Aarhus gives up its fight for free speech

Persecuted Zimbabwean writer feels it’s hypocritical to spend money on ‘European City of Culture’ while at the same time taking away his protected status due to budget cuts

Budget cuts in Aarhus are being blamed for its decision not to renew its membership of a global network of cities that hosts persecuted writers and campaigns for freedom of speech.

Aarhus signed up to the International City of Refuge Network (ICORN) program in 2009 in which 'cities of refuge' take on and support a persecuted writer as a symbol of their support for the freedom of expression.

Tendai Frank Tagarira from Zimbabwe was selected as Aarhus’s ICORN guest writer In June 2010. A writer critical of dictator Robert Mugabe, Tagarira fled Zimbabwe after the publication of his book ‘Trying to Make Sense of it All’ in 2009 lead to death threats being made against him.

As a guest writer, Tagarira was given a temporary Danish passport and a permit to live in Denmark while the program was in place. But upon hearing that the program was set to end, and thus his right to stay in Denmark, Tagarira said he was angry.

“I asked them what was going to happen to me?” Tagarira told The Copenhagen Post. “I was in a very difficult position but when I asked the politicians they couldn’t help me. I had to apply for asylum but they wouldn’t give me any help of who to call or where to go.”

After discovering the program would not be renewed last year, Tagarira applied for and was granted political asylum due to the risks he would face returning to Zimbabwe, especially after his continued criticism of the Zimbabwean regime while he was Aarhus's guest writer.

While he is relieved at being granted asylum, he said he felt Aarhus had abandoned its commitment to promoting human rights in favour of balancing a budget.

“If you take a stand to protect a certain human right, that’s not an economical decision. They need to rethink their decision because they made a commitment. I know that Europe is going through a time of austerity, but is that an excuse to abandon the support of human rights?” Tagarira asked.

The decision to end Aarhus’ membership of ICORN by the head of Aarhus’ culture committee, Marc Perera Christensen (Konservative) was far from unanimous, however.

“It was great the Aarhus became a member of ICORN,” Aage Rais-Nordentoft (Socialdemokraterne) told Jyllands-Posten. “But free speech is not a question of joining a club. The fight for free speech and democracy requires action.”

After similar criticisms from council members from Socialistisk Folkeparti, Marc Perera Christensen explained that it was his predecessor who found the funding for the project and that with the funding coming to an end, so too would the project.

“The recent deep cuts mean I have not found money to continue the ‘Free City’ work,” he explained to Jyllands-Posten. “But I think it’s a great project and I hope Socialdemokraterne and Socialistisk Folkeparti can find the money to make it permanent.”

While Tagarira is pleased to be granted asylum, he argued that it was hypocritical to cut a program promoting free speech while also spending money in its bid to become a ‘European City of Culture’ in 2017.

“I like Aarhus. I think its great and the people make me feel at home,” he said. “But is being a city of culture a bigger priority than freedom of speech? How do you do that without freedom of speech? How can culture express itself without free speech?”

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