(NEW YORK)— Last year, 311 writers and public intellectuals were locked up in prisons across the world by authoritarian governments, with China jailing the largest number, 90 writers, and Iran close behind with 57, according to data in PEN America’s annual Freedom to Write Index released today. With 39 new cases, Iran recorded the biggest increase in jailed writers and the most women over the previous year.

PEN America also released documentation showing that more than 80 governments have tried to silence more than 800 writers, poets, and other fearless voices worldwide through surveillance, harassment, travel bans, even physical violence. These individuals are included in PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database, which documents  human rights violations and global efforts to stifle free expression.

“Writers have long been and continue to be some of the first victims and intended targets of repressive governments,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center. “Their fiction, essays, poems, and even songs put them in the cross hairs of governments determined to silence anyone who disagrees with them.”

Next to China and Iran,  other top jailers include Saudi Arabia, with 20 writers jailed, and Belarus, Myanmar, and Vietnam, each with 16. The list includes writers who were jailed for days and others who have spent years behind bars. Torture, poor conditions, and lack of medical attention are documented aspects of imprisonment for many.

“When individuals are deprived of their liberty as a way to silence them, it imposes not just a terrible toll on them but also on children and parents and partners. Whole families suffer and it sends a chill throughout the literary and publishing community of a country,” said Gerntholtz. “The point is to make people afraid to write freely or to speak out against those in power.”

In the wake of the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests that followed the death last September in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, Iran became the world’s foremost jailer of female writers, with 16 women in prison.

In response to the protests last fall, the government has stepped up its already restrictive environment for free expression and targeted the creative community, with writers, artists, and dissenting voices arrested and detained.

Literary writer and former political prisoner Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was arrested in September at her home and assaulted during the arrest by security forces. She was charged with assembly and collusion, as well as propaganda against the state, for her social media activities. This month, Iraee was sentenced to seven years in prison, along with a two-year ban on travel. She was also banned from living in Iran’s capital of Tehran, and attending any gatherings. Her phone has also been confiscated.

Narges Mohammadi, the author, activist, and former political prisoner was given an additional sentence of eight years and 70 lashes in January 2022. She has continued to speak out from Evin prison–often as part of a group of female political prisoners demanding basic human rights and protesting against abusive conditions for detainees.

China and Iran, with 137 and 87 writers respectively, also occupy the top positions in PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database, a catalog of writers under threat around the world. It currently has 813 active cases of writers, poets, online commentators, journalists, and others. As a result of their writings and exercise of free expression they have been subject to serious human rights abuses—or put at risk of such abuses—including enforced disappearances, murder, harassment, death threats, exile, and travel bans. Türkiye (81), Saudi Arabia (51), and India (40) round out the top five countries with the most cases in the database.

PEN America is calling on all governments that imprison and persecute writers to:

  • immediately and unconditionally release all writers in detention, including those in pre-trial detention
  • Drop charges and end prosecutions of writers related to their free expression rights
  • Ensure writers in detention are held in conditions consistent with international human rights standards, including access to legal representation, family and health care
  • Lift legislative and other restrictions on free expression

The Freedom to Write Index also highlights trends in digital repression, including the ways in which authoritarian governments are normalizing online censorship, surveillance, and trolling campaigns to silence writers and undermine free expression more broadly.

Also documented in the index is state repression of writers as part of a larger effort to undermine culture and cultural rights. The index cites the example of Russia’s effort to destroy culture in Ukraine as part of a war in which it has bombed libraries, theaters, museums, and cultural centers and destroyed artifacts, books, and religious sites. These attacks on culture are documented in detail in PEN America’s Ukrainian Culture Under Attack.

In China, the government maintains control over virtually all aspects of cultural production, putting independent creative writers and artists at grave risk of repression.

In 2020, PEN America honored Chinese writer, legal scholar, and democracy advocate Xu Zhiyong with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, given annually to a writer imprisoned for their work. Just this month, Xu was sentenced to 14 years in prison. As he described it, in a statement dictated before his sentencing:  “I’m charged with ‘subversion of state power’ for expressing my desire for a beautiful China and for calling on Chinese to become real citizens.”

Xu’s love for his country has inspired him to call for change, to demand that its people be allowed to realize the promise of freedom and active citizenship. His case is a powerful example of the potency of the written word, and of the lengths to which repressive governments will go in their attempts to silence a single, powerful voice a writer with the courage to resist.

About PEN America’s Freedom To Write Index and Writers at Risk Database

PEN America’s Freedom To Write Index, now in its fourth year, includes case studies of detained writers, an overview of global trends, and country specific threats to writers and free expression. It complements the PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database, which catalogs writers, journalists, artists and public intellectuals under threat around the world.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057