PEN America Announces “Freedom to Write Index,” the first count of writers imprisoned globally; “Words,” a poem by P. Veravera Rao

Photograph courtesy of Manuel Sardo, Unsplash

“The numbers in this Index are, of course, far too high, but we also know that advocacy to free those unjustly behind bars does work. In this moment, when truth is vulnerable, and when the world faces a time of reckoning in which a new future waits to be written, it is imperative that we defend the freedom to write, and work to free those who remain behind bars for daring to exercise that power.” Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of free expression at risk programs



On Tuesday PEN America released the inaugural PEN America Freedom to Write Index. It’s the first annual global count of writers and public intellectuals unjustly detained or imprisoned worldwide. Covering calendar year 2019, the inaugural Freedom to Write Index shows that at least 238 writers, academics, and public intellectuals were imprisoned or held in detention in 2019, facing often brutal treatment and baseless charges. The Index includes novelists, poets, playwrights, songwriters, biographers, memoirists, essayists, bloggers, and genre writers. Nearly sixty percent were being held by just three countries: China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

“The Index spotlights governments’ nefarious will to suppress truth and control the public mind by silencing writers who dare challenge authority or portray social and political alternatives that rulers reject or fear,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “Many of these writers use the imagination to pierce ideological orthodoxies, give voice to suppressed populations, and rally readers to think and act in new ways. This is what makes great writing potent, but also threatening. Rather than treasuring literary icons, too many regimes regard esteemed independent-minded writers as a menace to the brittle state, and seek to prevent words, stories and ideas from chipping away their iron control.”

China tops the Freedom to Write Index, having held at least 73 writers and public intellectuals in prison or detention for their writing in 2019. The new PEN America analysis, drawing on sources including the extensive casework of PEN International, finds that most often, China uses the excuse of national security and “subversion of state power” to imprison writers. In the first few months of 2020, writers, citizen journalists, and activists in China have been detained by authorities as part of a government campaign to control both the domestic and international narratives on the COVID-19 pandemic. Rounding out the top three, Saudi Arabia held thirty-eight writers and intellectuals in detention or prison last year, and Turkey held thirty.

“Speaking out on behalf of individual writers at risk around the world has long been the bedrock of PEN America’s advocacy work,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of free expression at risk programs. “When writers are in jail, they know that the PEN global network will not let them be forgotten. We hope that this report with names and personal stories will help raise the profile of these writers, mobilizing journalists, legislators, human rights advocates, and political leaders to protest their unjust detention. The numbers in this Index are, of course, far too high, but we also know that advocacy to free those unjustly behind bars does work. In this moment, when truth is vulnerable, and when the world faces a time of reckoning in which a new future waits to be written, it is imperative that we defend the freedom to write, and work to free those who remain behind bars for daring to exercise that power.”

The PEN America Freedom to Write Index shows that in 2019, some thirty-four countries held writers, academics, and public intellectuals. The Index also found:

  • Countries in the Asia-Pacific region held one-hundred writers and intellectuals in detention or prison during 2019—making up forty-two percent of the 2019 Index—while countries in the Middle East and North Africa held thirty-one percent of the global count. Together, these two regions accounted for almost three-quarters of the cases in the 2019 Index. Countries in Europe and Central Asia held forty-one imprisoned/detained writers, or seventeen percent of the 2019 Index.
  • Of the 238 writers and intellectuals in the 2019 Freedom to Write Index, over half were prosecuted under laws concerned with national security. All thirty of the writers and intellectuals in the Index detained or imprisoned in Turkey face national security charges. In China, “national security” violations comprise over half of the seventy-three cases of writers and intellectuals in detention or prison, fifty-three percent.
  • At least fifty-three writers and intellectuals were held in detention on secret, unknown or undisclosed charges; this amounts to over a fifth of writers and intellectuals in the 2019 Index, and is particularly prevalent in Saudi Arabia.
  • Over two-thirds (sixty-nine percent) of individuals counted in the 2019 Index remain in state custody at the time of this report’s publication. Just under a third are out of state custody but continue to face ongoing legal battles or appeals of convictions; probationary restrictions on work, travel, and local movement; and/or harassment from state and non-state actors.

The report also reveals patterns in terms of what motivates governments to target writers. The drive to suppress ethnic identities and nationalism puts individuals writing in or advocating for ethno-linguistic minority languages under heightened threat, including in the context of crackdowns on Uyghur culture and language in China and Kurdish in Iran and Turkey.

