PEN’s 2015 Case List documents decline in freedom of expression worldwide
This post originally appeared on the PEN International website.
May 3, 2016 – The 2015 Case List, published today by PEN International, spotlights freedom of expression violations around the world, detailing over 1000 cases of harassment, arrests, attacks, killings, and imprisonments of writers worldwide and highlights the worldwide deterioration of freedom of expression.
In 2015, writers – whether they were journalists, bloggers, novelists, or poets – faced extraordinary challenges around the world. Beset by wars, increasing surveillance powers of states, the growing threat of violence from non-state actors, cycles of violence and impunity, and the use of defamation and libel laws to silence critical voices, freedom of expression is under threat across the globe.
From the violence against bloggers in Bangladesh, to the use of defamation laws in Italy and use of insult and anti-terrors laws against dissenting voices in Turkey, to the crisis of violence and impunity against journalists in Mexico, to the use of trumped-up charges in Azerbaijan, the 2015 Case List documents an increase in killings, arrests, and harassment of writers around the world. In 2015 the total number of cases recorded on the Case List increased by 17 percent from 2014 and the number of writers on trial increased by 22 percent. Most shockingly, the number of writers killed worldwide in 2015 was 40 percent higher than 2014.
The deadly cycle of violence continues in Mexico, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist. Widespread violence against journalists and the subsequent absence of justice for victims has led to a lethal cycle of impunity. More than 70 print and internet journalists, bloggers, and writers have been killed in the country since 2004. Around 90 percent of these cases remain unresolved. The 2015 Case List has recorded five killings of journalists in the country with 42 cases of threats, arrests, and harassment of journalists with little or no protection provided by authorities.
There was a sharp increase in the spate of violence against bloggers and free thinkers in Bangladesh. In 2015, five secular bloggers, online activists, writers, and publishers were killed in brutal attacks. Despite these horrific attacks on freedom of expression, Bangladeshi authorities have done little to protect those at risk, leading to a growing climate of fear and further attacks on free thinkers. This rising tide of violence led to many going into hiding or seeking refuge in other countries and is also reflected in a sharp rise in the number of Bangladeshi writers contacting PEN for protection in 2015.
The freedom of expression situation in Turkey continued to deteriorate throughout the year, with restrictive legislation introduced, new arrests of writers, and hundreds of defamation cases brought by officials, particularly President Erdogan. In the second half of the year, escalating tension in the mainly Kurdish regions of south-east Turkey led to crackdowns on social media and news sites by the Turkish authorities to prevent information flowing to the outside world about the reignited conflict and attacks on civilians. In December 2015, PEN International and PEN Norway published a report Surveillance, Secrecy and Self-Censorship: New Digital Freedom Challenges in Turkey highlighting the ongoing clampdown on freedom of expression online. At the end of 2015, PEN International recorded some 28 writers and journalists either detained or imprisoned in Turkey; well over 100 others remained on trial, most for alleged national security offences.
Freedom of expression is under sustained and severe attack in Azerbaijan with over 20 cases of killings, harassment, arrests and imprisonment of writers and activists in 2015. There is a clear pattern of the Azerbaijani authorities using drugs, firearms, “hooliganism,” or tax evasion charges to arrest and imprison writers and journalists who criticize the authorities. One Azerbaijani journalist currently in prison for her journalistic work is Khadija Ismayilova who has dedicated her career to exposing large-scale corruption within the Azerbaijani government. On December 5, 2014, Ismayilova was arrested on suspicion of inciting another journalist’s attempted suicide although this charge was later dropped. Nevertheless, Ismayilova was convicted on September 1, 2015 of fresh charges of embezzlement and tax evasion for which she was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. The Panama Papers have since corroborated much of Ismayilova’s revelations – mainly that the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is making frequent use of offshore companies to hide its wealth and its ownership of shares in Azerbaijan’s most lucrative businesses. You can take action for Ismayilova here.
Freedom of expression continued to be under threat across the Middle East and North Africa. In 2015 blogger and activist Raif Badawi spent the third of a 10-year, thousand-lash sentence sentence in prison, for creating the online forum, Liberal Saudi Network, to foster political and social debate in Saudi Arabia. In February 2015, Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, was sentenced to death for “apostasy” for his poetry, which was later reduced to 800 lashes and eight years in prison after widespread international condemnation. In Syria writers and journalists are increasingly facing danger from all sides. Stuck between pro-government forces and ISIS, Syria now has one of the highest death tolls for journalists in the world. Since the start of the conflict, over 90 journalists and writers have been killed, while many others have been arbitrarily detained, tortured or have disappeared. Faced with such violence, many writers have been forced to flee the country, with dozens seeking protection and assistance from PEN International and its partner organization International Cities Of Refuge Network (ICORN) since 2013. Five years after protests that forced Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to resign, Egypt is among the world’s worst jailers of writers and journalists. At least 20 writers were either imprisoned, detained, or on trial in Egypt in 2015. Following the passage of a November 2013 law banning peaceful protest, dozens of activists and organizers have been sent to prison. Among them is Alaa Abd El Fattah, software engineer, blogger, and political activist, who was handed down a five-year prison sentence in February 2015.
In Africa, criminal defamation was repeatedly used by governments as a means of supressing free speech and dissent. In 2015 there was a 15 percent increase in the number of writers across the region being persecuted under criminal libel and defamation laws. Ethiopian editor Temesgen Desalegne is among those writers in Africa to have been charged under these laws, sentenced to three years in prison in October 2014 after being found guilty of incitement, defamation, and false publication. PEN African Network (PAN) released a statement to mark World Press Freedom Day, calling on governments and parliaments of all African states with criminal libel and defamation laws on their statutes to take immediate steps to repeal them.
Iran, China, and Vietnam remained three of the countries with the largest numbers of writers in prison, most convicted of vaguely worded national security charges in connection with their legitimate freedom of expression, while some European countries also demonstrated declines. For example, in Italy there were 20 cases of writers in prison or on trial mostly for insult or defamation, a reminder that where insult laws exist they can be used to threaten freedom of expression.
View the full 2015 Case List here.