Freedom to Write Index 2022
Photo by Middle East Images / AP Photo
In May of 2022, at the PEN America emergency writers congress, Salman Rushdie spoke about global threats to human rights and democracy, including Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine, and said:
“It has been said, I have said it myself, that the powerful may own the present but writers own the future, for it is through our work…that the present misdeeds of the powerful will be judged…We must understand that stories are at the heart of what is happening, and dishonest narratives of oppressors have proved attractive to many. So we must work to overturn the false narratives of tyrants, populists, and fools by telling better stories than they do.”
Three months later, when Rushdie was brutally attacked on a stage in Chautauqua, New York, in August 2022—more than three decades after the Ayatollah Khomeni issued a fatwa against him for his novel, The Satanic Verses—it served as a devastating reminder of the perils writers face for having the audacity to put their ideas, their creative vision, and their stories to paper. A reminder of the ways in which the powerful may attempt to silence words that can inspire people to think beyond the boundaries those in power would draw. But Rushdie has also embodied—in this work and his life—the ways in which writers’ words persist, and how writers themselves refuse to be silenced. Writing, wherever it occurs, is an act of fearlessness, of risk-taking, and of defiance. And in 2022, writers from Myanmar to Iran, from Ukraine to China, have demonstrated that courage, even in the face of brutal attempts to silence their voices.
In 2022, the state of free expression globally remained perilous. Yet the world also witnessed many courageous acts in defiance of repression, and in two countries in particular, the human will to assert demands for freedom, even in the face of shocking brutality. The people of Ukraine have demonstrated powerful, tenacious resilience since Russia’s brutal invasion began in February 2022, defending their land, but also their culture and their individual stories. And in Iran, women have led a diverse, dauntless protest movement to demand their rights, shaking the very foundations of the regime. In these and many other countries, writers have played an essential role, giving voice to public demands for freedom, democracy, and justice.
They have also paid the price. In Ukraine, poet and children’s book author Volodymyr Vakulenko was abducted from his home by Russian occupying forces in March, 2022; not until November would his body be identified as among those in a mass grave, unearthed after the liberation of Kharkiv. In Iran, women writers and poets have been detained frequently during the protests, often held for short periods of time, but sometimes repeatedly, and subject to mistreatment and torture. In January 2022, Iranian writer Baktash Abtin—jailed for his advocacy in defense of free expression—died of COVID-19 while in state custody, after the government delayed providing him the medical care he needed. In Egypt, blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah underwent a months-long hunger strike to protest being denied access to bedding, sunlight, exercise, and reading material for over two years. And in at least 36 other countries, writers have been locked up for exercising their freedom of expression.
The Freedom to Write Index tracks the detention and imprisonment of writers, and in 2022, 311 writers were detained or imprisoned around the world for their writing or otherwise exercising their freedom of expression. That includes 84 new cases of writers put behind bars, many of which occurred in Iran, where writers have long been particular targets of the regime, but especially so during this past year’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests.
Unjust imprisonment deprives writers of their most fundamental rights, and often of the freedom to write, as well. Some writers are able to continue their work from prison, often sneaking their writing out to ensure their voice can still be heard. Elevating the words of those imprisoned for their writing is an essential act of solidarity and defiance. But prison can also severely constrain the ability of a writer to create new work.
And when a repressive regime puts a writer behind bars, that individual is not the only one to whom they are sending a message. Imprisonment is also a tool of intimidation wielded against the broader literary and cultural community of a country, intended to spark fear and to make writers question what they write, or whether they should write at all. The threat of arrest acts as a sword of Damocles, and can have a chilling effect on literary output, publishing, and even what writers talk about in public.
Imprisonment is also just one form of repression wielded in an attempt to intimidate and silence writers. PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database documents the cases of 813 writers who are facing a range of attacks, from surveillance, coordinated defamation and disinformation campaigns, and burdensome legal cases, to physical and online harassment, travel bans, death threats, and forced exile.
These attacks on writers are often part of a larger effort to repress independent culture, and independent thought itself. Last year PEN America documented the Russian campaign of cultural erasure occurring as part of the war in Ukraine. In China, virtually all aspects of cultural production are under the control of the state, and engaging in independent creative work involves grave risk. At the same time, alarming echoes of such campaigns have been seen across the U.S. in the past year as well, with the devastating rise in book bans across the country, and efforts to legislate what can and cannot be taught or even discussed in classrooms.
When the dictators and despots of the world target writers for their novels, their poems, their essays, and their songs, they only affirm the power and influence those works hold. They show us the truth of Rushdie’s words, that so much of the global battle today for democracy, truth, and freedom is about a struggle for narrative power, a struggle over who will tell the truth of the past, and who will offer the world a more appealing vision of the future. And when governments see fit to silence writers, it tells us they view ideas themselves as a threat—something that must be recognized as a warning sign for the state of free expression and democracy.
In April 2023, Chinese writer, legal scholar, democracy advocate, and 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honoree Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to 14 years in prison, after being detained since February 2020. 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 is a writer and intellectual whose love for his country has inspired him to call for change, and to demand for its people the opportunity to realize the promise of freedom. His case is a resonant 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. But Xu also reminds us that such repression is itself a sign of weakness; that, as Rushdie said, it is writers who own the future, and that hope cannot be contained within prison walls.
Xu’s statement went on: “I’m proud to suffer for the sake of freedom, justice and love…I don’t believe freedom can be forever imprisoned behind high walls. And I do not believe the future will forever be a dark night without daybreak.”
The writers who summon the courage to raise their voices, who offer a vision of daybreak—no matter the risk—demand our solidarity and our defense.
The Global Picture
Eighty-four writers were newly imprisoned in 2022, bringing the number in custody for exercising their free expression to 311. These writers, academics, and public intellectuals in 36 countries—in all geographic regions around the world—were unjustly detained or imprisoned in connection with their writing, their work, or related advocacy. The number did not change from 2021, but represents a steady increase from 2019 (263) and 2020 (286).1The compiling of the data for the Index is an ongoing process and PEN America adds cases retrospectively. Thirty-four cases were added retrospectively to the 2021 Index and included individuals who were imprisoned as of 2021 , but whose imprisonment only became known to PEN America while we were compiling the data for the 2022 Index. While such cases occurred in 12 countries, just under half were found in two countries, China and Saudi Arabia.
China and Iran: protests are last resort for those whose freedom has been curtailed
China and Iran are among the most inhospitable places in the world for free expression. The two countries jail the most writers, 90 and 57 respectively, but also occupy the top two positions in PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database. Iran showed the largest increase, following ongoing nationwide protests in 2022, with 39 new cases of detention or imprisonment. Iran is also the largest jailer of women writers globally, with 16 of 42 women in custody being in Iran. China is not far behind, with 11 women writers behind bars.
Despite their ever tightening grip on free expression, 2022 saw protests in both Iran and China, as ordinary people found ways to raise their voices in support of free expression and human rights.
“We want food, not PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want respect, not lies. We want reform, not a Cultural Revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves.” These are the words, hand lettered in red, on banners that were hung over a bridge in Beijing, just before the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th national congress in October 2022. Photographs of the banners quickly found their way onto the internet and spread around the world before they were censored in China.
In November and December 2022, thousands of people gathered in dozens of cities across China to protest against the government’s COVID policies. The White Paper protests, as they became known, erupted out after a fire broke out in an apartment building in Urumqi. Media reports about the fire indicated that COVID restrictions hampered residents’ ability to escape and the emergency response. While these protests were initially the culmination of pent up rage about COVID restrictions, including censorship of COVID-related information, protesters also pressed for freedom of expression, action on socio-economic issues and, in some instances, called on Xi Jinping to resign. These protests represent some of the most significant opposition to the Chinese Communist Party since 1989, and featured rare direct criticism of Xi Jinping.
The Chinese government reacted to the protests by dropping the hated COVID measures, but also by arresting key individuals, demonstrating that, while the Party can respond to pressure, openly challenging its authority comes at a cost. In April 2023, writer and human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to 14 years in prison for writing about democracy in China, a stark reminder that those who inspire others to express themselves are viewed as posing a grave threat to the CCP.
In Iran, nationwide protests were sparked by the September 16 death in custody of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a 22-year old Kurdish woman who was detained and beaten by the morality police while visiting Tehran with her family, allegedly for not wearing her hijab properly; Amini slipped into a coma after the beating and succumbed to her injuries in hospital three days later. In the demonstrations that continued through year’s end and spread to more than 100 cities, protestors adopted the rallying cry of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” or “Woman, Life, Freedom,” a slogan that originated in the Kurdish region, to call for greater human rights and an end to state violence and restrictions against women. By year’s end, more than 14,000 people had been detained and at least 500 confirmed killed in the authorities’ harsh crackdown, which was particularly severe in the ethnic minority Kurdish region as well as the province of Sistan and Baluchestan. Custodial abuse of detainees, including torture and rape, was reported, and two protestors were executed in December, while several dozen more remained at threat of imminent execution.
The crackdown on protests was accompanied by a pre-emptive crackdown on dissent, including among the creative community. Several dozen writers and artists—a number of whom were former political prisoners—were arbitrarily detained in late September and October, including blogger Hossein Ronaghi, writer Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, poets Atefeh Chaharmahalian, Behrouz Yasemi, and Behnaz Amani, rappers Saman Yasin and Toomaj Salehi, musician and poet Mona Borzouei, and others detailed in this report. Writers, poets, and protestors faced poor conditions in detention, including lack of access to medical care, physical abuse, and due process violations. Meanwhile, authorities attempted to quash the voices of well-known prisoners of conscience, including women’s rights activists Nasrin Sotoudeh and Narges Mohammadi, and of prominent cultural influencers, such as actress and translator Taraneh Alidoosti. The Iranian Writers Association (IWA)—which has steadfastly represented Iran’s writers and taken a stand against state censorship, and been banned since the 1980s—faced additional scrutiny, with a number of IWA members arrested and threatened with legal charges in December. Although early 2023 saw a number of those jailed being released in mass amnesties, the protests, as well as smaller acts of dissent such as women refusing to wear headscarves, continued.
