The Freedom To Write Index: 311 Imprisoned Worldwide

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The newly released ‘Freedom to Write Index’ features 2022 key cases, trends, regimes, victims of oppression, and leading markets of concern.

On our cover today: An image from the video released today with PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index: ‘Cultural erasure has been a central tactic in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.’

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
See also: Taiwan Publisher Li Yanhe’s Detention in China Prompts Growing Alarm

Gerntholtz: ‘First Victims of Repressive Governments’

On the heels of its statement this week about Beijing’s detention of Taiwan publisher Li Yanhe, PEN America today (April 17) has released its 2022 Freedom to Write Index, which points to the fact that only last year was Salman Rushdie attacked in Chautauqua, New York, “a devastating reminder of the perils writers face for having the audacity to put their ideas, their creative vision, and their stories to paper.”

In 2022, this annual project’s survey determined that China and Iran were the world’s top jailers of writers and intellectuals, the former imprisoning 90 writers, the latter imprisoning 57. Iran ranks as the country with the biggest increase in jailed writers and the most women, with 39 new cases, the program reports. Next to China and Iran, other top jailers include Saudi Arabia, with 20 writers jailed, and Belarus, Myanmar, and Vietnam, each with 16.

As many as 80 governments have tried to silence more than 800 writers and nearby associates “through surveillance, harassment, travel bans, even physical violence,” according to today’s media messaging.

Liesl Gerntholtz

“Writers have long been and continue to be some of the first victims and intended targets of repressive governments,” says Liesl Gerntholtz, the inaugural director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center.

“Their fiction, essays, poems, and even songs put them into the cross hairs of governments determined to silence anyone who disagrees with them.

“When individuals are deprived of their liberty as a way to silence them,” she says, “it imposes not just a terrible toll on them but also on children and parents and partners. Whole families suffer and it sends a chill throughout the literary and publishing community of a country. The point is to make people afraid to write freely or to speak out against those in power.”

Clearly aligned with the spirit and intent of the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA) Freedom to Publish committee, chaired by Kristenn Einarsson and directed by James Taylor, the PEN America Freedom To Write Index. The IPA program is to name its 2023 Prix Voltaire laureate at the World Expression Forum (WEXFO).

Rushdie: ‘False Narratives of Tyrants, Populists, and Fools’

Image: PEN America, Freedom To Write Index, 2022

All of these efforts are growingly important elements of an awakening international democratic resistance to the rise of an authoritarian dynamic. That energy, itself, takes advantage of the storytelling power of writers and their publishers, deploying disinformation in order to prey on the ignorant, the gullible, and the bigoted.

“When individuals are deprived of their liberty as a way to silence them, it imposes not just a terrible toll on them but also on children and parents and partners. Whole families suffer and it sends a chill throughout the literary and publishing community of a country.”Liesl Gerntholtz, PEN America

In the new document’s introduction, Rushdie is quoted from his comments at a May 2022 PEN writers’ conference. “It has been said,” Rushdie told his audience, “I have said it myself, that the powerful may own the present but writers own the future, for it is through our work … that the present misdeeds of the powerful will be judged …

“We must understand that stories are at the heart of what is happening, and dishonest narratives of oppressors have proved attractive to many. So we must work to overturn the false narratives of tyrants, populists, and fools by telling better stories than they do.”

Publishing Perspectives readers will remember that the Freedom To Write Index is a kind of companion to another PEN America project, the Writers at Risk Database. It lists and tracks cases of persecution–writers, journalists, artists, academics, and public intellectuals in a searchable format

Volodymyr Vakulenko

In a compelling demonstration of what this work is about, the Ukrainian children’s book author and poet Volodymyr Vakulenko is highlighted in PEN America’s new Freedom To Write Index with a moving video.

Vakulenko was abducted in March last year by Russian-affiliated forces. His body was found in November in a mass grave.

Below is the video released by PEN America today with its Freedom to Write Index, focused on the  Vakulenko.

More from Publishing Perspectives on PEN America is here, more on PEN International is here. More from Publishing Perspectives on the International Publishers Association is here, and on the Prix Voltaire is here. More on the World Expression Forum, WEXFO, is here. And more on the freedom of expression and publication is here.

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

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson 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 International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, 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.