Countries like China and Russia are also attacking writers who seek to expose painful truths about their countries’ respective histories, challenging enforced storylines propagated to reinforce ruling regimes. PEN America also found that while most writers being detained are men, women comprised sixteen percent of the cases documented. Many were targeted directly for their writing and advocacy on women’s rights, particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Alongside the Index, PEN America is launching a new, searchable database of Writers at Risk, containing details of each of the writers in our 2019 Index along with hundreds of other cases of writers, journalists, artists, and intellectuals under threat around the world. This database offers researchers, rights advocates, and the public a wealth of actionable evidence of ongoing global threats to free expression.



Poet P. Varavara Rao; photograph courtesy of Chaithu under CC BY-SA 3.0

WORDS

Words, smothered in the folds of the self,
Must be stirred awake,
Made to amble and watch
See if wings can bear aloft
The crippled limbs
And soar into the sky.

Like the first showers after the drought
To my parched ears, my own worlds,
Not any other’s, remain strange.

Like the marvel of the sky
Discovering its lost monsoon
I long to sprout on a soil
In the vibrations of a sonorous world.

Once again I yearn to learn the utterance
At school and on the commune,
From pupils and plebeians
I dream of seizing syllables
From each of history’s furrows.

Without this voicing peal
How will this silence,
Loaded for so long in the self,
Explode?

Without this booming resonance
How will this scene,
Cryptic for so long in the eyes,
Scintillate?

Once again I must learn to utter
In communing with and listening to
Our people;
I must be tethered to the word and abide by it
What’s man’s legacy after betraying the word?

Nothing debases the word:
In the blazing furnaces of time
Under the plummeting hammer clangs,
This, as the fittest moment,
I go on forging expressions.

– P. Varavara Rao



Cases highlighted in the 2019 report include:

  • The poet and leftist intellectual P. Varavara Rao, writer and artist Arun Ferreira, and writer and scholar Vernon Gonsalves, who were all detained in India in August 2018 alongside a number of other activists in relation to their writing and work on behalf of minority and marginalized groups in India. Other writers have issued pleas for their release, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Iranian writer Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, first arrested in 2014 and sentenced to six years in prison in 2015 on propaganda charges for an unpublished fictional story concerning the practice of stoning as a criminal punishment. Released in April 2019, when she had served over half her sentence, Iraee was rearrested in November 2019.
  • Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan language rights activist who documented his work in a microblog and was detained in 2016 after he appeared in an article and short video feature published by The New York Times. He was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “separatism” in 2018, and remains behind bars.
  • Egyptian poet and songwriter Galal El-Behairy, who is serving a three-year sentence on charges of spreading false news and insulting the military, in relation to both his lyrics to the song “Balaha,” which criticized the state of the Egyptian economy and government corruption, and to his unreleased book of poetry. The filmmaker who worked on the videos for Balaha, Shady Habash, died in prison on May 2 at age 24.
  • Poet and blogger Ahmed Mansoor, who is serving a ten-year prison sentence in the United Arab Emirates for criticizing the government on social media. The official charges against him include insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” and seeking to damage the UAE’s relationship with neighboring countries by publishing false reports and information on social media.
  • Yury Dmitriev, a Russian historian and head of the Karelia branch of the Russian human rights center, who has worked to uncover and document mass graves from the era of Stalinist purges.
  • Chimengül Awut, a Uyghur poet and editor at Kashgar Publishing House, was arrested in 2018, reportedly for editing the novel Golden Shoes by Uyghur writer Halide Isra’il. Authorities have since confirmed her editing as the reason for her detention, but explicit legal charges are undisclosed.

By highlighting the threats experienced by a broad range of writers, the Freedom to Write Index and database complement existing datasets that focus on journalists or scholars, helping paint a more holistic picture of attacks on freedom of expression globally, and shining a light on the impact when individual creative voices are silenced.

PEN America is deeply grateful to the John Templeton Foundation for its generous support of the Freedom to Write Index and Writers at Risk Database.

This post is compiled courtesy of PEN America, Wikipedia, and Poem Hunter

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.



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Disident Turkish Musician, İbrahim Gökçek, Ends His Death Fast After 323 Days; Gökçek’s Calls for Support

Cover from one of the musical collaborative Grup Yorum’s albums. Gökçek is a member of the Group.

“There have been so many days that we shared the same stages, platforms with you, our intellectual and artist friends. With those we couldn’t share the same stage, we had the honor of making art for a more fair and livable world. We have also experienced the oppression of the dominant powers who are fed by people’s remaining ignorant and unorganized . . . ” excerpt from İbrahim Gökçek’s letter of April 30.



