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.



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!



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“Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Bernie Sanders



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

50 LA area literary organizations appeal to City Council for stimulus funding; PEN America’s Writers’ Emergency Fund grants

February shot of downtown Los Angeles with Mount Baldy in the background after a large snow storm. Photo was taken from Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Photograph courtesy of Alek Leckszas CC BY-SA 4.0

“Publishing and printing alone account for 160,000 jobs in our city, and combined with writers in fashion and entertainment, we make up a significant portion of the creative industry in LA. Supporting arts and the creative community means supporting literary organizations and writers.” said Michelle Franke,



Today, PEN America–alongside 826LA, Lambda Literary, and Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, and close to 50 Los Angeles area organizations–appealed to the Los Angeles City Council to provide support for literary organizations in any upcoming funding decisions related to the COVID-19 recovery. In a letter sent to Council members today, PEN America and its allies insisted literary organizations be specifically represented in any efforts to revitalize the larger arts community in the city.

“The City Council has already done so much to support the arts and nonprofits at this critical time, and we, along with our allies, are hoping to ensure literary organizations are included in those efforts,” said Michelle Franke, executive director of PEN America’s Los Angeles office. “Publishing and printing alone account for 160,000 jobs in our city, and combined with writers in fashion and entertainment, we make up a significant portion of the creative industry in LA. Supporting arts and the creative community means supporting literary organizations and writers. We hope the Council agrees.”

In addition to including literary organizations in future stimulus funding, the letter also calls for relief for commercial rents for nonprofit literary organizations and funding to support a Los Angeles COVID-19 narrative project that would commission and pay writers to document the effects of the pandemic of the lives of people in Los Angeles.

“The literary arts are not optional; they are essential to our city and our communities,” the letter reads. “Writers are our conscience, our watchdogs, leading in the important work of bearing witness to history and helping us make sense of our lives and our world. We must ensure that their work continues.”

PEN America has more than 7,500 writers, journalists, and other literary professionals and their allies as members across the country. Many are facing significant hardships as writing jobs, as well as side gigs, have all but evaporated under the strain of the coronavirus and the concurrent economic downturn. A survey from Americans for the Arts showed that some 95 percent of artists and creative professionals have lost income due to the pandemic. Literary and media arts organizations have reported median losses over $200,000 per organization.

PEN America

WRITERS’ EMERGENCY FUND GRANTS

PEN America’s Writers’ Emergency Fund provides grants of $500 to $1,000 to writers in the United States facing acute financial need as a result of the pandemic.  Since the fund re-launched in response to the crisis in late March, PEN America has received some 850 applications and so far processed grants to 400 writers, including 107 in the state of California.

***

This post is courtesy of PEN America.

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

Maintain the movement.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Bernie Sanders



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

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.


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

Maintain the movement.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Bernie Sanders



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

Federal Court Confirms Literature Is a Vital Component of Education

Photograph courtesy of Element5 Digital, Unsplash

“The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth”  Dutch Philosopher and Scholar of the northern Renaissance, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536), The Erasmus Reader



The right to basic education should be a given in a developed country of the 21st Century. Apparently it’s not:  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found it necessary to affirm last Thursday that the right to a basic education, meaning one that provides access to literary education, is a fundamental right under the Constitution. The court made this holding in the case of Gary B. v. Whitmer, a lawsuit brought by students of several of Detroit’s worst-performing schools. The case will be sent back to a lower court for a new ruling.


Photograph courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / First Lady Barbara Bush at the 1989 UNESCO International Literacy Day celebration / Public Domain

“Plaintiffs in this appeal are students at several of Detroit’s worst- performing public schools. They credit this substandard performance to poor conditions within their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials. Taken together, Plaintiffs say these conditions deprive them of a basic minimum education, meaning one that provides a chance at foundational literacy*.

“In 2016, Plaintiffs sued several Michigan state officials, who they say are responsible for these abysmal conditions in their schools. Plaintiffs allege that state actors are responsible, as opposed to local entities, based on the state’s general supervision of all public education, and also on the state’s specific interventions in Detroit’s public schools. The state argues that it recently returned control to local officials, and so it is now the wrong party to sue.” United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

* Functional Literacy: “reading and writing skills that are inadequate to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.”  Shaking Up the Schoolhouse, How to Support and Sustain Education Innovation, Phillip C. Schlechty


PEN America filed an amicus brief in support of the students’ position that access to literacy is a fundamental right. In response to the news, PEN America’s deputy director of free expression research and policy, James Tager, said:

“This ruling affirms one of the most commonsense yet profound concepts in society: There is a fundamental right to read. Literacy is the spark that animates the First Amendment. Without access to literacy, freedom of speech and of expression are just words on a page, inaccessible to broad segments of the population. In order for our democracy to function, every citizen must have the opportunity to fully partake in public life. As this case continues, we hope that the circuit court’s decision will translate into real change for these students who are fighting for their own right to a basic education.”

RELATED:

The content of this post is courtesy of the United States Court of Appeals, Wikipedia, Shaking Up the Schoolhouse, and PEN America.

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

Maintain the movement.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Bernie Sanders



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

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