Criminal defamation laws and laws proscribing “insult” are providing heavy-duty ammunition to governments wishing to deny citizens their right to freedom of expression. Today over a quarter of all PEN’s cases of imprisoned and prosecuted writers around the world have been charged under such repressive legislation. We urgently call for an end to this pernicious form of censorship.

—Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate & Vice-President of English PEN

The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN is marking the 26th Writers in Prison Day 2006 (November 15) with a campaign in defense of nearly 100 writers and journalists around the world who are in prison or facing custodial sentences for alleged defamation or “insult.” It calls for the repeal of laws that treat defamation as a criminal rather than a civil offense, and argues that the term “insult” is too vague to have any legal standing as a charge and should thus be scrapped from penal codes entirely.  

In order to demonstrate how such laws are being employed to curtail freedom of expression, the Writers in Prison Committee highlights five cases of writers currently in prison or being prosecuted in China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Turkey and calls for the charges against these five, and all writers similarly threatened, to be quashed. On November 15, and the days surrounding, PEN Members will be sending letters, raising publicity and staging events in support of these and their other colleagues under attacks in other points of the globe. The five focus cases on November 15 will be:

  • Turkey—Hrant Dink: editor of an Armenian language newspaper sentenced to a six-month suspended term and two other cases still pending on charges of insult

  • Ethiopia—Wesenseged Gebrekidan: journalist serving a total of two years in prison on defamation charges and facing further trials.

  • Mexico—Lydia Cacho: writer on trial for defamation and under attack for her book on child pornography and prostitution

  • China—Yang Xiaoqing: Internet journalist sentenced to a year in prison on extortion charges that are believed to be in retaliation for posting “defamatory” articles on local corruption

  • Egypt—two journalists: each sentenced to one year in prison for articles “insulting” the Egyptian President.

In the six months following, PEN Members will continue to focus on the issue of the use of insult and defamation laws in some countries as a means of undermining freedom of expression with a series of monthly actions focusing on different regions and aspects of this problem.

>> Download “Defamation and Insult: Writers React,” an International PEN publication

>> Download a list of journalists killed since the 2005 Day of the Imprisoned Writer

Murder of Russian Journalist, Anna Politkovskaya: one of 38 killed this year world-wide

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer is also an opportunity to commemorate those writers and journalists killed in the previous 12 months. The killing of the extraordinarily courageous Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, on October 7 shocked the world. PEN centers worldwide protested against the killing, holding vigils, sending appeals to the Russian authorities for a full and proper investigation leading to the prosecution of those guilty of her murder, and sending condolences to her family and colleagues. Thirty-seven other writers and journalists have been killed since November 15, 2005 with the most dangerous countries being Iraq, Pakistan, Philippines, and Sri Lanka, as well as Russia. PEN will continue to fight against the impunity enjoyed by so many of those who murder journalists in an attempt to silence criticism.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105