We join with PEN America and other organizations that support free speech and freedom of artistic expression in our relief to learn that Turkish musician İbrahim Gökçek, a member of the music collective Grup Yorum, suspended his hunger strike as of Wednesday. Mr.Gökçek is receiving medical treatment. This news comes a day after it was announced that his health had reached a crisis point. İbrahim Gökçek started his hunger strike 323 days ago to protest his imprisonment and that of eight other band members in 2019.

Gökçek decided to suspend his hunger strike after Dr. Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, and a group of lawmakers vouched for Grup Yorum and declared they would fight for the release of the imprisoned band members. Gökçek had turned his hunger strike into a “death fast”—intending to pursue the strike until his own death—in January. Released February 24 because of his health condition, he and fellow group member Helin Bölek were hospitalized against their wishes on March 11. Helin Bölek died April 3. Weeks later, on April 24, Mustafa Koçak, not a member of the band but also unjustly imprisoned, died after a 297-day hunger strike. Gökçek had continued his hunger strike, calling for the release of all band members, a fair trial, the right to hold concerts again, and the cessation of raids on their cultural center.

“We are relieved to hear İbrahim Gökçek’s decision to break his death fast. But he and other Grup Yorum members should not have to resort to a hunger strike in the first place to be able to share their music, and the Turkish authorities’ grievous attempts to silence their voices is abominable,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “Grup Yorum members have continued to experience repression and harassment at the hands of the Turkish government for over three decades, including arrest, reports of abuse against detained members, banned concerts, and even the detention of their audience members. Their struggle is not over yet. Band members, including Gökçek’s wife Sultan, remain imprisoned, and the government still has not allowed the band to hold a concert. We condemn these ongoing attacks on free expression by the Turkish government, both against Grup Yorum members as well as any artist, writer, or activist who dares to speak out against injustice. Artists should be allowed to live and work without fear, and they should not have to deprive themselves of their life and wellbeing in order to do so.”

In an open letter Mr. Gökçek calls for the release of all members of Grup Yorum, decries the “lies and demagoguery” about the Group, and calls for support from other artists and intellectuals for his demands and that of all Grup Yorum.

English translation of Bella Ciao, an Italian folk song

RELATED:

This post was complied courtesy of PEN America, Amazon, Wikipedia, Infoshri, YouTube, and various news reports. 

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them.


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The World Mourns the Passing of Turkish singer Helin Bölek after 300-day hunger strike

Helin Bölek courtesy of Twitter for Android

“We are immensely saddened to learn of Helin Bölek’s passing. We strongly condemn the actions of the Turkish government that led to her death. Bölek was on a death fast because the Turkish authorities refused to guarantee this artistic group several of the most basic liberties necessary to a free and democratic society . . . ” Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) of PEN America



The world mourns the death of Turkish singer Helin Bölek. Ms. Bölek died Friday after a nearly 300-day hunger strike. She was a member of the music collective Grup Yorum, which has faced ongoing persecution by the Turkish government for years. Bölek had been on a hunger strike to protest her imprisonment and that of eight other band members during 2019.


Ms. Bölek, originally the daughter of a family from Diyarbakır, worked in art during her youth. She took part in the group as a soloist. During a police operation in İdil Culture Center in Istanbul in November 2016, she was first detained with the seven members of the group on charges of “resisting the police, insulting and being a member of a terrorist organization” and then arrested. In addition to Ms. Bölek, Bahar Kurt, Barış Yüksel, İbrahim Gökçek (who is currently in day 291 of his hunger strike), and Ali Aracı announced that they started an “indefinite and irreversible” hunger strike on May 17, 2019, to end their pressures, concert bans, raids on cultural centers. On March 11, 2020, on the day of the conflict, İbrahim Gökçek on the 268th day of the death fast and Helin Bölek on the 265th day were taken out to the Umraniye Training and Research Hospital after the police raid that morning in their home in Küçük Armutlu, Istanbul. In a statement made by their lawyer Didem Ünsal, the two Grup Yorum members stated that they were taken to the hospital by ambulance and that they were admitted to the emergency room, where they declared that they did not accept the intervention and treatment.

Grup Yorum is a band from Turkey known for their political songwriting. Grup Yorum (Yorum means interpretation or comment in Turkish) has released twenty-three albums and one film since 1985. Some of the group’s concerts and albumswere banned over the years, and some of the group members were allegedly arrested or tortured.Yorum remains popular and their albums continue to sell well in Turkey and internationally. Yorum has also given concerts in Germany, Austria, Australia, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, United Kingdom, Greece and Syria. The group publishes an art, culture, literature, and music magazine entitled Tavir, and several group members manage a cultural center in the Okmeydanı neighborhood of Istanbul called İdil Kültür Merkezi.

