”