Writers at risk and in custody: the global picture
In 2022, the top 10 countries jailing writers remained the same as 2021, although their order shifted as crackdowns against the creative sector accelerated in some countries and eased or assumed different dynamics in others. China remained in first place, while Iran moved into second, largely as a result of the pre-emptive crackdown on the creative sector and the protests. Saudi Arabia dropped into third place with 20 writers jailed, but retained its place in the top three. While some writers were released in Saudi Arabia in 2022, many continued to face unjust limitations on their human rights, including constraints on their freedom of movement and expression. China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia accounted for half of all cases of imprisoned writers and public intellectuals globally, with 54 percent of the total. Belarus, Myanmar, and Vietnam tied for fourth place, each with 16 writers jailed. Türkiye closely followed with 15, continuing the trend seen in 2021, in which the number of writers in jail has decreased, but where other threats such as protracted legal trials, even against writers in exile, continued to chill free expression. Rounding out the top 10, with between eight and 10 writers in jail, were Egypt, India, and Eritrea.
Who are the writers?
Many writers included in the Index and the Database hold multiple professional designations, reflecting that their writing and expression take multiple forms across diverse platforms.
The most prevalent professions of those incarcerated in 2022 were online commentators (132), literary writers (118), opinion/columnist journalists (99), poets (80), activists (72), scholars (65), creative artists (39), singer/songwriters (30), translators (21), publishers (13), editors (11), and dramatists (9).
Notably, individuals tagged as online commentators (a category that includes bloggers as well as those who use social media platforms as a key vehicle for their expression) jumped to the top of the list, reflecting the fact that in many environments that are closed for literary and journalistic writing, online writing remains a meaningful space for those attempting to express dissident views. Additionally, the prosecution of writers for their online expression reflects authoritarian governments’ interest in controlling the narrative on social media platforms and in curbing influential voices of conscience and dissent. The number of poets in custody increased from 68 in 2021 to 80 in 2022, reflecting the large number of poets arrested in Iran, where poetry has traditionally played a significant role in the country’s creative culture and where many poets have taken on sensitive political and social themes in their work as well as pushing back against authoritarianism and religious orthodoxy.
The majority of writers and public intellectuals behind bars during 2022 are men, and men also make up the overwhelming majority of cases in the Database.
Women comprise almost 14 percent of the 2022 Index count, as compared to 12 percent in 2021 (in 2019, the percentage was 16). Countries that have detained the highest number of women writers and public intellectuals track closely with those who have jailed the highest total number of writers. Collectively, authorities in China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—the top three countries that jailed the most writers during 2022—accounted for 28 of the 42 women writers in the 2022 Index. Iran accounts for 16 of the female writers globally, with a number of female poets, writers, and activists once again put behind bars, joining prominent political prisoners such as Narges Mohammadi and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee.
There are 813 active cases in PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database from over 80 countries. These cases represent a wide spectrum of threats against writers; taken with the Freedom To Write Index, they present a comprehensive picture of the threats that writers and other members of the writing community face when they criticize those in power. In particular, the Database provides insights into the types of threats that writers face, including in those countries that do not use imprisonment and detention as their primary tactic of repression. The catalog of how those who wield their pens and their words in ways that repressive governments do not like are punished includes forcible disappearance, murder, continual harassment, and exile. In 2022 there were 45 cases of murder in the Database (including past cases where perpetrators have not been brought to account), 16 of forcible disappearance, and 61 cases where individuals were forced to flee from their countries.
Top 10 Countries 2022
Writers in Custody (Index)
Writers at Risk (Database)
There is a significant overlap between countries that detain the largest numbers of writers and those with large numbers of cases in the Database. Cuba is a notable exception: with six writers in custody, Cuba does not make the top 10 list of countries that jail writers, but with 27 cases overall, members of the creative community and journalists are at high risk of various forms of persecution when they exercise their free expression rights to criticize the Cuban government. In June, artists and activists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez were sentenced to five and nine years, respectively, punishing them for their artistic expression and leadership in protest movements. Five more writers and artists were detained in October after they participated in peaceful protests in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
In the wake of its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian Federation intensified its efforts to quash free expression and dissent inside its own borders, continuing to target independent media and ramping up efforts to contain and suppress anti-war sentiments and protests. The Russian government has explicitly targeted independent media since at least 2015; on March 4, 2022, it criminalized independent reporting on the war and protests against it. In the immediate aftermath of the enactment of these new laws at least 150 independent journalists fled Russia and many others have since followed them into exile. The government also blocked access to various international media websites, among them CNN, BBC World, Deutsche Welle, and France 24.
Russia’s creative community has not been immune from efforts to silence their protests against the war in Ukraine. Alexandra Skochilenko, an artist and musician, was arrested and detained in April 2022 for joining anti-war protests in which people replaced price tags in supermarkets with anti-war messages. She is believed to be the first person arrested in St. Petersburg under the March laws criminalizing “false” information related to the war. Artem Kamardin, Nikolay Dayneko and Egot Shtovba, poets and activists, were arrested for their participation in an anti-war poetry event in September. Kamardin was sexually assaulted during a raid on his home.
Digital repression of free expression
The largest group of writers and intellectuals at risk globally in 2022 is made up of online commentators, a category including bloggers as well as those who use social media platforms as a key vehicle for their expression. As repressive regimes continued to take down traditional forms of media, criminalizing news outlets and controlling broadcasting licenses, the internet remained an accessible means for citizens to share and receive independent ideas and voices.
And as the growing prosecution of writers for their online expression shows, repressive governments are continuing to ramp up their efforts to exploit technology to their political advantage and to control how citizens use these tools. Especially as the pandemic increased the degree to which people work and socialize online, digital repression tools provide unprecedented capacity to monitor personal communications and movement, while being more difficult to track and observe than violent crackdowns and therefore less likely to incite public outcry. In 2022, authoritarian forces around the world normalized a myriad of digital repression mechanisms from censorship to surveillance.
Under the guise of laws protecting against fake news, defamation, and attacks on the social order, writers and artists are being increasingly criminally prosecuted for posts on social media or in messaging apps. The most egregious example involves writer Kyaw Min Yu, known popularly as Ko Jimmy, who was arrested in Myanmar shortly after the military coup for his posts on social media and executed in July 2022 under a counter-terrorism law. We have also seen the criminalization of smaller expressions of dissent online by merely retweeting or liking a post. Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University Ph.D. student, was arrested while on a visit to Saudi Arabia and sentenced to 34 years for retweeting women’s rights activists. Similarly, Belarus has criminally prosecuted any indication of an anti-war stance online, including pictures of people simply wearing yellow and blue or even just liking a social media comment.
Autocratic governments have increased pressure on technology platforms, as well, requesting rapid removal of specific content or access to personal data of online users. In Vietnam, the government requires that platforms take down “fake news” content within 24 hours, at the same time that dissident voices are harassed and falsely reported by coordinated pro-government digital militias. In China, domestic and foreign companies are pushed to take actions aligned with the CCP if they want to keep operating. Chinese giant social media platform Douyin is reported to have banned live-streams in Cantonese in October, and Microsoft’s web search engine Bing has been found to censor politically sensitive Chinese topics and names, including in regions outside of China. In addition, a Chinese state regulation banning independent publication of “religious information” online came into effect in 2022, allowing only officially vetted publications to publish online on the topics of religious doctrine, knowledge, culture, or activities. This has legalized the practice of selective censorship of minority cultures and religions, such as the Uyghur, Hui, and Mongolian communities – websites and platforms popularly used by these communities had already been shut down previously.
In other attempts to control the digital space, repressive governments are cracking down on tools that provide greater privacy to writers and journalists, such as VPNs and encryption, even prosecuting individuals who advocate for an open internet. In China, Apple has a long documented history of banning encrypted apps from its App Store in China at the behest of the Chinese government, going as far as disabling well known functionalities that allow the exchange of data directly between devices. In Iran, two digital rights defenders were reportedly detained by authorities during the protests. In Saudi Arabia, writer and internet freedom advocate Osama Khalid was sentenced to 32 years in prison, and Ziyad al-Sofiani was sentenced to eight years in prison. They were both high-level volunteer administrators for Wikipedia.
Repressive governments around the world have also relied on more extreme measures such as internet shutdowns to stop the flow of information, especially in moments of political upheaval, protests, conflicts or elections. India was the leader in internet shutdowns with 45% of global recorded shutdowns in 2022. As seen in Iran in the aftermath of the 2022 protests, shutdowns are also evolving to involve more nuanced approaches, for example targeting only mobile networks, or specific regions or social media platforms. India had already banned TikTok and messaging apps such as WeChat in 2020, but in 2022 the trend of governments banning specific social media platforms gained even more traction. The Taliban, for example, banned TikTok and the popular online gaming app PUBG in Afghanistan, ostensibly to prevent youth from “being misled.”
Last year, the 2021 Freedom to Write Index highlighted the threat of digital surveillance as spyware and surveillance tools were exposed as being deployed with increasing sophistication against journalists, writers, and activists, and even their families, friends, and colleagues. In 2022, foreign commercial spyware, including NSO Group’s Pegasus, continued to be used against dozens of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders. NSO Group’s customers include several repressive governments and even democracies – Pegasus has been reportedly sold to 14 member states of the EU and there is official documentation that the Mexican military has spied on citizens and on human rights activists.
