(New York, NY) — For the second year in a row, China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey topped PEN America’s list of the world’s worst jailers of writers and public intellectuals. In PEN America’s annual census of detained writers worldwide, the Freedom to Write Index, the literary and free expression group found that in 2020, at least 273 writers, academics, and public intellectuals in 35 countries—in all geographic regions around the world—were in prison or unjustly held in detention in connection with their writing, their work, or related activism. That represents a nine percent increase over the prior year, signaling a serious deterioration for the climate for free expression globally.

“Writers have played an essential role during the past year, analyzing and critiquing government responses to the pandemic, documenting personal experiences amid authoritarian crackdowns, and shocking us into recognition about the state of our world,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of free expression at risk programs at PEN America and a lead author on this year’s study. “But by playing such an essential role, writers continue to find themselves under siege, targeted by governments and authoritarian leaders who see their truth-telling amid a year of reckoning as a threat to power. The rise in detentions, imprisonment, and incarceration of writers this past year should be a shock to the system, a wakeup call that basic free expression rights are in serious jeopardy.”

The top three jailers of writers—China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—still accounted for a majority of cases, 50 percent, though that number is down from 59 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, numbers increased in Iran, Vietnam, and Egypt, and expanded dramatically in Belarus, which accounted for zero cases in the 2019 Index, but now ranks as the fifth worst jailer of writers and intellectuals. Belarus has 18 documented cases in the 2020 Index—or some 7 percent of the total—as a result of a brutal post-election crackdown on mass protests that has also targeted writers, translators, artists, and other cultural figures. Belarus is the only new country to make it into this year’s top ten list of the world’s worst jailers of writers and public intellectuals.

Furthermore, while the 2020 Index includes 182 writers who were counted in the 2019 tally, that means nearly a third of those imprisoned in the prior year were newly detained. In this year’s PEN America Freedom to Write Index, the organization found that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened free expression in many countries, putting added pressures on human rights and democracy. Governments, PEN America finds, are using the pandemic to further restrict speech, with laws criminalizing “false information” or “rumors” about the pandemic being used to target dissent. Some governments have even used the virus as an excuse to outright criminalize criticizing the government itself. 

Those who’ve raised their voices in dissent have often been unjustly imprisoned, including the 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree and public dissident Xu Zhiyong in China; Bangladeshi political commentator and writer Mushtaq Ahmed; and Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a Ugandan novelist detained, interrogated, and tortured under charges purportedly related to the pandemic.

“Unfortunately in fighting against COVID many governments have opened up a second front, attacking those who dare write the truth about the pandemic and the failures of response,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “When they persecute and imprison writers, poets, translators, essayists, and historians, authoritarians are trying to prevent a story from being told, in this case an epic tale of how the virus has ravaged populations and tested leaders. At PEN America, we’re determined to ensure that those who languish behind bars for the crime of expressing themselves are not forgotten or overlooked. It is vital to call out those who’ve used the cover of COVID to silence free speech and the freedom to write.”

Writers and public intellectuals this past year have also played a central role in protest movements in places like Cuba, Thailand, and Belarus. Not surprisingly, all three countries find themselves on this year’s list of jailers of writers. Belarus has been a particularly alarming example, where protests against the sham re-election of strongman President Aleksander Lukashenka have led to a crackdown against writers and cultural figures, many of whom belong to PEN Belarus. Olga Shparaga, an author, philosopher, and translator, was twice detained before fleeing into exile. 

Among PEN America’s further findings:

  • In addition to the pandemic and the global rise in protest movements, PEN America found a continued trend of attempts to silence those writing in ethno-linguistic minority languages or advocating for linguistic rights, especially in Turkey, Iran, and China—notably in Tibet and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
  • As of April 2021, 24 percent of those individuals included in the 2020 Index are free of state custody, but most face ongoing legal battles and conviction appeals; probationary restrictions are their ability to work and travel; or continue harassment from state and non-state actors.
  • Five of those detained in 2020 have since died, including Turkey’s İbrahim Gökçek, who died while on a death fast; Mushtaq Ahmed, a Bangladeshi writer who died while in pretrial detention; and Saleh Al-Shehi, a Saudi anti-corruption columnist detained since 2018, serving five years in prison for “insulting the royal court.”
  • Countries in the Asia-Pacific region held 121 writers and intellectuals in detention or prison during 2020—making up 44 percent of the 2020 Index—while countries in the Middle East and North Africa held 81 writers and intellectuals, or 30 percent of the 2020 total. 
  • While the top three jailers remained the same year over year, China was the only one of the three to see its overall count increase, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey saw modest decreases. Although Saudi Arabia saw its numbers decrease slightly, those dissident writers and intellectuals released from prison often continue to face stringent conditions that prevent them from returning to their writing or professional life, and many also continued to face legal charges or ongoing trials. Similarly, the environment for free expression in Turkey remains extremely challenging, with new laws narrowing the space for dissent and public intellectuals such as Osman Kavala slapped with multiple politically-motivated criminal charges simply to keep him in jail.
  • In Iran, a crackdown on members and office bearers of the Iranian Writers Association increased its count of detained writers. A number of political prisoners have contracted COVID-19 while jailed in poor conditions.
  • India continues to be the only democracy to place in the top ten rankings of countries that jail writers and public intellectuals, with additional writers detained in 2020, including a number connected to the Bhima-Koregaon case.
  • Though the report only counts writers imprisoned during calendar year 2020, Myanmar nonetheless was in the top ten (tied with Eritrea), signaling that even pre-coup, the country was already a restrictive environment for writers and public intellectuals.

PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, now in its second year, includes case studies of detained writers, an overview of global trends, and regional and country specific breakdowns of threats to free expression. It complements the PEN America Writers at Risk Database, which catalogues writers, journalists, artists, academics, and public intellectuals under threat around the world. The database includes historical cases PEN America has worked on from 1987 onwards.

The Freedom to Write Index is based on PEN America’s own internal case list, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) case list, and the most recent PEN International Case List. Additionally, PEN America draws from press reports; information provided by PEN Centers around the world; reports from the families, lawyers, and friends of those in prison; and data from other international human rights, press freedom, academic freedom, and free expression organizations.

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. We also extend our thanks to PEN International—both the Secretariat staff and the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)—for its extensive casework and collaboration on this project.