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, 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,

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

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!


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

“the doctrine” and other poems in response to the most recent Wednesday Writing Pompt

The last Wednesday Writing Prompt, May 10: Words have power to hurt, heal, fool, free or nourish. They have weight. Sometimes a word – worthy in its way – is just not right for an occasion or circumstance … or for your latest poem or story. It doesn’t meet the test of your vision; but you believe  the right word will come to you. You work at it, play with it and sometimes wait quietly, as an invitation of sorts, until the perfect word arrives and speaks to you, the word that you know will speak to others as well.

What are the stale words – the inadequate words – you hear used to describe something you value? What words are better or best? Tell us in prose or poem.

. words needed .

alongside gestures of despair,

may communicate thought

better. or worse?

so lets be singular

enjoy our own space,

and be friends, forever.

she says that you

cannot see some people’s souls,

perhaps we need to look harder.

there is a lot going on.

© 2017, sbm.

:: those words again ::

rather a lot of words were said in friendship.


good words.

#writing for jamie.

words on health and well


recovered, we admired

the socks, little boots.

she knew who i meant, a small

description. the bluebells are down

the road she told us.

kind words come in memory and subjected


some folk cannot connect other than eyes

while some utter such kind words; honey

and furry bears.

© 2017, sbm (Sonja Benskin Mesher, RCA)

the doctrine 

of inevitable progress –
the present the highpoint
of cultural and personal development –
the ancestors treated with condescension
the thinkers ignored unread
(those who told it how it really is) –

the present (so they say – the powerful ones
in their powerful ignorance) is
the threshold to a Golden Age –
provided you accept our
version of events…

tissues of false imagery
& abstraction

progress is the ghost
of a big black dog
cocking its leg against the lamp-posts
of infinite dark streets –
a convenient construct;
an unsubtle trick of the imagination;
a laying of eggs
in a basket that does not exist

© 2017, Colin Blundel (Colin Blundell: All and Everything)

“This comes from my collection The Recovery of Wonder (2013)
I focused on ‘words that fool’ and remembered this one. There are many words that fool, especially abstractions. The way to recognise an abstraction is to wonder whether you could put whatever the word is supposed to represent into a wheelbarrow. You could put a pound of apples in a wheelbarrow but what about ‘justice’, ‘beauty’, ‘love’, ‘democracy’, and in this case ‘progress’?” Colin

Being Unpolished and Knowing

Like strands of pearls uncultured, unconnected
they lie strewn at your feet tantamount to words
discarded and useless unable to be linked as one
until something more refined comes along

she knows this every moment of every day speaking
is broken by hesitation, pauses and frustration
like diamonds rough from nature not yet expertly cut
by the jeweler’s hand in minuscule sharp detail

something like disparate but not really the same
just as peculiar is not exactly being self-serving
for who can say she is not the bowels of that same venue
as she compiles opinions based on incomplete knowing

she ultimately sees herself on the fringe of everything
and anything but peculiar touting her uniqueness as
that of shrewdly knowing but like that of the pearls
as that of the diamond she too can be unpolished

© 2017, Renee Espiru (Renee Just Turtle Flight)

No Words

Like Light On A Needle

light shivers on a cobweb strand
between curved lace frills
of a woven white table cloth
in a spring front room.

Glare of harsh words
incandescent behind watery eyes
focus on insignificant details
as each of us folds our legs
away from the other

in the silence
below the radio songs
below the doppler
of cars and people outside
waves break up sunglint
on a pebbled shore

Don’t Read

this sentence.

Don’t understand this meaning.
Don’t interpret this link between words.

Don’t interrogate each word
as having a separate existence
from this context.

Don’t recall where you first heard,
or read these words as they
have no history.

They have not been written before.
They are new born, awaiting meaning.
They need maturity to fit in correctly.

Will have their wild times in places
where they shouldn’t be, next to words
they will be embarrassed to recall.

Second Fiddle

Always the presence
never in the presence of…

Always carries the coat,
never owns the coat.

Always opens the door to…
never for whom it is opened.

Always the ghost…
never the blood and sinew.

Always mouths other’s words
never mouth’ own.

Always imitative
never innovative.

Always derivative
never different enough….

First Fiddle

never in the presence…
Always the presence

never carries the coat,
Always owns the coat

never opens the door to…
Always for whom it is opened

never the ghost…
Always the blood and sinew

never mouths others words
Always mouths own

never imitative
Always innovative

never derivative
Always different enough….


Chat to the motor museum curator
at his post behind the counter.

“Have to bring my wife. She was into bikes, and can remember every…”

He looks at me.


I am an idiot.