As of April 2023, the movement to start curbing the use of commercial spyware has started to gain welcomed momentum after the U.S. President Biden issued an executive order barring federal agencies from using dangerous commercial spyware and another 10 governments committed to tackling its proliferation. While these are welcome developments, there is still significant progress to be made; the executive order doesn’t address the use of surveillance technology developed by government agencies themselves, and governments such as India continue to seek to buy new spyware from lesser known companies.
Top 10 Countries of Concern
Overview2The People’s Republic of China includes five ostensibly autonomous ethnic minority regions for Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uyghur people (as well as the Hui and Zhuang people), and two special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. Ethnic minorities face different forms of persecution based on their distinct cultural, religious, and linguistic identity and the special administrative regions have separate governments and legal systems. We endeavor to analyze the persecution of writers within defined borders with specific perpetrators, to the best of our ability. On terminology, Xinjiang is a defined region in China though the term is offensive to Uyghurs because its literal meaning is “New Frontier.” The official government terminology of “autonomous regions” is not always applicable either, because there are Tibetans who live in autonomous prefectures outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
In October 2022, China’s leader Xi Jinping began a historic third term as leader of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The consolidation of political power around Xi signaled that the tightened restrictions on human rights he has ushered in since 2012 would continue. Freedom of expression in China has been systematically suppressed through tight government control over the media, censorship of the internet, and widespread arrests of writers, online commentators, journalists, and human rights activists. Ethnic and religious minorities and those living in ostensibly autonomous areas—including Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang (the Uyghur region)—continued to face a repressive environment for free expression directed by Beijing under policies of forced cultural assimilation.
China remains the world’s largest jailer of writers with 90 in behind bars in 2022. Writers are often targeted for critical commentary about the Party-State, as well as for their promotion of ethnic minority language and culture. In custody, writers face torture and ill-treatment, including withholding of medical care. Writers also face harassment, intimidation, and mass surveillance, while Chinese writers and dissidents in exile have faced extraterritorial threats.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
Despite tight control over the media and internet, Xi Jinping and the CCP faced strong dissent in 2022 as anger at the government’s COVID-19 policies erupted. Despite restrictions on free expression, Chinese people continued to find ways to express themselves, notably in a video circulated online that protested Shanghai’s month–long lockdown in April. In a widely publicized incident, the Chinese authorities censored the video. Throughout the year censors worked to remove social media posts and commentary about the government’s draconian zero–COVID policies, which hid but didn’t erase people’s anger. This discontent reemerged when a lone protester in Beijing, Peng Lifa, stood on a bridge and unfurled banners calling for Xi Jinping’s removal. Widely nicknamed Bridge Man, Peng’s protest slogans spread around the world. In November, sparked by the deaths of Uyghurs in a fire during a COVID–19 lockdown, mass protests broke out across the country. Several participants of these “White Paper” protesters were later rounded up and jailed.
In 2022, authorities continued to use heavy–handed national security charges to punish free expression. In the dominant Han Chinese areas (excluding Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and the Uyghur region), 35 writers were imprisoned. Three writers received prison sentences on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” In December, activist Ou Biaofeng was sentenced to three years and six months in prison. The court cited his political commentary articles printed in Hong Kong media such as Ming Pao, the now–shuttered Apple Daily, and a Chinese human rights website. In November, poet Wang Zang (real name: Wang Yuwen) and his wife Wang Liqin received prison sentences of four and two–and–a–half years, respectively. The case against Wang centered on his poetry, essays, and performance artworks, as well as interviews Wang gave to foreign media. Wang Liqin was prosecuted primarily for her relationship with her husband, and was released in December. Poet and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre Zhang Guiqi (pen name: Lu Yang) received a six year sentence in July for calling on Xi Jinping to step down in a WeChat video.
In June, authorities put Xu Zhiyong, the 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honoree, on trial for “subversion of state power.” Authorities cited his involvement in a December 2019 meeting and articles and essays as “evidence” of a crime. In April 2023, he was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years in prison. His partner, activist Li Qiaochu, remained in custody throughout the year.
On January 1, 2022, legislation went into effect that formally legalized Beijing’s policies, introduced in 2020, to curtail the use of the Mongolian language. These policies have been part of a broader effort by the Chinese government to forcibly assimilate minorities into the majority Han Chinese culture and language, suppressing their right to exercise freedom of opinion and belief, individual and cultural expression, and education. The measures, which required children to be taught in Mandarin Chinese and removed the use of Mongolian textbooks, sparked protests; the government reportedly shut down a Mongolian–language social media platform that had 400,000 Inner Mongolian users.
Writers and advocates for Mongolian language and cultural expression have faced ongoing pressure after the 2020 protests. Writer Lhamjab Borjigin was sentenced to one year in prison in 2019 and then put under house arrest in late 2020 before eventually escaping to Mongolia. According to written testimony he provided in March 2023 to a human rights group, “Mongolian textbooks and other publications have been removed from bookstores and libraries.” While outside of the jurisdiction of the Chinese authorities but illustrative of Beijing’s influence in suppressing Mongolian cultural advocates, in June 2022 Mongolian authorities sentenced Munkhbayar Chuluundorj, a well–known blogger, poet, and human rights activist, to 10 years in prison. Chuluundorj was sentenced for “collaborating with a foreign intelligence agency” against the People’s Republic of China, which came after he advocated for years for the linguistic and cultural rights of ethnic Mongolians in China.
Tibetans continue to be punished for promoting Tibetan culture and the Tibetan language, which Chinese government policies have curtailed. UN human rights experts called such policies “oppressive” and “contrary to international human rights standards” in a November 2022 letter to the government. The Chinese government maintained its information blockade on Tibet; according to reports, no foreign journalist was allowed to enter in 2022. During a COVID–19 outbreak in Lhasa in August, Tibetans turned to social media platforms to express discontent with the lockdown and other government COVID policies. Authorities issued directives for social media companies to increase removal of Tibetan users’ criticism while police launched a campaign to arrest and punish people for their online comments about the pandemic; a total of 786 people were punished with administrative detention or penalties, according to a local police announcement.
Tibetan writers continued to face heavy prison sentences of between four and 14 years on national security charges in 2022, with at least 12 writers in prison. In September a Chinese court sentenced three writers to prison for “inciting separatism” and “endangering state security.” Poet and essayist Gangkye Drubpa Kyab received the longest sentence of 14 years; writer and environmentalist Sey Nam received six years; and writer and poet Pema Rinchen was sentenced to four years. Another writer, Zangkar Jamyang, disappeared into police custody after being taken away on June 4, 2020. In early 2023, information emerged that he was serving a four–year sentence on charges of “inciting separatism” and “spreading rumors in internet chat groups” for criticizing government policies and writing about the need for Tibetans to preserve their language.
Xinjiang (Uyghur region)
The Chinese government continued its assimilation policies aimed at eradicating Uyghur cultural and linguistic expression in Xinjiang, with devastating effects. A total of 33 Uyghur writers and scholars were imprisoned in 2022. The scale of the CCP’s targeting of Uyghur writers is so vast that the region alone represents the third highest number of cases of imprisoned writers and scholars. In August the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a long–delayed report that said the Chinese government’s arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and Turkic Muslim minorities and the deprivation of their fundamental freedoms may constitute crimes against humanity. However, the government continued to evade international accountability for its crimes.
Free expression and access to information remained systematically restricted in the Uyghur region. As areas were hit with COVID–19 outbreaks, police issued censorship directives in September 2022 to erase expression by Uyghurs and other residents about the pandemic measures. Restrictions on international media reporting from the region tightened; according to the 2022 report on media freedom authored by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, only two foreign journalists were allowed to visit the region in 2022, compared to 32 the previous year.
Writers, scholars, and those who advocate for Uyghur culture or use the Uyghur language faced heavy prison sentences. Due to the information blocking facts emerged in 2022 about some individuals who had been forcibly disappeared years prior. In December, information emerged that Uyghur singer–songwriter Ablajan Awut Ayup was serving an 11-year prison sentence on unknown charges for promoting Uyghur culture and speaking to the BBC in 2017. He initially disappeared in 2018. Uyghur poet and scholar Ablet Abdureshid Berqi was found in August to be serving a 13-year sentence for “separatism” in reprisal for his writing, lectures, and traveling abroad. Police initially detained him in 2017.
In March 2022 a collection of the works of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, the 2014 PEN Freedom to Write honoree, was published in English translation. His family has not heard from him since 2017 and are not sure he is alive. In 2014 Ilham Tohti received a life sentence on trumped-up charges of “separatism.”
While the Central Government in Beijing has ultimate authority over Hong Kong, as demonstrated by its imposition of the National Security Law (NSL) in 2020, electoral changes in 2021, and hand picking of the new Chief Executive John Lee in 2022, there is a separate government and legal system in the territory. As such, Hong Kong writers and residents exercising their right to free expression face political and legal challenges that are different from those faced by their counterparts in the mainland. Beijing ushered in the national security crackdown following the 2019-20 pro-democracy protest movement, but the Hong Kong police, prosecutors, and courts undertake enforcement of the NSL and other criminal charges like sedition to punish free expression.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
In 2022 nine writers were in custody in Hong Kong as the crackdown on free expression deepened. Authorities in Hong Kong ignored a call from the UN in July to repeal the NSL and the now increasingly applied colonial-era sedition law to target critical expression. Journalists, writers, book publishers, and social media commentators have been arrested for sedition and other crimes.
