PEN Deepens Focus on Digital Freedom, Honors Jailed Writer Ilham Tohti & Twitter CEO Dick Costolo

NEW YORK—As World Press Freedom Day approaches, PEN American Center has launched a Twitter campaign for Uyghur writer Ilham Tohti, founder of the Uyghur Online news website who has been detained incommunicado in China on trumped-up charges of “separatism” since January 15, 2014.

As Twitter and other online tools become essential for journalists and writers like Tohti to share information across geographic and political borders, the war on free expression is increasingly being waged on the Internet. Nearly half of all imprisoned writers worldwide are in jail for something they wrote on digital media, according to PEN. The organization is increasingly taking its fight for free expression to the very digital platforms that governments are now using to target writers.

#FreeExpressionIs is the latest PEN campaign to promote free speech. PEN is challenging Twitter users to describe, imagine, or utilize the right to Free Expression in honor of those who are deprived of that right. The user who best completes the sentence “#FreeExpressionIs…” in 100 characters or less by 11:59PM EDT on World Press Freedom Day (Saturday, May 3) will win two tickets to PEN’s 2014 Literary Gala in New York, where PEN will honor Tohti in absentia with the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award alongside Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who will receive the first ever PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Digital Freedom Award. Nearly 5 million users have already viewed the #FreeExpressionIs campaign on Twitter, including Yoko Ono, Teju Cole, Maud Newton, Bret Easton Ellis and dozens of other well known writers. 

Some of the most recognizable names in journalism—including Philip Gourevitch, David Remnick, Calvin Trillin, and Roz Chast—will also stand in solidarity with Ilham Tohti and join the #FreeExpressionIs campaign live at the May 5 Literary Gala by tweeting with hashtags #FreeExpressionIs and #FreeIlham. PEN Gala Awardees and special guests Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Aolyokhina of Pussy Riot will join in the campaign as well. By engaging journalists, writers, and celebrities, PEN aims to push as far as possible toward making Ilham Tohti a household name, knowing that the more widely his case is followed, the safer he is likely to be.  Thirty-five of the 38 writers who were in prison at the time they won the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award since its inception in 1987 have been freed in an average of 18 months. PEN hopes that this spotlight will serve as a catalyst for a global effort to release Tohti.


Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 3,500 American writers working to break down barriers to free expression worldwide.

Contact Sarah Edkins 212.334.1660 x 116;