(NEW YORK)—PEN America today released its annual Freedom to Write Index, recording the highest number of jailed writers around the globe since the Index launched five years ago. There were 339 writers from 33 countries jailed in 2023, an increase of 62 writers compared to 2022 and 101 more than in 2019.

War and conflict significantly impacted writers in 2023, as the crackdown on free expression in Israel and Russia resulted in substantial increases in the number of jailed writers, placing both countries in the Index’s top 10 for the first time.

The top ten jailers of writers in 2023 are China (including autonomous regions) with 107, Iran 49, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam each with 19, Israel (including the Occupied Palestinian Territory) with 17, Belarus and Russia each with 16, Türkiye 14, Myanmar 12, and Eritrea seven. 

PEN America spends the entire year researching news and verifying accounts of writers jailed for their speech–and held for a minimum of 48 hours –anywhere in the world (see more on our methodology here). In addition to the Freedom to Write Index, PEN America maintains and updates a Writers at Risk Database throughout the year, providing insights into the wide array of threats that writers face. There are currently 923 active cases of writers at risk in 88 countries in the database.

“Authoritarian regimes,  occupiers and backsliding democracies, especially during times of war and conflict, recognize the pivotal role that writers play in encouraging critical thought and dissent, building solidarity across borders and amongst diverse people, and inspiring visions of a better world,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center. 

“The jailing of a writer goes beyond the silencing of one voice. It is an assault on everyone’s free expression and human rights. This is why writers, who, through their craft, can inspire understanding, offer alternate perspectives, and galvanize hope pose such a threat to leaders who resort to autocratic tactics. The erosion of free expression frequently leads to the deterioration of other human rights, clearing an unimpeded path for repressive states to strangle human rights. And it is why we must speak out against efforts to put them behind bars and silence their expression.”

China remains at the top of the list of jailers of writers for the fifth consecutive year, with a record 107 incarcerated, exceeding 100 cases for the first time. Of these, 50 are ‘online commentators’ writing about political and economic issues and expressing pro-democracy viewpoints. Often arrested on vague charges such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” these cases highlight the growing importance of social media in China as a critical venue for political debate. Additionally, several Uyghur writers were arrested and jailed on vague charges of “separatism,” while writers in Hong Kong charged under the 2020 National Security Law began facing trials in 2023.

Iran ranked second, with 49 writers jailed. It is again the top jailer of female writers, with 15 women currently being held, many for their support of the “Woman Life Freedom” movement and criticism of the mandatory hijab and other laws that discriminate against women. Among them is the 2023 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Narges Mohammadi, who currently faces combined sentences of over 35 years behind bars and additional restrictions stemming from her continued writing and activism from within Evin prison. 

Saudi Arabia and Vietnam tied for third place, with 19 writers jailed in each country. In Saudi Arabia, severe penalties for social media users are particularly troubling, including long sentences for updating a Wikipedia page and for social media users posting about unemployment. In Vietnam, where writer, publisher, journalist, and pro-democracy activist Phạm Đoan Trang, the 2024 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honoree, is jailed, authorities frequently use overly broad legislation to suppress speech, closely monitor social media platforms, and harass and imprison those who dissent. Furthermore, the Vietnamese government is notorious for poor prison conditions, routinely denying essential medical care to detainees.

In 2023, both Israel and Russia moved into the Index’s list of top ten jailers for the first time, underscoring the impact of war and conflict on free expression. In Israel, which came in fifth, with 17 writers, the 14 writers newly jailed in 2023 were Palestinians (both with and without Israeli citizenship) who were all arrested after October 7. The majority were arrested in the West Bank by Israeli authorities and jailed in Israel. In many cases, Israeli authorities offered no explanation for their arrests. In other cases, Israel targeted journalists, writers, online commentators, and singer/songwriters for social media posts or other online commentary. In Russia, 11 of the 16 jailed writers were targeted for anti-war expression. They include a theater dramatist, playwright, journalist, poet, and online commentator. Detentions were often based in part on Kremlin accusations that writers were “foreign agents.” 

Belarus tied with Russia for sixth place on the top ten list, with both countries having incarcerated 16 writers. Belarus is notorious for subjecting political prisoners, including writers, to systematically harsher conditions than the general prison population, including enforced incommunicado detention and torture

Türkiye placed eighth with 14 jailed writers, including journalist, writer, TELE1 editor-in-chief, and PEN Türkiye head Merdan Yanardağ, who was convicted of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization,” and Bariş Pehlivan, who was jailed for the fifth time in August.

Myanmar and Eritrea round out the list of ten top jailers of writers, with 12 and 7 writers detained or imprisoned, respectively. In Myanmar, a mass amnesty in January 2023 included the release of several writers jailed since the start of the coup. Nevertheless, free expression remained tightly controlled as the military continued to restrict news and information channels and arrest, detain, and prosecute influential voices in both the political and cultural realms. Eritrea’s count of jailed writers decreased from eight in 2022 to seven in 2023 following the confirmed death of Fessehaye Yohannes after years of uncertainty and conflicting reports regarding his condition. Yohannes was among several journalists and writers arbitrarily jailed in 2001 during crackdowns on independent and foreign media justified under the guise of ‘national security’ following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Their cases represent the most protracted detentions of writers globally. 

In 2023, PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database included 51 cases of murder (including 46 past cases where perpetrators have not yet been brought to account), 16 forcible disappearances, and 90 cases of displacement or of writers forced to flee from their countries because of their work.

“Even in the darkest times, writers can build bridges by establishing greater understanding and compassion for diverse opinions, beliefs, and experiences. Their work can preserve our understanding of the past, clarify and interrogate our present, and ignite hope and desire for better worlds anchored in basic human rights. As a result of their work, many are thrust into the role of human rights defender and punished,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Writers at Risk at PEN America. 

By drawing attention to the detention, imprisonment, and other serious mistreatment of writers whose work provokes the ire of repressive governments, we hope the Freedom to Write Index provides them with some protection and that it prompts their rapid release. We also believe it is incumbent upon the international community to end impunity for governments that seek to suppress free expression. We hope that the data and analysis provided in the 2023 Freedom to Write Index, along with PEN International’s Case List and related advocacy by the entire PEN network, accelerates the establishment of a robust international framework for protecting at-risk writers.”

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

Now in its fifth year, PEN America’s Freedom To Write Index includes data on jailed writers, an overview of global and regional trends, and country-specific threats to writers and free expression, with a focus on the top ten countries jailing writers. It complements PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database, which catalogs writers, journalists, artists, and public intellectuals under threat around the world, as well as PEN International’s annual Case List.

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.


For further information or to request interviews, contact: 

Dietlind Lerner [email protected]