While Hong Kong was once a territory where freedom of expression flourished, Hongkongers increasingly face prison for exercising this right. Activist and political commentator Chow Hang-tung was convicted in January of “incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorized assembly,” for a Facebook post and article published in Ming Pao calling for residents to remember the Tiananmen Massacre by lighting a candle; the government banned the annual commemorative vigil in 2020. In April, author and journalist Allan Au Ka-lun was briefly detained on “conspiracy to publish seditious materials” and then released on bail. If charged and convicted he could face up to two years in prison. He used to publish regular commentary in the now-shuttered Stand News, whose staff have been tried on sedition charges, and Ming Pao. In a case heralding a crackdown on publishers for “seditious” books, in September a handpicked national security judge convicted five individuals who published children’s books of “conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.” The judge sentenced them to 19 months in prison. Jimmy Lai, the founder of the now-closed Apple Daily newspaper who is already serving a prison sentence on separate charges, remains in custody awaiting trial on NSL and sedition charges tied to the newspaper. He faces a possible life sentence on the NSL charges.
To the United States government:
- Impose Global Magnitsky sanctions on perpetrators of human rights violations against writers in China and Hong Kong;
- Pass legislation to counter transnational repression, of which the Chinese government is the world’s leading perpetrator and which is a threat to free expression globally, including the Transnational Repression Policy Act;
- Ensure writers at risk fleeing human rights abuses in China, including Uyghurs and Hongkongers, have humanitarian pathways to enter the United States and fast-track their asylum claims;
- Expand protective designations for Hong Kong dissidents, including via reintroduction and passage of the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act and the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, and by continued extension of the Deferred Enforced Departure directive; and
- Passage of the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act, which would designate Uyghurs and other residents of Xinjiang as prioritized refugees of special humanitarian concern, and/or other legislation and policies which would speed up the processing of asylum cases of the nearly 1,000 Uyghurs who are waiting for their claims to be heard;
- Continue and improve its enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA).
To the UN Human Rights Council:
- Pass a resolution to discuss the High Commissioner’s August 2022 report on Xinjiang, which suggested the government of China is committing crimes against humanity against Uyghur and Turkic Muslims, one of the gravest crimes under international law;
- Convene a special session on the situation in China, as called for by dozens independent human rights experts appointed by the Council (Special Procedures);
- Create a Special Procedures mandate to monitor the human rights situation in China.
The already restrictive environment for free expression deteriorated sharply during the second part of 2022, as Iran was engulfed in anti-government demonstrations following the custodial death in September of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa (Jina) Amini, who was arrested for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly. Amidst a broad-based crackdown on protestors during which thousands of people, mostly young men and women, have been arrested and detained and hundreds killed, authorities engaged in a pre-emptive crackdown against Iran’s creative community, systematically targeting known writers, artists, and dissenting voices with arrest and detention, including prominent actress and translator Taraneh Alidoosti, in an effort to chill anti-government sentiments. The UN Human Rights Council established a new fact-finding mission in November 2022 to investigate the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran.
Free expression online—already highly restricted in Iran—came under additional threat. Two weeks before Amini’s death, Iranian authorities passed three articles of the Internet User Protection Bill, restricting access to and use of the internet and placing Iran’s internet infrastructure under the control of the security services. As the protests erupted the Iranian government also curtailed the flow of news, information, and platforms to express dissent by shuttering news outlets, jailing and threatening journalists (including those based abroad), and disrupting or slowing internet access. While Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were already banned in Iran, access to Instagram and WhatsApp was restricted across all major internet providers on September 21, 2022. Netblocks documented internet disruptions in Zahedan, Sistan, Baluchestan, and Kurdistan Province.
The number of writers and intellectuals in Iran’s prisons swelled, representing a more than twofold increase from 22 to 57. A large proportion of the new cases in 2022 took place after the start of the protests in September, and involved either the pre-emptive detention of known voices of dissent (a number of whom had been previously imprisoned), or the targeting of writers and artists who expressed support for the protestors via their writings or music.
A significant number of female writers jailed globally, 16 of 42, were held in Iran, and this number increased from previous years. While we have previously noted the tendency of Iranian authorities to jail women who write or express critical views regarding the laws and practices that restrict women’s rights, this practice escalated in 2022 in the wake of the women-led protests. This increase reflects the reality that women, including Iran’s creative community of writers and artists, have been at the forefront of the 2022 anti-government protest movement, either actively and/or by writing in support of it.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
The Iranian government continued to punish dissent and criticism, often deploying charges based on national security or “propaganda against the state” to crack down on free expression. Several rappers, explicitly targeted because of their criticism of the government, have been charged with offenses that potentially carry the death penalty. A large number of writers and poets, ostensibly targeted because of their writing or expression in support of the protests, faced shorter periods of detention, including the poet and theater director Amirhossein Barimani, literary writer and commentator Farshid Ghorbanpour, and poets Mona Borzouei, Behnaz Amani, Atefeh Chaharmahalian, Behrouz Yasemi, and Saeed Heleichi. Individuals arrested were frequently subjected to violations of due process and human rights, including mistreatment in custody. While some were released without conditions, others have faced charges or have been released on bail, with possible charges hanging over their heads. Their arrest and detention also sends a broader threatening message to the creative community, encouraging self-censorship rather than overt opposition to the government.
PEN America’s 2011 Freedom to Write Award honoree Nasrin Sotoudeh was released on a brief medical parole in 2021 that has been repeatedly extended. This dispensation is subject to regular review and Sotoudeh was threatened with being returned to prison in 2022, most often after speaking to or writing for international media outlets. Author, activist, and former political prisoner Narges Mohammadi was given an additional sentence of eight years and 70 lashes in January 2022. She continued to speak out from Evin prison—often as part of a group of female political prisoners who made statements collectively—following the upsurge in demonstrations, demanding basic human rights and protesting against abusive conditions for detainees.
The government’s concerted crackdown on the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) continued in 2022. Although writer, IWA leader, and 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Awardee Keyvan Bajan was released in March, his co-honoree and writer Reza Khandan Mahabadi, was kept behind bars (apart from a brief medical furlough in early 2022 after he contracted COVID-19 while in prison) despite pre–existing medical conditions; he remained in prison until his release in a general amnesty in February 2023. Their fellow Freedom to Write honoree, poet and filmmaker Baktash Abtin, died a tragic and preventable death in custody on January 8, 2022, after authorities repeatedly refused to provide him necessary medical care. Labor activists, writers, translators, and IWA members Keyvan Mohtadi and Anisha Asadollahi were detained in May 2022; Asadollahi was released on bail in August while Mohtadi was sentenced to a six-year prison term in January 2023 on specious charges of collusion and propaganda against the state. Late in the year, several current board members of the IWA were detained for around a month before being released on bail in early January 2023, including poets Aida Amidi, Roozbeh Sohani, and Alireza Adineh; their colleague Ali Asadollahi was released in February.
Hossein Ronaghi, a blogger who was detained on September 24, was also subjected to ill-treatment in custody. Ronaghi, who has pre-existing medical conditions and had already lost one of his kidneys from torture during a previous politically-motivated imprisonment, suffered severe beatings and was denied medical care. He was released on bail into hospital in late November, after a 65-day hunger strike. Ronaghi, his family, and his friends received threats and harassment following his release. Literary writer and former political prisoner Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was arrested on September 26 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. Poet and writer Mehdi Bahman, arrested on October 11, was sentenced to death on charges of espionage, the Revolutionary Court that handed down the sentence cited a television interview Bahman gave to an Israeli TV channel in April; he remained behind bars at year’s end.
The Iranian government also targeted artists and singers/songwriters whose work was critical of ruling authorities and explicitly addressed either political or social themes. Saman Yasin, a Kurdish rapper, was arrested on October 2 in a home raid, tortured during his detention, and charged on October 29 with mohrabeh, or “enmity against God,” a crime that carries the death sentence. This development raised alarm with international bodies such as the UN. Toomaj Salehi, a songwriter and well-known rapper who was first arrested in September 2021 and given a suspended sentence in early 2022, was re-arrested on October 30, 2022 after he published music and social media posts expressing support for the protests. He was held in solitary confinement and severely tortured in custody. He also faces charges that could lead to the death penalty.
Writers advocating for ethnic or religious minority rights continue to be particularly targeted in Iran. In January 2022 Kurdish language teacher and rights advocate Zahra Mohammadi began her prison sentence of five years for “founding or leading an organization that aims to disrupt national security.” Kurdish researcher Mozghan Kavousi, who belongs to the Yarsani religious minority, was detained for four months beginning in September and later sentenced to five years and five months in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion,” “insulting the Supreme Leader of Iran,” and “propaganda against the regime.” Baha’i writer and poet Mahvash Sabet was arrested in July 2022 as part of a crackdown on the minority and sentenced to 10 years in prison in November on the same charges as Zahra Mohammadi. While imprisoned, she spent extended periods in solitary confinement.
To governments and institutions engaging with Iran:
- States maintaining diplomatic relations with Iran should enable facilitation of multiple-entry, non-immigrant visas for members of the creative community to permit temporary refuge from internal risk.
- Enable the fast-tracking of asylum claims for writers and artists who face persecution.
- Work with local authorities to conduct outreach to and support for writers and artists in diaspora communities, who may be targets of transnational repression by the Iranian regime.
- Ensure adequate support to enable civil society groups to assist members of the creative community, including via the creation of fellowships and residencies for threatened and exiled writers and artists.
To the United States government:
- Pass legislation to counter transnational repression, of which the Iranian government is leading perpetrator and which is a threat to free expression globally, including the Transnational Repression Policy Act.
To the UN Human Rights Council, the Independent International Fact-finding Mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Freedom of Expression, and the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights:
- Regularly speak out on urgent cases of concern, as well as the broader issue of prison conditions and the treatment of political prisoners
- The Independent International Fact-finding Mission should include writers and artists as a special group in their investigations and reports and make efforts to include testimony from these individuals and civil society organizations representing them in a way that protects their identity if needed for their safety.
