PEN ‘Freedom to Write’: 277 Writers, Intellectuals Jailed in 36 Nations

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An alarming follow-up to the February 2021 Myanmar coup d’état: Yangon moves into the Top 10 Freedom to Write Index offenders.

On a street in Monywa, in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region, November 23, 2021. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Hale Irwin

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Nossel: ‘We Must Support the Fearless Independent Voices’
In its third edition, PEN America‘s fully internationalized Freedom to Write Index cites Myanmar at the top of its newly released 2021 listings. “Having jailed at least 26 writers,” PEN’s media messaging says, “a steep increase from eight in 2020, Myanmar joins China and Saudi Arabia at the top of the list.

“Together, those three countries account for more than half of the total number of writers held behind bars in 2021.” As Publishing Perspectives readers know, one happier note has been the release of the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) Prix Voltaire laureate Raif Badawi in Riyadh.

But at the highest view, in 2021, PEN America’s case-tracking program saw “at least 277 writers, academics, and public intellectuals in 36 countries—in all geographic regions of the world—unjustly imprisoned or held in detention in connection with their writing or other exercise of free expression.”

This was, the program points out, a slight increase from 2020, when 273 individuals were counted behind bars.

“But the past two years, covering the period of the [still ongoing] COVID-19 pandemic,” PEN’s staff writes, “both represent a significant increase from 2019, when the Freedom to Write Index documented just 238 cases.”

In its third edition, released Thursday (April 13), PEN America found that over half of these 277 writers were also jailed during both 2019 and 2020, and nearly one-fifth—at least 62 writers and public intellectuals—were serving sentences of 10 or more years in prison.

Karin Deutsch Karlekar

In a statement, Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s free expression at risk programs, says, “PEN America is sounding the alarm that the number of writers and public intellectuals detained or imprisoned in 2021 remains intolerably high, and we are particularly distressed to see Myanmar among the top three jailers of writers, in the wake of the junta’s ruthless crackdown on free expression and human rights.”

In many parts of the world, “Writers are being jailed for the ‘crime’ of exercising their right to peaceful expression and, in many cases, for using the power of the written word to counter authoritarianism and hold powerful leaders to account. This persistent global assault on the freedom to write robs writers of their pens and keyboards, and audiences of their words and thoughts, and demands the urgent attention of the international community.”

Suzanne Nossel

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel is quoted, saying, “While the march of authoritarianism is on full and bloody display in Ukraine, a quieter war is being waged to silence dissent and distort narratives in ways that reify the power of the autocrat.

“In a digital age when words transcend borders, the insurgent power of the pen can be as threatening to repressive rulers as armed resistance. Writers speak not just for themselves, but also exemplify the power of lone individuals to withstand the forces that would extinguish their free will.

“At a time when we are witnessing the sore limitations of nations’ ability to turn the tide of rising repression around the world, we must redouble efforts to support the fearless independent voices who dare try to do so.”

One heartening development this year, of course, is the inaugural iteration of the new World Expression Forum (WEXFO), set for Lillehammer on May 30 and 31 under the direction of the International Publishers Association’s Freedom to Publishing chair Kristenn Einarsson. You’ll find more information on WEXFO 2022 in our coverage.

Durations of Prison Sentences, and More

Our readers will recall that Badawi was sentenced to 10 years–a terrible term that he actually served out before his release–and in Vietnam, the IPA Prix Voltaire winner Pham Doan Trang was sentenced in December to nine years for what Hanoi has termed “disseminating anti-state propaganda.”

“While the march of authoritarianism is on full and bloody display in Ukraine, a quieter war is being waged to silence dissent and distort narratives in ways that reify the power of the autocrat.”Suzanne Nossel, PEN America

Now with three years of data to develop, the PEN program is seeing that “a staggering one-fifth of these 277 writers and public intellectuals were serving sentences [in 2021] of 10 or more years in prison for their writing and free expression.

“Writers including Egyptian freelance writer and researcher Ismail Alexandrani and Russian historian Yury Dmitriev have been serving lengthy sentences of 10 and 15 years in prison, respectively, in retaliation for their work. At least 11 writers are serving life sentences, including Bahraini human rights blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace and Uyghur economist and blogger Ilham Tohti.

“Many writers who have been released from state custody still live under a constant threat of surveillance, harassment, and re-capture. At least a dozen writers have been detained multiple times over the past year for their writing, including Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija and Cuban lyricist Maykel Castillo Pérez (Maykel Osorbo).”