“Those things with numbers and letters on the front of cars?”

“Number plates”.

He replies with sharp sarcasm,
and no smile.

The older I get
what were once obvious words arrive less
and less when and where I need them.

© 2017, Paul Brookes (The Wombwell Rainbow)

From Mike Stone (Uncollected Works) via comment)

“I’m reading an excellent book, “To the End of the Land” by Israeli author David Grossman. I just came across a review of the book that does good justice to Grossman’s latest novel (, but I wanted to mention just one of the many pearls in his book: “… Do you mean these paths speak Hebrew? Are you saying language springeth out of the earth? …” I loved the idea that our languages spring from the land that our forefathers and descendants live and die in, that Hebrew and Arabic have exactly the right sounds to onomatopoeicly express the realities of the Middle East. Of course the English poems I write about Israel can never really capture the essence of this land, unfortunately for me. My ears were formed by the backwoods of Ohio and Indiana. I feel like Moses standing on Nebo Peak seeing Israel from afar, but unable to enter it. I am in Israel, but in some other dimension of it.”

THE WORDPLAY SHOP: books, tools and supplies for poets, writers and readers

our prison of lost hope, a poem … and your Wednesday Writing Prompt

i admit, it’s so tender, unspoiled
tongue forages for the right words ~
they always carry the light of Spirit,
always merge with the mind and
the heart, always temper and
stir, if you use the right ones,
if you use them the right way,
the way of what we call honest,
durable and full of life, words
that speak in every moment,
to every heart; but words come
stale and dry, jejune or threadbare
devitalized, dull and unimaginative,
pondering – something authentic?
constant, colorful … all that and ..
buoyant, fresh – Yes! the right word,
vibrant and fearless clarifies vision and
frees us from our prison of lost hope

“Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”  Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

© 2014, poem and photograph, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved

THE WORDPLAY SHOP: books, tools and supplies for poets, writers and readers

We continue with the current recommended read: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder. Left, right or center – American or not – it’s a must read.

LESSON EIGHTEEN, Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.“Modern tyranny is terror management. When the terror attack comes, remember that authoritarians exploit such events in order to consolidate power. The sudden desire that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution of opposition parties, the suspension of freedom of expression, the right to fair trial, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.” Prof. Snyder,  On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century



“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” Joseph Brodsky

Well life happened – as it usually does until it doesn’t – and I missed Banned Book Week, September 25- October 1 – but it’s never too late to ponder banning and the unreason that often leads to it. One of the more humorous examples is:

How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes

If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore

– Shel Silverstein from A Light in the Attic (Harper Collins, 1981)

I wouldn’t blame you if you are surprised to think that a work by the recipient of a Golden Globe Award, an Academy Award and two Grammy Awards would be banned. Consider also that Shel Silverstein’s books have been translated into thirty languages and have sold over twenty-million copies. He may have written for children but adults are enamoured of his writing too. So why was A Light in the Attic banned? According to Cunningham Elementary School in Wisconsin, Shel’s book would encourage children to break dishes in order to avoid having to dry them. Apparently some people are missing a funny bone.

Ginsberg’s Howl was famously condemned as obscenity. Publisher Lawrence Ferlighetti and City Light’s Bookstore Manager Shig Murao were arrested, Ferlighetti for publishing obscene literature and Murao for selling it.  There was a protracted and very public trial. Ultimately, it was determined that the book was protected under Freedom of Speech. The judge also pronounced the book “not obscene.” Here is a clip Howl, a movie about the trial. James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg.

If you are reading this post from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to click through to the site to view the video.

Not too long ago we celebrated the life and work of Gwendolyn Brooks.  In this video she reads her poem We Real Cool and explains why some chose to ban it …


Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was withdrawn from libraries for “explicit language. Six poems from Les Fleurs du mal by French poet Charles Baudelaire were considered an insult to public decency.  Baudelaire and his publisher were fined and the poems suppressed. The Roman poet Ovid’s Ars Amatoria – essentially a relationship guide in a series of three books compossed in elegiac couplets – was considered “licentious.”  Some speculate that Ovid was banished from Rome for it.

Some poets suffer worse than banishment, banning and fines.  PEN America reports HERE (scroll down) on writers and poets around the world who are on trial, imprisoned or murdered for the perspectives revealed in their work. Such poets often remind us of social injustices that remain simmering but unaddressed in a back corner of our minds. They create awareness of current injustices and inspire us to act. They call on us to hold ourselves and the powerful to account, often pointing out the ways in which we are complicit. That these poets and their work are found so threatening is a testimony to the power of words. There’s some solace in that.

© 2016, Jamie Dedes; illustration in the public domain