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PEN America launches Freedom to Write Index 2019 (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 19 May 2020.

Amid global retrenchment on human rights and fundamental freedoms – deepening authoritarianism in Russia, China, and much of the Middle East; democratic retreat in parts of Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia; and new threats in established democracies in North America and Western Europe – the brave individuals who speak out, challenge tyranny, and make the intellectual case for freedom are on the front line of the battle to keep societies open, defend the truth, and resist repression. Writers and intellectuals are often among the canaries in the coal mine who, alongside journalists and human rights activists, are first targeted when a country takes a more authoritarian turn. The unjust detention and imprisonment of writers and intellectuals impacts both the individuals themselves and the broader public, who are deprived of innovative and influential voices of dissent, criticism, creativity, and conscience. For this reason, the targeting of writers and public intellectuals for exercising their freedom of expression should be a source of grave concern to all.

During 2019, according to data collected for the inaugural edition of PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, at least 238 writers, academics, and public intellectuals were in prison or held in detention unjustly in connection with their writing, their work, or related activism. Many of these individuals have faced long-term detentions without charge, lengthy drawn-out trials, and in some cases severe prison sentences. While a total of 34 countries, ranging from democracies to authoritarian states, held writers behind bars, the majority were in just three countries: China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Among them, those three held 141 of the total of 238 cases in the Index. In recent years, these three countries have engaged in systematic crackdowns on free expression, including coordinated, mass arrests of literary writers, academics, publishers, columnists, journalists, and others. Of the myriad threats faced by the writers and intellectuals whose cases PEN America tracks, being held in detention or prison is by far the most common.

This report reflects PEN America’s 2019 Index findings. For our complete, up-to-date database, see the Writers at Risk Database.

Although the imprisonment of writers is a global phenomenon, regional disparities are also apparent. In 2019, countries in the Asia-Pacific region imprisoned or detained 100 writers, or 42 percent of the total number captured in the Index, while countries in the Middle East and North Africa imprisoned or detained 73 writers, or 31 percent. Together these two regions accounted for almost three-quarters (73 percent) of the cases in the 2019 Index. Europe and Central Asia was the third highest region, with 41 imprisoned/detained writers, or 17 percent of the 2019 Index; Turkey alone accounted for 30 of those cases. By contrast, incarceration of writers is relatively less prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, with 20 writers, or roughly eight percent of the count, and the Americas, with four writers, just under two percent of the count. The vast majority of imprisoned writers, intellectuals, and public commentators are men, but women comprised 16 percent of all cases counted in the 2019 Index. And while many individuals included in the Index hold multiple professional designations and are, for example, both literary writers and scholars, the most prevalent professions of those incarcerated are: 94 literary writers, 51 scholars, 43 poets, 21 singer/songwriters, 12 publishers, 8 editors, 3 dramatists, and 6 translators.1 Out of the 238 writers and public intellectuals counted in the 2019 Index, over two-thirds remain in state custody at the time of this report’s publication. In part to distinguish the Index from existing counts of journalists in prison and maximize its usefulness as a resource, professional journalists are not counted in the Index except where they are also literary writers, academics, or public intellectuals; PEN America does track and advocate for cases of journalists under threat, however, and many journalists can be found in our Writers at Risk Database.

When they are able to express themselves freely, writers and intellectuals can be influential voices that bear witness to inhumanity, unleash empathy, spark the imagination, and accelerate political reform and social progress. Particularly when writing in local languages, they can explore community concerns and give voice to perspectives that are harder for those in power to dismiss. Literature, in particular, can nurture individual inquiry and challenge orthodoxies in ways both subtle and overt. Through their creative work, authors allow citizens in repressive societies to envision a different future. Authoritarian leaders know this, which is why it should come as no surprise that oppressors frequently turn on those with the creative capacity to offer a vision of a better world. Today, freedom of expression has reached an alarming nadir globally.2 Alongside the targeting of journalists and human rights defenders, the detention, imprisonment, and harassment of writers, academics, and creative thinkers form a core element of that larger backsliding, as governments attempt to quash criticism, clamp down on independent voices, and gain control of cultural and historical narratives.

In looking at the cases of writers and academics imprisoned for their work, several patterns emerge. For one, in countries where certain ethnic groups are more broadly discriminated against or subject to repression, we see efforts to silence those writing in the associated ethno-linguistic minority language or advocating for linguistic rights, for example with regard to Uyghur in China or Kurdish in Iran and Turkey. We also see efforts to discredit and stop the work of historians whose research counters efforts at historical revisionism. This is particularly true where research is delving into the truths of painful periods in a country’s history, such as the Cultural Revolution in China and the Stalinist era in Russia. We also note that, while relatively few of the cases in the Index are women, many of those are targeted in relation to their writing and advocacy on women’s rights, and those cases are primarily in Iran and Saudi Arabia. These patterns, explored further below, demonstrate some of the particular ways that writers and public intellectuals may be vulnerable, specifically because of how their work can challenge efforts by governments to advance certain narratives or to maintain or extend restrictions over certain groups.

The Freedom to Write Index represents a new element of PEN America’s year-round advocacy on behalf of writers, journalists, artists, intellectuals, and others who are under threat as a result of their writing and creative expression. Another flagship component of PEN America’s own advocacy is the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, given annually to an imprisoned writer targeted for exercising their freedom of expression. Of the 47 jailed writers who have received the Freedom to Write Award from 1987 to 2019, 41 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure it generates, including three in 2019 itself. In all of our advocacy, PEN America works closely with the PEN International Secretariat and Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), as well as the other members of the global PEN network. The Index and this report draw significantly from PEN International’s own 2019 Case List, which in turn reflects input from PEN centers around the world.

In this report, PEN America will explore trends related to the imprisonment of writers and intellectuals, including an examination of the countries that detain and imprison the largest numbers of writers and intellectuals, the types of legal charges most frequently used to target them, and the additional tactics used to suppress writers’ voices.

Download the report.

The post PEN America launches Freedom to Write Index 2019 appeared first on IFEX.


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