Indeed,  in its introduction to its new report, PEN’s team faces the rising threat to many democracies, writing, in part:

“Censorship and intimidation of dissenting voices is rife in India. In the United States, efforts to ban books and enact laws that would bar discussion of certain topics in classrooms spiked in 2021.

“Much of this debate centered around the freedom to contend with and openly debate the complexities of history. This, too, has echoes around the globe.

“Just before Russian troops began this latest incursion into Ukraine, Putin gave a speech in which he attempted to rewrite Ukraine’s history to suit his own ends. For years now, Putin has held in prison the historian Yury Dmitriev on specious charges of child pornography. Dmitriev’s true crime was uncovering and documenting mass graves from the Stalinist era, a historical truth that contradicted Putin’s attempts to whitewash and glorify the memory of Stalin.

“Government attempts to silence those who study, document, and debate history are typically also an attempt to exert a sole narrative over the past, one that serves the interests of the present.”

The report also notices resistance, its introduction saying, “In Myanmar, widespread and sustained civil disobedience—including the creative resistance of writers and artists—followed the coup. Afghan women refused to be silenced and they, too, have taken to the streets. Belarusians have continued their resistance against a president holding onto power despite an election he seemed to think he could steal without a fight.

Top 10 markets imprisoning and/or otherwise detaining writers in 2021. Image: PEN America

“And today, Putin must contend not only with the fierce resistance of the Ukrainian people, but also Russians inside the country and around the world who persist in speaking the truth.”

Quickly, some highlighted element from the new report, as put together by PEN’s staff:

  • As of April 2022, more than 71 percent of writers counted in the 2021 Index remain in prison or jail; 17 percent are free from state custody but continue to face ongoing legal battles and conviction appeals, probationary restrictions on their ability to work and travel, and/or continued harassment from state or non-state actors.
  • Only 11 percent have been released without conditions. The remaining 1 percent tragically died in state custody
  • Four writers and public intellectuals counted in the 2021 Index died in custody, including Iranian poet, filmmaker, and 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree Baktash Abtin, who died of COVID-19 in January 2022
  • The majority of the writers and intellectuals included in the 2021 count were initially imprisoned or detained prior to 2021, or had faced previous detention or imprisonment. Of the 277 writers detained/imprisoned during 2021
  • 71 percent had also been detained or imprisoned during 2020
  • Nearly 53 percent had been detained or imprisoned during 2020 AND 2019; this represents cases of both long-term imprisonments and repeated arrests
  • The regional breakdown is nearly identical to 2020: Countries in the Asia-Pacific region, primarily China and Myanmar, jailed nearly 50 percent of all writers counted in the index, 137 writers and public intellectuals
  • Countries in the Middle East and North Africa jailed nearly 30 percent of the 2021 total
  • As was documented in 2019 and 2020, charges related to national security—e.g., “membership in a banned group” or “subversion of state power”—are the prevailing legal justifications for imprisoning writers and public intellectuals; they were applied in 55 percent of cases during 2021
  • While the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has not resulted in significant detentions of writers or public intellectuals in 2021, the situation for free expression has drastically deteriorated under Taliban control, and several writers were killed by the Taliban during the year
  • “Spyware and digital surveillance technologies,” PEN’s team writes, “were found to have been used in the capture and imprisonment of writers and public intellectuals, including Emirati writer Ahmed Mansoor, Saudi writer-activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Qatar-based Kenyan blogger Malcolm Bidali”
  • The families of imprisoned Indian poet P. Varavara Rao and murdered Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi were also subject to surveillance
  • Even when writers flee their countries to seek safety abroad, the threat of persecution from their governments may follow them. In 2021, the governments of Turkey, China, Pakistan, Belarus, and Iran engaged in harassment of and attacks against exiled writers, ranging from mounting legal charges and extradition attempts, to actual and attempted kidnapping, to physical threats to the writers and their family members.

Much more information and discussion is available in this week’s newly released and timely 2021 report. Find the full Freedom To Write Index report here.

And find PEN’s accompanying Writers at Risk Database here.

Our report on the inaugural Freedom To Write Index report in 2020 is here. And our follow-up on last year’s 2020 report is here.

Excerpt from PEN America mapping showing the markets of highest action recorded by the PEN America program against writers in 2021. Image: PEN America


More from Publishing Perspectives on freedom of expression and publication is here. More from us on PEN’s work is hereMore on the Prix Voltaire is here, and more from us on the International Publishers Association is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the International Publishers Association.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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