The number of imprisoned individuals in PEN America’s Index in Saudi Arabia decreased from 36 to 20 in 2022 as detainees were either released or completed their sentences, but this figure belies the extent to which authorities have closed public avenues for free expression in the country. Of the total number of individuals imprisoned in PEN America’s Index, only songwriter Omar Shiboba was newly detained in 2022, with the other detainees being behind bars before 2022.
The majority of the writers who were behind bars in Saudi Arabia—14 out of 20 in total—had expressed themselves via online commentary on blogs or social media platforms. Arrests and sentences related to free expression in 2022 reflected both the importance of the internet as a medium of communication and Saudi authorities’ increasing control over it. Even as the government projected an outward appearance of cultural openness through the funding and hosting of sports and other cultural events, Saudis faced decades in prison for writing and posting tweets or other social media activity. Additionally, Saudi authorities also used the social media and technology sphere to expand their control over citizens’ private lives; the use of mobile apps to this end is often billed as an effort to expand government services, but in fact it has enabled far-reaching abuses, such as controlling the right of women to travel.
In addition to the Index, Amnesty International reported that at least 15 people were sentenced to prison terms of between 15–45 years in 2022 for exercising free expression. Among the most egregious cases was that of Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University Ph.D. student who was arrested during a visit to Saudi Arabia; in August 2022 a court sentenced her to 34 years in prison for retweeting women’s rights activists. Around the same time, a court also sentenced Nourah al-Qahtani, a Saudi citizen and mother of five who was not especially politically active, to 45 years in prison for her social media activity and for possession of a book by detained cleric Salman Alaoudah. At least a dozen members of the Huwaitat tribe have been sentenced to between 15–50 years’ imprisonment— with at least three sentenced to death—for protesting their forced eviction to make way for the planned Neom smart city project in northwestern Saudi Arabia, by speaking out on social media and in videos. However, the accelerating trend of digital repression has not stopped international social media and technology companies from accelerating investments in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders sought to reestablish or strengthen ties with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi leader, further undermining the importance of free expression by prioritizing economic and geopolitical concerns. The international community’s rapprochement with the crown prince has also signaled a collective geopolitical decision to move on from the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In April 2022, a Turkish court ordered an ongoing trial in absentia of 26 suspects in Khashoggi’s murder transferred to Saudi authorities. In November 2022, the Biden Administration argued in a court filing that Mohammed bin Salman had sovereign immunity from a lawsuit filed against him in a U.S. court for Khashoggi’s murder, further stymying any independent path to justice.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
Many Saudis behind bars for their writing in 2022 were serving long prison sentences. Essam al-Zamil continued to be imprisoned under a 15-year sentence for his criticism of the Saudi oil company Aramco’s public valuation; his 2017 arrest was an early sign of Mohammed bin Salman’s increasing intolerance toward any criticism of government policies. Abdulrahman Farhana, a Jordanian citizen who wrote about topics including Palestinian issues, was sentenced to 19 years in prison in 2021; he was arrested in 2019 amid a broader wave of arrests of Palestinians, Jordanians, and Saudis active on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
However, some of the imprisoned writers serving the longest sentences are those whose arrests predate bin Salman’s rise to power as crown prince in 2017. Waleed Abu Al-Khair, arrested in 2014, remains behind bars serving a 15-year sentence in relation to his human rights activism, and in October 2022 Saudi authorities prevented him from accessing medication or seeing a doctor while in prison. Fadhel al-Manasef also remained imprisoned in 2022, serving a 14-year prison sentence stemming from his writing and involvement in protests in Saudi Arabia’s Shia Muslim-majority Qatif region in 2011. Many of those in jail for their writing or expression, whether before or after bin Salman’s ascent to power, were charged under the kingdom’s broad counterterrorism or cybercrime laws and are tried in Specialized Criminal Courts, which Saudi authorities created in 2008 to try terrorism suspects but have since routinely used against nonviolent activists, journalists, and writers.
Some writers, such as blogger Raif Badawi and well-known women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, were conditionally released but face ongoing travel bans, preventing them from traveling abroad and separating them from their families. Al-Hathloul’s conditional release means that she also faces broad limitations on her expression, under the threat of returning to prison. Travel bans and restrictions on freedom of speech and social media use after release from prison are common in Saudi Arabia, either as a direct result of sentencing or as a condition of release. The length of time of these travel bans and their exact justification are often unknown; according to Amnesty International, Saudi authorities often do not give those affected any official information in writing. Conditional release conditions often include a broad ban on former prisoners speaking about their experiences, which also makes information on the exact terms of conditional releases difficult to come by.
While new arrests seemed to slow in 2022, Saudi authorities’ repression of expression took on a more ominous shape and moved beyond arrests of high profile dissidents to broader and more severe restrictions on digital public spaces. During the first few years of bin Salman’s reign Saudi authorities appeared to detain writers and dissidents in distinct waves, as with the arrests of women’s rights defenders in 2018 and the arrests the following year of bloggers, writers, and academics who supported the women’s rights movement or reform more generally. However, Saudi authorities now appear to be taking aim at the last remaining vestiges of free expression in the kingdom, including social media and open source platforms, handing down sentences that are draconian even by Saudi government standards. A Saudi court sentenced writer and internet freedom advocate Osama Khalid to 32 years in prison, a sharp increase from his initial five-year sentence upon appeal, while Ziyad al-Sofiani was sentenced to eight years in prison. Both Khalid and al-Sofiani were high-level volunteer administrators for Wikipedia, and were reportedly sentenced after Saudi government officials were able to successfully infiltrate the website. The expanding crackdown on online space and compromising of private data is of particular concern as multinational tech companies increasingly invest in cloud computing in the kingdom, and as Saudi state entities in turn increase investments in the social media and tech spheres.
To governments engaging with the Saudi government:
- Use all available avenues to press for an end to impunity in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
- Seek to ensure that Saudis living abroad are safe from being targeted by Saudi authorities, including by working with local authorities to conduct outreach to those in diaspora communities who may be targets of transnational repression by the Kingdom;
To the United States government:
- Pass Senate Resolution 109, which would require a State Department report on human rights in Saudi Arabia as a condition of security assistance;
- Pass the Transnational Repression Policy Act; and
- Reintroduce and pass the Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act.
To multinational companies investing in the Kingdom:
- Consider the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and conduct due diligence to identify and mitigate human rights risks related to their activities:
- Carefully consider the implications of the Saudi government’s record on free expression, specifically the practice of jailing social media and open source platform users after infiltrating these services to unmask them, when deciding on whether to invest or launch projects with potentially sensitive data.
- Tech companies and others investing in cloud computing in the Kingdom should avoid compliance with regulations that would result in the sharing of users’ private data with the government.
- Technology companies should refrain from engaging in business practices that enable and/or legitimize the repressive censorious practices of the Saudi government.
- Social media and open source platforms operating in the Kingdom should ensure that the identities of dissidents and anonymous whistleblowers are protected.
The Belarusian government continued and sometimes increased its efforts to suppress free expression in 2022. A report by PEN Belarus on human rights violations against writers, artists and other cultural workers, published in March 2022, documented 1,390 violations of free expression, cultural rights and other human rights abuses in 2022. The report noted that at the end of the year, 108 cultural workers, including writers, poets, musicians and playwrights, were amongst the 1446 political prisoners. The report documented arbitrary arrests and detentions of cultural workers, due process violations and various forms of retaliation, including loss of employment, against those who criticized President Lukashenka and the government. Writers and public intellectuals continued to be jailed for writing about Belarus’s history or publishing Belarusian books and writing critical of President Lukashenka. Belarus has also cracked down on journalists, with 28 journalists and media workers in prison on a range of charges in 2022.
In an apparent bid to follow the lead of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka deployed legal actions punishing so-called “extremist” materials or groups (a designation often used to suppress access to independent media) alongside other laws to undermine free expression, including leveraging charges of incitement of “social hatred or discord” against political opponents and dissidents. In 2021, news outlet Tut.by was designated “extremist” by a Minsk court and then banned in 2022; more recently, the Belarusian Association of Journalists was designated “extremist” by the KGB. Lukashenka also continued his efforts to control public memory: He issued a decree in January declaring 2022 the Year of Historical Memory in Belarus, focusing on the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic during World War Two. Days later, he signed the law “On the Genocide of the Belarusian People,” declaring that Nazi Germany committed genocide against Belarusians during World War Two and defining Belarusians as “all Soviet citizens who lived on the territory” of Belarus at the time. Historians criticized the law for misrepresenting Nazi killings of Belarusian Jews during the Holocaust as a genocide against all ethnic Belarusians. President Lukashenka’s distortion of history synchronizes with Russian state rhetoric of “denazification” used to justify the war against Ukraine.
Sixteen writers were in custody in Belarus in 2022, including six imprisoned in 2020, following the 2020 presidential election, which was widely regarded as fraudulent.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
Many writers jailed or otherwise at risk of persecution following the 2020 election remained in pre-trial detention, began serving prison sentences, or remained in exile during 2022. Writer, human rights defender, and Nobel Peace laureate Ales Bialacki faced new charges on public disorder in September 2022, and was sentenced in 2023 to 10 years in prison on trumped up charges of “smuggling” and “financing actions that grossly violate public order.” Political analyst Valeria Kostyugova, detained since her arrest in June 2021, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in March 2023. Belarusian-Polish author and journalist Andrzej Poczobut was sentenced in 2023 to eight years in prison on the charge of “incitement to racial, national, or religious hatred or discord.” Philosopher Uladzimir Matskevich was sentenced in June 2022 after 10 months of detention, and author-blogger Mikola Dziadok was sentenced in November 2021, after one year of detention; each has been serving a five-year prison sentences. Philosopher Olga Shparaga and author Ruslan Kulevich remain in exile since leaving Belarus in autumn 2020 after persistent threat of detention.