 


Although Ms. Bölek was released on November 20, she continued her hunger strike with the intent to pursue it until her own death, alongside Grup Yorum member İbrahim Gökçek. Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) of PEN America, said the following:

“We are immensely saddened to learn of Helin Bölek’s passing. We strongly condemn the actions of the Turkish government that led to her death. Bölek was on a death fast because the Turkish authorities refused to guarantee this artistic group several of the most basic liberties necessary to a free and democratic society: that Grup Yorum be allowed to make music in peace, that their cultural center not be raided again and again, that their concerts not be banned, and that their members not be imprisoned for merely making music. Artists take risks, but they should not have to risk their lives. Turkish authorities’ hostile attitude toward freedom of expression and their continued crackdown on artists, writers, thinkers, and activists, especially those working on Kurdish issues, must cease immediately, and Grup Yorum members still in prison must be unconditionally released. Bölek’s death makes the truth painfully clear: The very lives of artists are on the line.”

This post is complied courtesy of Wikipedia, PEN America, YouTube, and various news reports.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you would like to learn more about Grup Yorum, please read ARC’s profile of the band. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.


Jamie Dedes:

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Timed for Election Season, PEN America Launches Free Speech 2020

 

George Orwell statue at the headquarters of the BBC courtesy of Matt Brown under CC BY 2.0

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”, words from George Orwell’s proposed preface to Animal Farm (1945)



PEN America launches Free Speech 2020, a yearlong initiative to mobilize writers and readers to elevate free speech issues and defend free expression throughout this election season. Deploying on social media and at PEN.org, the initiative will feature Q&As with presidential candidates, authors, and activists about the value of free speech; research profiling the major threats to free expression in the U.S.; and resources to guide PEN America Members and partners to defend against those threats. Free Speech 2020 will also mobilize PEN America Members and supporters across the country with a series of events, trainings, and conversations about the importance of protecting our right to speak.

With this ” . .  . the American people start making their voices heard [with the kick-off of] an election season that promises to be a pivotal moment for free expression in this country. That’s why we feel it’s the perfect time to unify our commitment to defending free speech under this organization-wide initiative,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “We’ll be building on our existing work and expanding our national footprint to fight for free expression across the country.”

Free Speech 2020 will continue through November, highlighting four major themes:

  • Defending press freedom. PEN America will build on its landmark report on the local news crisis; continue fighting in the courts to defend press freedom; conduct trainings and assemble resources for reporters to know their rights; and lead nationwide media literacy trainings.
  • Combatting disinformation. PEN America will partner with tech companies, government entities, and parties and candidates from across the political spectrum to push back against misleading information. The organization will also lead media literacy trainings, build on its pathbreaking disinformation report, and call on the digital platforms to step up their efforts to battle false information.
  • Fighting online harassment. PEN America will fan out across the country to engage with writers, journalists, and newsroom leaders in the best practices to strike back against online abuse, which imperils free speech and free dialogue. The organization will build on its Online Harassment Field Manual and additional resources.
  • Upholding protest rights. PEN America will speak out against violations of the constitutional right to demonstrate throughout the election cycle, fightingrestrictions such as the DC Mall Protest Tax, and will also publish research on legislative trends that threaten the right to protest.

“We’re at a key inflection point in the U.S., and this election season is already bringing new and unique threats to free speech,” said Nora Benavidez, director of U.S. Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “Across the country and across our digital platforms, we’re mobilizing to stand up for the public’s right to speak out and the public’s right to know. As writers, readers, and defenders of the written word, that’s our driving mission this election year.”

Through February, PEN America will be featuring Q&As with presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang (PEN America has contacted all major-party candidates for interviews). Also this month, PEN America will include video, audio, and web interviews with authors about their perspectives on free speech in 2020, which kicked off with an interview from author Mira Jacob.

For more information, visit pen.org/free-speech-2020.

***

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.


Jamie Dedes:

Your donation HERE helps to fund the ongoing mission of The Poet by Day in support of poets and writers, freedom of artistic expression, and human rights.

Poetry rocks the world!



FEEL THE BERN

For Peace, Sustainability, Social Justice

The Poet by Day officially endorses Bernie Sanders for President.

The New New Deal

Link HERE for Bernie’s schedule of events around the country.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Bernie Sanders



“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”  Lucille Clifton