Shining the Light: Journalism in Times of Tyranny

Protesters in Yangon, Myanmar, February 2021. Photo by Min Ma Naing.

Thursday, September 30, 2021, 7–8:15 p.m.
Via Zoom; register here

The first job of a free press is to shine a light on those in power. The autocrat’s playbook is full of methods to keep journalists from fulfilling that mission, from intimidation and harassment to imprisonment and murder.

In recognition of Banned Books Week (September 26–October 2), our panelists will provide updates on the situations for journalists in Nicaragua, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Belarus, four places where attacks on the press have been particularly brutal. They will also talk about ways in which journalists and media organizations are working to keep the information flowing despite the restrictions.

Pedro X. Molina is a political cartoonist, illustrator, and journalist from Nicaragua. He is currently an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. From 2019-2021, he was an artist-in-residence with Ithaca City of Asylum.

Min Ma Naing is a photographer from Myanmar who left Yangon soon after the military coup in February 2021. She is currently a visiting scholar with Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program. Min Ma Naing is not her real name, but a pseudonym that means “The King Cannot Beat You.”

Raza Rumi is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. A journalist, policy analyst, and outspoken critic of religious extremism, he became Ithaca City of Asylum’s sixth writer-in-residence in 2015 after surviving an assassination attempt in his native Pakistan.

Polina Sadovskaya is director of PEN America’s free expression program for Eurasia. A former radio correspondent, she has worked with UNESCO’s Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development and other human rights organizations.

Barbara Adams (moderator) is associate professor of writing at Ithaca College. She is a journalist, writer, theater and art critic, and founding member of the Ithaca City of Asylum board.

“Shining the Light” is organized by Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA), an all-volunteer project of the Center for Transformation. Founded in 2001, ICOA offers refuge in Ithaca, New York, for writers and artists whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, and whose languages are endangered. 

Co-sponsored by the Park Center for Independent Media, Group 73 of Amnesty International, Cornell Southeast Asia Program, Cornell Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, PEN America, Tompkins County Public Library, and Story House Ithaca.

Workshop: Try Your Hand at Cartooning!

Cartoon by Pedro X. Molina

Tuesday, September 28, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Via Zoom; register here

Join internationally acclaimed political cartoonist Pedro X. Molina for a workshop on expressing yourself visually by creating a cartoon. Gather paper and whatever you’re comfortable with – pencil, markers, watercolors, even a digital tablet. Drawing experience is helpful but not necessary. The event is organized by Ithaca City of Asylum and supported by the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County as part of the Spring Writes literary festival.

Pedro X. Molina was ICOA’s seventh artist-in-residence (2019-2021) and is currently an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at the Cornell Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. He has more than 20 years of experience working for media in Nicaragua and worldwide. His cartoons, caricatures, editorial illustrations, comics have been printed or published online and in many major publications, such as Politico, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Courier International. His work is published on a daily basis in and appears regularly in the U.S. on

He also contributed to various books published in the Gallimard/Cartooning for Peace collection. Among his many awards is a 2019 Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia Journalism School and the 2018 Courage in Editorial Cartoon Award from Cartoonists Rights Network International.

Censorship panel features Pedro Molina

Pedro X. Molina, an acclaimed political cartoonist and a leader in Nicaragua’s opposition-in-exile, will take part in an Amnesty International USA panel on censorship and press freedom on Tuesday, September 21, at 8 p.m. EDT. Pedro, who was ICOA’s seventh artist-in-residence, is now an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell University’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. Register here.

Here is the write-up from our friends at AI:

Each year during Banned Books Week, Amnesty International draws attention to people around the world who have been imprisoned, threatened, or murdered because of their writing, art, or other published work. In solidarity with the American Library Association (ALA) and organizations across the U.S. and around the world, Amnesty activists work to fight challenges to freedom of expression.

Censorship in the 21st century involves suppression of books, news, and social media. Around the world, governments are trying to control the internet through cyber-censorship and surveillance. Using sophisticated technology to silence, spy on, harass and track critical voices, there is an increase in governments targeting individuals and journalists.Join us and hear from an incredible panel of speakers, including:

  • Andrew Fandino, Senior Program Officer for the Individuals at Risk Program at Amnesty International USA
  • Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom
  • Jonathan Hernandez Perez, Researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Bibilotecologicas in Mexico & Governing Board Member of the International Federation of Library Associations
  • Pedro Molina, Cartoonist and Illustrator from Nicaragua with more than 20 years of experience working for media in Nicaragua and worldwide
  • María Luz Noches, Journalist & Opinion Editor, El Faro in El Salvador

Register here:

Johnson exhibit features exiled Burmese photographer

Photo by Min Ma Naing, February 2021

Faces of Change: Portraits of Myanmar’s Democratic Awakening,” an exhibit at the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell, features the work of Min Ma Naing, a visiting scholar at Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program. Ithaca City of Asylum has helped Min Ma since she arrived in Ithaca after fleeing Myanmar in June.