As part of official efforts to control the narrative about Belarus’ history, literary figure Aliaksandr Novikau was sentenced to two years in prison in 2022 for publishing articles that the court ruled were “discrediting the victory in the Great Patriotic War” and had “signs of the rehabilitation of Nazism” and “hostility to groups respecting the history of the Soviet period.”
Violations of cultural rights and free expression often centered on language. While Belarusian is one of the official languages of Belarus, according to the Belarusian Constitution, Belarusian-speakers experience discrimination in various sectors. PEN Belarus documented discrimination based on language in education, media, publishing, and in the provision of goods and services. In May 2022 an independent publisher of Belarusian literature, Andrey Yanushkevich, opened a bookstore in Minsk. The bookstore had been open for only seven hours when it was forcibly shut down after it was targeted by pro-government journalists. GUBOPiK (the Belarusian directorate for combating organized crime) detained Yanushkevich and confiscated 200 books. Yanushkevich was released after nearly a month in detention. In January 2023, after the Ministry of Information filed a suit, the Minsk Economic Court revoked the Yanushkevich Publishing House’s license on the grounds that it was publishing extremist materials. Yanushkevich left Belarus for Poland.
Violations of free expression and culture affected the ability of Belarusians to exercise their other human rights. PEN Belarus reported that Belarusian speakers were not able to vote in the February 2022 referendum because there were no ballots printed in Belarusian.
Threats to free expression have effectively limited Belarusian opposition to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Expressing a pro-Ukraine or anti-war stance, including wearing yellow and blue or even just liking a social media comment, can result in jail time. Four days after Russia’s invasion, Belarusian authorities detained 20-year-old student Danuta Pyarednya for reposting a text that criticized Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka. Having been accused of “harming the national interests of Belarus” and “insulting the President,” she was sentenced in July 2022 to six-and-half years in a penal colony.
To governments that engage with the Belarusian authorities:
- Fund and support initiatives maintaining Belarusian culture through cultural ministries;
- Ensure adequate support to enable civil society groups to assist members of the creative community, including via the provision of emergency support mechanisms, the creation of fellowships and residencies for threatened and exiled writers and artists, and the expediting of financial and other support for cultural organizations liquidated in Belarus after 2020.
To the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus:
- Categorize cultural figures as a distinct group at risk of human rights abuses in Belarus
- Include violations of cultural rights in the monitoring of and reporting about the human rights situation in Belarus; and
- Establish protection and development programs for cultural figures and organizations.
The environment for free expression in Myanmar, devastated by the February 2021 coup, remained bleak. The military continued to restrict news and information channels, limit rights of assembly and association, and arrest, detain, and prosecute influential voices in both the political and cultural realms, as well as dozens of journalists. Myanmar’s restrictive laws—including sections of the penal code covering incitement and hate speech, and laws covering online communications—have been used to charge and sentence a broad range of dissenting voices, including writers and public intellectuals, which has chilled expression and the ability to write freely. The digital space—a key platform for writing commentary and sharing creative work, as well as news and information—remained closed and fraught with danger in 2022, with authorities regularly employing targeted internet shutdowns, censorship of websites, and surveillance.
During 2022, the broad-based, countrywide civil disobedience movement (known as the CDM) continued to challenge the military’s illegal takeover and fight for a return to the path toward democracy. Writers, intellectuals, and other creative artists have played a key role in voicing support for the CDM and shadow National Unity Government, which operates from exile, and therefore remain at risk of being targeted for arrest and legal charges. Hundreds of writers, journalists, artists, activists, and public intellectuals, including many prominent or influential individuals, currently either operate from hiding within Myanmar, or have fled into exile in neighboring countries or further afield for their own safety and to avoid almost-certain arrest. In December, the UN Security Council passed a resolution on Myanmar, the first in decades, that noted the scale of the humanitarian and human rights crises facing the country and called on the junta to release the more than 13,000 political prisoners still being held and cease the criminalization of those participating in or supporting the CDM.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
The number of jailed writers and artists in Myanmar increased significantly after the coup, as the military preemptively targeted voices of influence for arrest in the immediate aftermath of the coup and detained others in the months that followed. Many of those writers detained (and killed) in 2021 were poets, reflecting the key role that poets have played and continue to play in resisting military rule, a history explored in PEN America’s 2021 report, Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup. Myanmar’s position in the Index dropped from third in 2021 to fourth in 2022, while the number of writers behind bars dropped to 16, as more than a dozen of those detained in early-and mid-2021 were released, most in mass amnesties during the year.
In 2022, however, the junta escalated its tactics of repression. Aside from legal charges and lengthy sentences, the military regime executed a group of prisoners in July 2022, including writer Kyaw Min Yu, known popularly as Ko Jimmy, despite pleas from both inside Myanmar and the international community. The executions were carried out in an environment of opacity and mixed signals about whether or not the sentences would be enforced, increasing the pain and uncertainty for their families. The military had initially issued a warrant for his arrest shortly after the coup, due to his critical writings on social media platforms, and he was arrested in October 2021 during a raid on his residence. He was sentenced to death under Myanmar’s counter-terrorism law on January 21, 2022. It was the first time in several decades that the death penalty had been enforced.
Of the group of writers and cultural luminaries detained in the hours just after the coup, all were finally charged and sentenced in 2022 after being held for months in detention without charge, and then later released. Filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi and singer-songwriter Saw Phoe Khwar, both charged with incitement under Section 505(a) of the penal code in December 2021, were released as part of a broad amnesty in November 2022. However, the singer, whose satirical songs have riled the military in the past, was immediately re-arrested and ordered to serve out a separate sentence for ostensibly breaching the Natural Disaster Management Law. Also released in November were writer Maung Thar Cho, who had been sentenced to a two-year prison term with hard labor under Section 505(a) in February 2022, and poet and activist Mya Aye, sentenced to two years in prison under Section 505(c) of the penal code for “inciting hate towards an ethnicity or a community,” a charge related to a 2014 email criticizing ethno-nationalism in Myanmar. Finally, writers Than Myint Aung and Htin Lin Oo, who had been sentenced to three years in prison under Section 505(a) of the penal code for allegedly opposing the coup online and inciting anti-military sentiments, were released in early January 2023 as part of another broad amnesty. Some of those who were released faced continued harassment or restrictions on work or travel, and they continued to face the threat of being re-arrested due to their stature as influential voices.
Most of these individuals were charged with incitement under section 505(a), or under a new vague provision of “spreading false news,” which was added as Section 505(A) of the penal code within several weeks of the coup and has been used to charge a number of writers, public intellectuals, and journalists over the past two years. For example, Maung Yu Py, a well-known poet from Myeik, was detained in March 2021, and sentenced in a makeshift prison court to two years in prison, later reduced to one year, for unlawful assembly and spreading false news. He was released in September 2022.
There were several instances of much longer sentences handed down during 2022 to writers. The Arakanese writer Ko Aung Naing Myint, who writes under the pen name Min Di Par, was arrested on October 15 2021, and sentenced in February 2022 to 10 years under the counter-terrorism law for ostensibly financing local people’s defense forces (PDFs). Wai Moe Naing, a writer and activist also known as Monywa Panda, was attacked and then arrested at a protest in April, and later charged with incitement under Section 505(a) of the penal code, and nine other serious charges, including treason, armed robbery, and murder. In August 2022, he was found guilty of multiple counts of incitement under section 505(A) of the penal code and sentenced to 10 years in prison, and was sentenced to four additional years in prison in October. Similarly heavy penalties were handed down to Frontier columnist and online commentator Sithu Aung Myint, arrested in August 2021, who received multiple sentences on incitement, denigration of the military, and subversion between October and November 2022 totaling at least 12 years in prison.
To governments engaging with the ruling military junta in Myanmar:
- Enable facilitation of multiple-entry, non-immigrant visas for members of the creative community to permit temporary refuge from internal risk;
- Fast-track asylum claims for writers and artists at risk of persecution by the junta;
- Establish or expand a temporary protected status program for those fleeing the junta;
- Ensure adequate support to enable civil society groups to assist members of the creative community, including via the creation of fellowships and residencies for threatened and exiled writers and artists.
To the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council:
- Build on the December 2022 Security Council resolution on Myanmar by adopting tangible measures to hold the junta accountable for ongoing abuses of human rights and free expression, including by:
- Call for the release of individual political prisoners, and
- Regularly raise human rights concerns via special sessions and reports to the UN Human Rights Council.
To the United States government:
- Fully implement and enforce the BURMA Act, including by continued pursuit of full-scale sanctions against the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).
The Vietnamese government continues to quash dissent, with a particular focus on controlling the public’s access to social media and expanding the government’s ability to obtain access to personal data. Vietnam passed the Cyber Security Law in 2018, which required platforms to store data locally and gave the government control over online content and data. In 2022, the Vietnamese government passed Decree 53, which details the implementation of the Cyber Security Law, increasing government access to personal data and consequently their ability to crack down on dissidents. Additionally, free expression continues to be constrained by repressive laws and decrees as well as threats, intimidation, and physical assault. The Vietnamese government has effective control of all traditional media, including the press, television, radio, and other publications. The Vietnamese authorities monitor online spaces to censor and surveil online content.
