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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In the Wake of COVID-19: Free Speech and Freedom of Artistic Expression Threatened

Rivera himself, as a pug-faced child, and Frida Kahlo stand beside the skeleton; mural in Mexico City courtesy of Diego Rivera Núñez and one more author under CC BY 2.0

“Freedom of expression is a human right and forms Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of expression [a foundation for other rights] covers freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and gives individuals and communities the right to articulate their opinions without fear of retaliation, censorship or punishment. (The right to freedom of expression wouldn’t be worth much if the authorities also had the right to imprison anyone who disagrees with them.) An effective media also depends on the legal basis that freedom of expression gives the right to function and report freely, sometimes critically, without threat or fear of punishment.

“Freedom of expression is not an absolute right: it does not protect hate speech or incitement to violence. That said, many other rights which are intrinsic to our daily lives build on and intersect with this protection for free thought and individual expression. Freedom of expression covers everything from satire to political campaigns to conversations in your own home. It’s a fundamental human right which allows for citizens to speak freely and without interference.” Ten Reasons Freedom of Expression is Important, The Legal Media Defense Initiative (UK)



It’s not news that in times of upheaval when confusion reigns, the power elite use that as cover or excuse for violations of human rights and the rule of law.  With the outbreak of COVID-19, we saw the beginning of this type of abuse relative to the virus when Chinese physician, Li Wenliang, conscientiously sounded an alert and was subsequently arrested and accused of “rumor-mongering” by Wuhan police. According to Worldometer.info, as of today deaths from this virus total 2,081,733. That number would include the good Dr. Wenliang and no doubt underestimates the total since testing is not widely available.

To one degree or another the curbing of the arts and of news articles related to COVID-19 is happening all over the world in both developed and developing nations. Certainly, in my own country (the U.S.), we’ve seen journalists, advisors, and politicians denounced, fired, or banned based on their reporting, advice, or political positions. Just yesterday Missouri Governor Mike Parson’s placed a ban on attendance by reporters at state briefings. Reporters are now required to email their questions one hour in advance of meetings for prescreening by officials.

Earlier this month three Burmese artists were arrested for painting a mural depicting the dangers of COVID-19.  “Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai, and Naw Htun Aung were charged with violating article 295A of the Myanmar penal code, which criminalizes speech that ‘insults or attempts to insult’ religion or religious beliefs. The artists were arrested after painting a mural intended to raise awareness about the coronavirus epidemic.” reports PEN America. The intent of the mural was to urge citizens to stay at home. It depicted the grim reaper, which some Buddhists said looked like a monk. Hence the accusation.

On Monday, the Indian government filed a complaint against  Siddharth Varadarajan for reporting on one of Uttar Pradesh’ officials for not adhering to the national public lockdown.

This is by no means a comprehensive report. It is, however, a sad sample of the current state of affairs, especially sad when so many lives are in danger in the most absolute terms and in terms of quality of life.
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The resources for this post include: The Media Legal Defense Initiative (UK), PEN America, Kansas City News, and The Indian Express, 
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Some resources for journalists and artists at risk:
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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.


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Six New Regional Chapters of PEN America to further mobilize activism and organizing within the greater writing community

American bison (Bison bison bison) in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States. Only a week after this photo was taken, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, officially making the American bison the national mammal of the United States. Please also notice the moose photobombing the bison on the left / photo courtesy © Frank Schulenburg under CC BY-SA 4.0

“I’m proud and thrilled that PEN America is working actively to foster and support literary culture in six critical regions and create a home for writers, readers, and advocates. I look forward to joining with our members to insist upon the cultural and civic value of literary expression, and protect the freedoms that make it possible—locally, nationally, and internationally.” Jennifer Egan, President of PEN America



PEN America, the organization of writers and readers advancing free expression and celebrating the power of literature, announced today the launch of six regional chapters across the United States. These new chapters – in Austin, Birmingham, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, the Piedmont Region of North Carolina, and Tulsa – are led by PEN America members and extend the reach of PEN America’s New York headquarters and offices in Washington and Los Angeles.