The exhibit includes photos and the personal statements of activists and others resisting the military dictatorship in Myanmar, along with other elements. A military coup in February 2021 removed a democratically elected government after six years of rule. You can read Min Ma’s artist’s statement here. The exhibit, in the first floor Bowers Gallery, closes on September 19.

Join ICOA board members in Odyssey conversation

Ithaca City of Asylum board members Athena Kirk and Bethany Dixon will discuss survival, migration, and displacement in a “Virtual Community Conversation” on Wednesday, September 1, 5-6 p.m. The event is part of An Odyssey, a coproduction of the Hangar Theatre and The Cherry Arts directed by Samuel Buggeln. Dramaturg Aoise Stratford will moderate.

Athena Kirk is an assistant professor of classics at Cornell who studies the intersections between literature and epigraphy and the material quality of ancient texts. Bethany Dixon is a writer, baker, and pianist who writes about women in ancient Greek literature.

The presentation is free and open to the public. For more information or to register, visit The Cherry Arts Facebook page. Click here to buy tickets to An Odyssey.

Samarasinghe, Rumi, and ICOA featured in podcast

Former ICOA writers-in-residence Sonali Samarasinghe (2012-2014) and Raza Rumi (2015-2017) recently told their stories to the podcast Asian in Ithaca: Stories of Race, Culture & Identity. The podcast is produced by WICB, the student radio station at Ithaca College. You can listen to the episode here on Spotify and here on Apple Podcasts.

Sonali Samarasinghe

In an emotional and far-reaching discussion, journalist, human rights lawyer, and diplomat Samarasinghe recounted the events that forced her to flee her native Sri Lanka.

She was working for a newspaper that was critical of the government’s conduct of a 26-year civil war that took 80,000-100,000 lives. She and her colleagues also called out cases of corruption and official misconduct. “The government saw us as traitors to the nation for speaking truth to power,” she recalled.

In 2009, she married Lasantha Wickrematunge, her newspaper’s editor. A few weeks later, men on motorcycles surrounded Wickrematunge on his way to work and bludgeoned him to death. Samarasinghe soon received death threats of her own and fled to the United States. In 2012, she found an invitation from ICOA in her spam folder with an offer of a teaching job at Ithaca College. She agreed to come.

“I was dealing with a lot of trauma from the violence that happened to my husband [and] the fear of the death threats. And also having to flee so abruptly and adapt in a few short months,” she recalled. “I had lost my husband after only a couple of months of marriage, and I had lost everything else. I had lost my home, familiar faces, family. I had lost my right to choose to work in my chosen profession, journalism. So I had lost not only my self worth, but my livelihood.”

Her stay in Ithaca would turn out to be “a lifesaver,” she said. “ICOA provided refuge for me in more ways than one. Housing assistance, yes. A two-year paid job, yes. But most importantly, professional, personal, and emotional support.” During her two years in Ithaca, she said, “I felt so welcome and so safe.”

Raza Rumi

Raza Rumi was a well-known broadcaster, editor, columnist, and policy consultant in Pakistan who spoke and wrote widely about the dangers of religious extremism. “I was condemning it every day on television, and also holding different authorities to account,” he recalled. He also argued for peace with India, which is “not a popular opinion” in Pakistan.

In March 2014, the car he was riding in was riddled with bullets from automatic weapons. Rumi survived but his driver, a family friend, was killed. The attack was later found to have been orchestrated by a militant group affiliated with the Taliban. He fled to Washington, then held several temporary positions before receiving an invitation from ICOA.

ICOA helped arrange employment at Cornell and Ithaca College, allowing him not just to advance his career, but to maintain his connection with his country. “I still get those threats and I still get those hate messages,” he said, but “I am very much engaged back home. I still write for publications, I was still editing a newspaper in Pakistan. I didn’t stop my work.”

In 2018, he became director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He also serves on the ICOA board. “ICOA is an amazing organization. Frankly speaking, I think there are very few organizations like that, even across the world,” he said.

“We need to remind [people] how important it is to have organizations like ICOA survive and do well. Because we must have this space available for writers and journalists and artists who might be feeling the heat in their own countries or contexts…. We need to protect those who deserve protection.”

Pedro Molina speaks to The World

Pedro X. Molina, Ithaca City of Asylum’s seventh artist-in-residence, spoke with the nationally broadcast public radio news program The World on June 25. Host Carol Hills asked him about the current situation for independent journalists in Nicaragua after a flurry of arrests of journalists and opposition figures there.

You can listen to the eight-minute interview here.

Molina discussed the recent departure of Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of Confidencial, the news organization that publishes his work in Nicaragua, and the arrest of Miguel Mora, former director of the TV network 100% Noticias. He also spoke about the power of cartooning at a dark and dangerous time in his country.