As social media platforms emerged as a new venue for free expression, Vietnam built capacity to surveil and monitor expression. In 2015, Vietnam implemented a 10,000 unit cyber military force, known as Force 47, which allows Vietnamese authorities to closely scrutinize and limit digital free expression. Force 47 is tasked with countering government criticism on platforms, mainly Facebook and YouTube, and there is evidence that Force 47 has expanded dramatically over the years and has added a citizen-led affiliate known as E47. One tactic employed by the groups includes doxing Facebook users. Force 47 and E47 also employ a strategy of mass reporting “violations” of community standards on Facebook, which triggers the platform to take down pages or even ban them. The strategy takes advantage of the cumbersome appeals process and places the burden on targeted individuals since there is a lack of capacity of Vietnamese-language specialists working for Facebook to assist in the appeals process. Meanwhile the Vietnamese government is increasing demands on platforms, including requiring the removal of what it determines to be “fake news” within 24 hours.
Online abuse—state-sponsored or civilian led—poses a direct threat to free expression. Tactics such as doxing, mass false reporting, and impersonation have been wielded against Vietnamese writers in an attempt to silence them. Even in exile following her imprisonment, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Vietnamese blogger “Mother Mushroom,” has been targeted by mass reporting on her Facebook page and YouTube channel, and she suspects the “reporters” belong to Force 47. The multi-pronged attack on free expression by government authorities places Vietnamese writers at immense risk.
The number of writers detained in Vietnam in 2022 is 16. In correlation with the government’s increased access to platform data, there appears to have been an increase in arrests and imprisonment of online commentators in Vietnam. Nearly all writers imprisoned in Vietnam—15 out of 16—are online commentators.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
The Vietnamese government continued to arrest and imprison writers for making critical statements against the Vietnamese government which is criminalized as “propaganda against the state” under Article 117 of the 2015 Vietnam Penal Code. Writers who criticize the government on issues such as human rights abuses, corruption, territorial disputes, environmental rights, and/or COVID-19 policies are often harassed, arrested, or imprisoned. Bui Van Thuan, an online commentator, was sentenced to eight years and five months for violating Article 117 after posting jokes and parodies about the Vietnamese government on his Facebook page. Similarly, Tran Hoang Huan was sentenced to eight years in prison in May 2022 for violating Article 117. Tran’s Facebook posts were critical of the Vietnamese government, expressly criticizing their distribution of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine. The court deemed that 186 of Tran’s posts were “fabricated, causing confusion among people” and had content that was “slamming, smearing the regime, denying the achievements of the Revolution and insulting the leaders of the Party and State.” In October 2022, after a two day trial, a Vietnamese court also sentenced Le Manh Ha to eight years in prison for violating Article 117. Le was accused of speaking out against the state for creating video clips on YouTube and posting articles on Facebook about land disputes and corruption.
Vietnam has violated due process and other human rights. In August 2022, Vietnamese authorities held Le Anh Hung’s trial in secret without notifying his lawyers or family, denying him access to legal counsel. Additionally, the trial was held after he had been involuntarily detained in a psychiatric hospital for three years where he was beaten, restrained, and administered medication by force after refusing to take it voluntarily. Meanwhile, online commentator Nguyen Lan Thang was arrested on suspicion of spreading “anti-state” propaganda in July 2022; on April 12, 2023, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment.
Vietnamese courts have upheld the trend of lengthy imprisonment despite condemnations from the United Nation Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and human rights organizations. In August 2022, the Hanoi Supreme Court rejected the celebrated writer and activist Pham Doan Trang’s appeal and upheld the nine year prison sentence claiming that Pham’s actions “brought danger to the society” and “violated the stability” of the Vietnamese government.
To the Vietnamese government:
- Repeal Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code
To the United States government:
- Reintroduce and pass the bipartisan Vietnam Human Rights Act;
- Reinforce the need for the Vietnamese government to adhere to human rights and free expression principles as a foundational element of the expanding U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relationship; and
- Work with ASEAN partners to continue advocating for the release of imprisoned writers and provide support, particularly refuge and asylum, to exiled Vietnamese writers.
Türkiye continued its hostility towards free expression in 2022, with draconian sentences against writers, ongoing court cases that threatened other writers with long prison sentences, and the passage of a disinformation law that effectively criminalizes a broad range of speech. PEN America’s Index found that at least 15 writers were behind bars at some point in 2022, three of which are new cases. Turkish authorities have repeatedly targeted novelists, poets, and short story writers in retaliation for their work, and in particular have gone after Kurdish writers and artists. Turkish authorities’ crackdown on free expression took a particular toll on the media, with Türkiye among the worst jailers of journalists worldwide in 2022. In July 2022, the Turkish government’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television blocked access to Deutsche Welle and Voice of America after both outlets, funded by the German and U.S. governments respectively, declined licensing requirements that would have allowed the Turkish government to censor their content.
Turkish authorities ratcheted up pressure on free expression outside the courts. A new law against “disinformation and fake news” introduced in parliament in June and passed in October, punishing anyone who publishes content vaguely described as inciting panic or destabilizing society with up to three years’ imprisonment. The law requires social media companies to remove content deemed “disinformation” within a four hour time limit or face throttling, report such content to Türkiye’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority, and to use algorithms to demote said content. Turkish journalists, as well as writers and online commentators, are seeing their limited space for working freely constrained further in the wake of the law. The climate of censorship continued in the aftermath of the devastating February 6, 2023 earthquake in southern Türkiye. The government moved to block or throttle social media networks, and subsequently detained a number of journalists and online commentators including academic Özgün Emre Koç, who criticized the armed forces on Twitter February 7 for their slow response to the earthquake aftermath.
With Parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for May 14, the new disinformation law, long prison sentences, and ongoing cases against writers all point to the potential risks of a renewed crackdown. Popular discontent over the government’s response to the earthquake, coupled with a unified opposition, means that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) face a meaningful challenge in the May 2022 elections. The use of the new disinformation law shows that the risk is high of a clampdown on dissent ahead of the elections—and its rapid use, combined with the ongoing court cases and jail sentences against writers—points to clear priority items for a new government to improve the country’s free expression record.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
In April 2022, a Turkish court sentenced cultural rights activist and publisher Mehmet Osman Kavala to life in prison in a high profile case that highlighted the lengths the Turkish government will go to wipe out free expression. The same court also handed down 18-year prison sentences against documentary filmmaker Mine Özerden and film producer Çiğdem Mater. The European Court of Human Rights had previously ruled in 2019 that the Turkish government should release Kavala, and their failure to do so prompted the Council of Europe to begin infringement proceedings, potentially resulting in Türkiye’s removal from the body, of which it is a founding member. Kavala’s life sentence came after multiple attempts by the Turkish government to find a case against him that would stick; his initial arrest and prosecution in 2017 saw him charged with attempting to overthrow the government by allegedly organizing the Gezi Park protests in 2013. Kavala was acquitted of those charges in 2020, but was then immediately rearrested and charged in connection with the failed coup attempt of 2016; the following year a court separately overturned his acquittal in charges related to the Gezi Park protests.
This pattern of acquittals, retrials, and new charges remained a familiar one for writers in the Turkish government’s crosshairs. Academic and writer Pınar Selek, whose work focused on Kurdish and minority rights in Türkiye, had previously been acquitted four separate times on charges alleging her involvement in a 1998 explosion in Istanbul’s spice bazaar, but in July 2022, a Turkish court overturned her most recent acquittal and ordered her to stand trial a fifth time. Selek has been the subject of an international arrest warrant, and in March 2023 the Turkish government sought her extradition from France.
The ongoing case against Selek spotlights the ongoing crackdown on Turkish writers both inside the country and in the diaspora. Meral Şimşek, a novelist, poet, and short story writer living in Germany, also faces ongoing criminal cases in relation to charges of “making terrorist propaganda” and “entering a restricted military area”; the former charge specifically mentions her short story “Arzela,” while the latter charge stems from her attempt to flee Türkiye for Greece. In November, Kurdish journalist and poet Nedim Türfent was released from prison after having spent six-and-a-half years behind bars. Türfent said in an interview that he was targeted in retaliation for his work, and that his case did not get as much attention as others due to him being from the marginalized Kurdish southeastern region of the country, and pointed to Turkish authorities’ disproportionate targeting of Kurdish media outlets in their crackdown on press freedom. Turkish authorities also kept pressing their case against writers who were active in solidarity with the shuttered newspaper Özgür Gündem. One of the writers, Sebnem Korur Financi, was also detained in October 2022 for calling for an investigation into allegations that the Turkish military used chemical weapons in northern Iraq, despite saying that she didn’t believe the allegations; in January 2023 she was convicted of “spreading terrorist propaganda” but was released while she appealed her three year sentence. However, there was also a positive development in the case when a court in February 2022 acquitted Aslı Erdoğan and Necmiye Alpay, both of whom were associated with the paper, of terrorism related charges.
A number of other cases proceeded against writers in Türkiye during 2022l. Novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan and his brother, academic and journalist Mehmet Altan, faced ongoing cases that threatened to put them back behind bars. In March 2022, Ahmet Altan was sentenced to three years and four months in prison, but remained free pending his appeal. Journalist and writer Mehmet Baransu was sentenced to 13 years in prison during the same hearing as Ahmet Altan; he has been detained since 2015 and continues to be subjected to proceedings in multiple cases while remaining behind bars despite release orders on some cases. For writers who are not detained or are residing abroad, the cases often involve multiple court hearings over years, and charges that are brought over and over again despite acquittals, a process that takes a significant toll on the accused.
The Turkish government’s free expression crackdown has implications beyond the country’s citizens. Türkiye has long been a place of uneasy refuge for those in the literary and media communities who have fled direct threats and generalized repression in nearby countries, including most recently from Russia. As xenophobia against refugees and other migrants in Türkiye steadily increases, particularly directed against Syrians, journalists from Syria are facing increased threats and the danger of deportation.
