On World Press Freedom Day, PEN International published its 2019 Case List, documenting 212 cases of writers facing harassment, arrest, violence and even death.
For nearly a century, PEN International has monitored and advocated for writers who have suffered repression of their right to write freely and to comment on the world around them without fear of repercussion.
The Case List is a yearly document of violations against writers: what happened, where, and by whom? It covers writers of fiction and non-fiction, poets, playwrights, songwriters, and translators – anyone who works with the written word.
“Writers are gifted with the ability to express their imagination, and it is that idea – that they are in control of what they think – that governments, authorities, religious groups, vigilantes, and others resent.” – Salil Tripathi, Chair, Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International.
2019 was a year of public protests, with many seeing violent clashes between police and demonstrators, and where journalists attempting to report on events were assaulted and attacked.
In 2019, PEN International monitored 212 cases of repression against writers across the globe, a small rise in the previous year’s total of 205. There were slight increases in Africa and the Americas, and a rise of 12 percent in Asia, partly relating to a crackdown against Muslim Uyghurs in China, and increased harassment of writers and poets commenting on events in India.
Lengthy terms of imprisonment and pre-trial detention account for the largest number of attacks, with a total of 67 recorded in 2019. Of these the largest cluster is in China, including the Tibet and Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous regions, where twenty-one writers are in prison, nearly all held under National Security legislation. Among them are at least seven writers who were arrested in the recent crackdown against thousands of Uyghur Muslims in the last year.
The murders of writers often go unpunished. Murder not only extinguishes a critical voice but also intimidates into silence those who were close to the victim, who shared their views or who dared to delve into the misdemeanours of the powerful. In 2019, PEN focused on the murder of Iraqi novelist, Alaa Mashtob Abboud, shot dead in February 2019, and the young journalist and writer, Lyra McKee, killed by a masked gunman as she covered riots in Northern Ireland.
PEN welcomed the release of 18 writers in 2019 having served prison sentences or periods on trial. In some cases, PEN Centres had campaigned for the release of these writers for several years.
A number of writers benefited from amnesties, including Rashad Ramazanov, who had been in prison in Azerbaijan since 2013; Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who had been imprisoned in Myanmar under the Official Secrets Act; and Abdel-Halim Qandil, who was freed in Egypt while serving a three-year sentence for ‘insult to the judiciary.’
Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and journalist Stanislav Aseyev were both freed in prisoner swaps, the former having served five years in a Russian labour camp. Writer Ayse Duzkan had served six months under Turkey’s anti-terror law prior to her release. Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Mkhaitir was freed after more than five years in prison, having initially faced the death penalty.
Those freed represent around 15 percent of cases of long-term detention and trial hearings that we monitor; there is still a lot of work to do.
“We, of the PEN community’s Writer in Prison Committee, draw inspiration from these brave women and men. And we will try to be like them and we will send our support and solidarity to them, so that they know they are not alone, because we know we are not alone.” – Salil Tripathi