For Giving is Gorges, support creative expression without fear

Pedro X. Molina among his portraits of Nicaraguans killed by the current regime.

When cartoonist Pedro X. Molina and his family fled Nicaragua on Christmas Day in 2018, they hoped to return after a few months. Since then, conditions for independent journalists in their country have only gotten more dangerous. If the Molinas were to try to go home today, Pedro would likely be arrested and imprisoned — or worse.

Luckily, the family found a welcoming community in Ithaca. Over the last two and a half years, Pedro has not only survived, he has thrived, publishing six cartoons a week, growing his international following, teaching college classes, and earning awards and recognition for his work. Perhaps most importantly, he has remained engaged in the vigorous debate about his country’s future.

Since 2001, ICOA has provided a lifeline to writers and artists from China, Iran, Swaziland, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nicaragua. This year, we’re helping a writer and an artist fleeing Myanmar. To continue this work, we need your help.

Today is Giving is Gorges, a community-wide day of support for grassroots groups like ours. Please make a tax-deductible donation today. Then use the hashtag #GivingIsGorges to tell the world how much you care about human rights and creative expression!

Odysseys series now available for streaming

The four-part reading series “Odysseys: Ithaca Writers on Exile, Wandering, and Searching for Home,” which ran from February to May, is now available for viewing on the Tompkins County Public Library’s YouTube channel. You can also go directly to the session of your choice by following the links below.

  • Session 1:  Gail Holst-Warhaft & Aoise Stratford, moderated by David Guaspari (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 2: Sorayya Khan & Raza Rumi, moderated by Barbara Adams (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 3: Valzhyna Mort & Raul Palma, moderated by Kate Blackwood (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 4: Minfong Ho & Kenneth McClane, moderated by Edward Hower (watch on YouTube)

Our deepest thanks go to our generous and talented writers, whose readings and discussions were universally deep, moving, and inspiring. Thanks, too, to the four ICOA board members who so ably moderated.

We were thrilled not just with the quality of the presentations, but with the response to the series. People logged in from across our community and around the world. Between the livestream and archived versions, attendance averaged well over 100 per session. We are grateful to our friends at the Tompkins County Public Library, who hosted the series on their Zoom platform, and especially to Cady Fontana, Makerspace librarian, who punched all the right buttons behind the scenes.

We also want to thank our cosponsors, Buffalo Street Books, Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County, Global CornellCornell MigrationsIthaca College Department of WritingOdyssey Bookstore, Story House Ithaca for their support in getting out the word to their audiences. We feel very fortunate to be part of this extraordinary community.

Minfong Ho and Kenneth McClane to cap reading series

Odysseys event poster

A poet and a playwright from Australia. A novelist and a journalist from Pakistan. A poet from Belarus and a novelist from Florida. Their journeys have all been different, but all have found themselves living and writing in Ithaca. And their stories have all been captivating.

The online reading series “Odysseys: Ithaca Writers on Exile, Wandering, and Searching for Home” wraps up on Tuesday, May 18 at 7 p.m. with young adult and children’s book author Minfong Ho and poet and essayist Kenneth A. McClane. Novelist and ICOA board member Edward Hower will moderate. The Zoom session is free, but registration is required. Register here.

Minfong Ho was born in Myanmar of ethnic Chinese parents, raised in Thailand, and educated in Taiwan and the United States. She has written several books for young adults and children, mostly set in Southeast Asia. These include The Clay Marble and Hush! She worked as a journalist in Singapore, taught at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, and ran a food program on the Thai-Khmer border for Cambodian refugees. Although she has remained a U.S. Permanent Alien for over 35 years, she says Ithaca has come to feel like home.

Kenneth A. McClane is Cornell’s W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature Emeritus and the author of eight books of poems, including A Tree Beyond Telling and Take Five: Collected Poems, 1971-1986. He has also written two collections of personal essays: Walls (1992) and Color: Essays on Race, Family and History (2009). He has served on the board of trustees of Adelphi University, and on the board of directors of the Tompkins County Library Foundation, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the New York Council for the Humanities, and the Tompkins County Community Foundation.

You can watch previous sessions on the Tompkins County Public Library’s YouTube channel.

  • Session 1:  Gail Holst-Warhaft & Aoise Stratford, moderated by David Guaspari (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 2: Sorayya Khan & Raza Rumi, moderated by Barbara Adams (watch on YouTube)
  • Session 3: Valzhyna Mort & Raul Palma, moderated by Kate Blackwood (watch on YouTube)

“Odysseys: Ithaca Writers on Exile, Wandering, and Searching for Home” is organized by Ithaca City of Asylum and cosponsored by Buffalo Street BooksGlobal CornellCornell MigrationsIthaca College Department of WritingOdyssey BookstoreStory House Ithaca, and Tompkins County Public Library.

Thanks also to the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County, which has included this session in its Spring Writes series.