“At a time of exceptional threats to free expression and open discourse, our chapters will bring years of mobilization, activism and organizing among writing communities across the country to the next level. We are exceptionally proud of the local leaders who are driving forward this effort,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “With 7,500 members across the country and tens of thousands of allies, our movement – called PEN Across America – is pushing back against the breakdown of civil discourse, the marginalization of vital voices, and encroachments on press freedom, driving forward PEN America’s mission at a time when it has never been more essential.’’

For nearly 100 years, PEN America has worked as an association of novelists, non-fiction authors, poets, playwrights, others from the literary community, and readers to protect and celebrate free expression. PEN America campaigns to free writers imprisoned around the world, monitors press freedom, elevates emerging writers and honors prominent authors, and addresses contested speech on campuses, fraudulent news, hate speech, online harassment, and the other complexities of expression in our digital age. The launch of these new chapters brings members together to stage writers in conversations, advocacy campaigns, public debates, and more, drawing on PEN America’s national resources and the creative energy and priorities of the local literary community.

The bald eagle was chosen June 20, 1782 as the emblem of the United States of America, because of its long life, great strength and majestic looks. / Illustration courtesy of Peter K Burian under CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

“Readers are my people, and one of the chief delights of going on a book tour is connecting with communities of readers and writers across America,” said PEN America President Jennifer Egan. “I’m proud and thrilled that PEN America is working actively to foster and support literary culture in six critical regions and create a home for writers, readers, and advocates. I look forward to joining with our members to insist upon the cultural and civic value of literary expression, and protect the freedoms that make it possible—locally, nationally, and internationally.”

After the 2016 presidential election, PEN America became convinced that the organization’s mission to both celebrate and defend free expression demanded reaching beyond the coasts. The groundwork for these new chapters has been laid through convenings, partnerships, and dozens of events PEN America has supported in 20-plus cities during the last two years — from advocacy-themed open mics and local author conversations at independent bookstores to meet-your-newsmaker gatherings and interactive media literacy workshops.

The new chapters will be helmed by literary leaders who emerged during this preparatory phase of PEN Across America, and already have a rich network of writers, academics, librarians, booksellers, activists, and other allies in their communities. The Austin chapter will be headed by Chaitali Sen, author of the novel The Pathless Sky, and Tim Staley, who leads the Austin Public Library Foundation. Poets Ashley M. Jones and Alina Stefanescu will lead the Birmingham branch. In Dallas/Fort Worth, novelist and scholar Sanderia Faye will take the reins of that region’s chapter, alongside Deep Vellum publisher, translator, and bookstore owner Will Evans. In Detroit, writer and social worker Amber Ogden takes on the chapter alongside PEN America Literary Award Winner, Jonah Mixon-Webster. In North Carolina, writer and performer Deonna Kelli Sayed will lead the PEN America Piedmont Region. And the Tulsa group will be led by author and editor Jeff Martin, founder and executive director of the Tulsa Literary Coalition and Magic City Books.

“Since our founding in 1922, our greatest strength has been our Membership – a community of writers and readers committed to celebrating literary excellence, defending free expression, and protecting persecuted writers,” said PEN America’s Director of Membership Rebecca Werner. “Rather than pre-ordaining a select list of geographies, to build these chapters we have worked hand-in-hand with local leaders, focusing on the communities that have been most energized and organized as the leading edge in our drive to become a more fully national organization.”

This post is courtesy of PEN America and Wikipedia.

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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. I’m a freelance writer, poet, content editor, and blogger. I also manage The BeZine and its associated activities and The Poet by Day jamiededes.com, an info hub for writers meant to encourage good but lesser-known poets, women and minority poets, outsider artists, and artists just finding their voices in maturity. The Poet by Day is dedicated to supporting freedom of artistic expression and human rights.  Email thepoetbyday@gmail.com for permissions, commissions, or assignments.

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Recent and Upcoming in Digital Publications Poets Advocate for Peace, Justice, and Sustainability, How 100,000 Poets Are Fostering Peace, Justice, and Sustainability, YOPP! * The Damask Garden, In a Woman’s Voice, August 11, 2019 / This short story is dedicated to all refugees. That would be one in every 113 people. * Five poems, Spirit of Nature, Opa Anthology of Poetry, 2019 * From the Small Beginning, Entropy Magazine (Enclave, #Final Poems), July 2019 * Over His Morning Coffee, Front Porch Review, July 2019 * Three poems, Our Poetry Archive, September 2019


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