To governments and multilateral institutions that engage with Türkiye:
- Resist calls by the Turkish government to extradite anyone who may be jailed over their peaceful expression, emphasizing that members of the Turkish and Kurdish diaspora should not be bargaining chips in broader geopolitical issues, such as debates over NATO expansion.
To the Council of Europe:
- Continue monitoring the cases of Mehmet Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş, among others; and
- Continue documenting violations in their cases and urging their release.
To the United States government:
- Reintroduce and pass the Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act.
In 2022 the Egyptian government continued to crack down on free expression as it simultaneously tried to raise the country’s international profile, including by hosting the COP27 Climate Change conference and bidding to jointly host the 2030 FIFA World Cup with Greece and Saudi Arabia. During the COP27 conference, the plight of Alaa Abd El Fattah behind bars made headlines around the world, while the government continued to detain the poet Galal El-Behairy even as activist and poet Ahmed Douma passed 10 years behind bars . The crackdown included the government’s ongoing repression of journalists, with at least 21 journalists detained as of December 2022. Though a majority of the arrests were aimed at journalists from the country’s beleaguered independent media outlets, those who worked for state-run outlets were also swept up. More broadly, Egyptian authorities also detained scores of activists for civil society involvement or planning protests. Even as Egypt prepared to host a major gathering of civil society for COP27, local and international activists participating in the event reported intense and obvious surveillance and intimidation by Egyptian authorities. Activists worried that even the conference’s official app could be used as spyware and that political and civil society activists could face repercussions long after the conference was over. Heightening surveillance fears is the Egyptian government’s ongoing repression of the LGBTQ+ community in Egypt, which has expanded to include surveillance and entrapment, further chilling free expression and association for community members.
At the same time Egypt was rocked by runaway inflation, wheat shortages due toRussia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. There were fewer tourists from both Russia and Ukraine, which before the war made up a large portion of Egypt’s tourist arrivals. The economic fallout has raised the government’s fear of popular unrest and prompted a harder line on any form of critical speech. In recent years, blocking access to news websites or those of civil society and human rights organizations has become commonplace, and Egyptian authorities announced that a long-delayed NGO registration law would come into force. These actions, combined with an increasing trend of spurious court cases being brought against journalists as a result of legal complaints, have further chilled the climate for writers and media outlets.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
Authorities jailed at least 10 writers, journalists, and bloggers in 2022, even as seven out of the 15 writers detained in the 2021 Index were released from custody, including Ismail Alexandrani in December 2022 after he completed his sentence. Detainees are often held in pretrial detention while facing vague charges of “spreading false news” or “joining a terrorist organization.” Even those who are ordered released often find themselves immediately detained again as prosecutors charge them under new cases, or face post-release conditions, which can include constraints on their freedom of movement or a requirement to report to a police station regularly.
Officially, a court or prosecutor can renew a detainee’s detention in 15 day increments until they’ve been detained for 150 days, at which point a judge has to renew the detention. Despite limits on the amount of time someone can be detained in Egypt and rules governing their detention, in reality detainees are often cycled from one case to another and court hearings are perfunctory affairs where due process is almost entirely absent.
Detainees in Egypt are held in appalling conditions: torture is the norm; access to food, medication, sunlight, and ventilation are severely limited; and crowded and unsanitary conditions prevail. Egyptian authorities’ denial of medical care has led to deaths in custody, such as that of filmmaker and photographer Shady Habash in 2020. Several detained writers have staged hunger strikes as a result of their indefinite detentions in poor conditions. Imprisoned blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, who had been on a limited hunger strike since April 2022, and whose case has been amplified by the international community, including the UN, escalated to a full hunger strike by refusing water in November 2022 to draw attention to his imprisonment conditions during the COP27 climate change conference. He ultimately ended the strike that same month. Abd El Fattah’s initial hunger strike in April 2022 came after he had been denied access to bedding, sunlight, exercise, and reading material for two-and-a-half years.
In March 2023 Egyptian poet Galal El-Behairy started a hunger strike after spending five years behind bars. El-Behairy had completed his prison sentence in 2021, but remains in pretrial detention on a separate case. El-Behairy was arrested in March 2018 and charged in a case stemming from his writing, including the lyrics to the song “Balaha,” performed by Ramy Essam and directed by Shady Habash, as well as a book of poetry. Habash was detained in relation to his involvement with the music video for “Balaha” at the time of his death, and designer Mustafa Gamal was released from pretrial detention in 2020 in connection with the same case. El-Behairy was sentenced to three years imprisonment in 2018 over the case, but despite completing the sentence remains in pretrial detention under a separate set of charges.
Other Egyptian writers and journalists have found themselves targeted by spurious charges and lawsuits, including three journalists from independent Egyptian media outlet Mada Masr who were ordered to stand trial in connection with the outlet’s reporting on corruption in the ruling party, as well as academic and activist Patrick Zaki, who was barred from leaving Egypt and forced to put his study plans on hold as he contended with a seemingly endless series of court hearings. Those who manage to evade the ever present threat of arrest still have to contend with the Egyptian security apparatus’s ubiquitous surveillance. Those released from prison are often subject to intense scrutiny from authorities, including being required to report regularly to police stations. Egyptian authorities’ campaign against freedom of expression has also expanded notably to include singers and influencers on social media, including performers of the Mahraganat music genre and users of TikTok on questionable morality charges.
To the Egyptian government:
- End the practice of monitoring former detainees after their release;
- End requirements on former detainees to report to police stations;
- End the practice of “recycling,” whereby detainees who are ordered released are instead immediately charged and detained in different cases.
To governments and international organizations that engage with Egypt:
- Condition assistance to the Government of Egypt, including support to the military, on adherence to specific human rights-focused requirements;
- Demand that the Egyptian government curb its broad use of counterterrorism concerns and national security laws to engage in the wrongful detention of dissidents, including writers and artists;
- Enable facilitation of multiple-entry, non-immigrant visas for members of the creative community to permit temporary refuge from internal risk;
- Enable the fast-tracking of asylum claims for writers and artists who face persecution in Egypt; and
- Use diplomatic visits or attendance at international fora held in to highlight detained writers and artists, and make recommendations to improve freedom of expression in the country.
To the United States government:
- Continue public, high-level demands that the al-Sisi regime immediately release Alaa Abd El Fattah and other writers and artists imprisoned for their exercise of free expression;
- Suspend arms transfers to Egypt, based upon evidence of the use of U.S. military equipment by the Egyptian government to carry out human rights violations;
- Adhere to the requirements of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Egypt conditioned on key human rights benchmarks, by withholding conditioned funding due to the Egyptian government’s failure to achieve those benchmarks;
- Demand the Egyptian government cease its transnational harassment and surveillance of Egyptian citizens; and
- Pass legislation to counter transnational repression, of which the Egyptian government is a growing perpetrator and which is a threat to free expression globally, including the Transnational Repression Policy Act.
In defiance of India’s long democratic tradition, recent declines in free expression are only one aspect of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) attempts to consolidate its political control and quash dissent. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has employed a range of tactics to chill free expression in India, including the liberal use of investigative agencies and tax authorities against media outlets and publication houses that have been critical of the government and the use of paid online networks to harass and slander journalists and other critics, including writers. In July 2022, the chief of the Press Club of India expressed concern that the country was witnessing a “multi-pronged attack on the media.” India-administered parts of Jammu and Kashmir remained a particularly repressive environment for free expression, amidst continued government clampdowns on journalists, activists, and others, accompanied by ongoing internet restrictions.
2022 saw an uptick in efforts to control the digital space in India with the introduction of new IT rules giving authorities greater power to remove social media content. In addition, the government was alleged to have used Pegasus spyware against domestic opponents. Online campaigns of denigration and disinformation against journalists and government critics, regular internet shutdowns, and the arrest of citizens for posts critical of the government also contributed to the suppression of free expression in India.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
Although the number of jailed writers in India remained largely steady in 2022 compared to the previous year, increasing from eight to nine cases, the cases themselves changed slightly, with a number of detainees released conditionally, and a similar number who were freshly jailed during the year. All of those included in this year’s Index were being held in pre-trial detention in one or more cases filed against them; authorities in India make use of such legal and administrative harassment to silence critical voices and chill speech. Writers have been charged under multiple laws and in similar cases filed from multiple jurisdictions, adding to the time and expense of fighting the charges against them. Due to backlogs in the Indian legal system, many spend months or years in detention before a trial even starts, and the pace of hearings or appeals also proceeds slowly.
Some of the individuals detained or imprisoned in relation to the Bhima Koregaon case, concerning a violent inter-caste clash that occurred in Maharashtra in 2018, were either granted conditional release or bail on medical grounds in 2022. This case saw a number of writers and intellectuals from the political left charged under multiple sections of the Indian Penal Code and the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which makes the incitement of any unlawful activity, as broadly defined under the act, an offense punishable with up to seven years in prison.
Gautam Navlakha was transferred to house arrest in November 2022 due to his medical condition, with the order subsequently extended in January 2023. Hany Babu was also granted four-day medical bail by the Bombay High Court in December 2022, allowing him to undergo cataract surgery and receive a general medical check-up. P. Varavara Rao’s medical bail was extended throughout the first half of 2022 before the Supreme Court granted him permanent medical bail in August 2022. Rao has since filed a plea seeking permission to leave Mumbai and undergo medical treatment in his home state of Telangana. Anand Teltumbde was released on bail from Taloja Central Jail in November 2022, following an order of the Bombay High Court. At the time of writing, however, the Supreme Court had reserved its verdict on the bail applications filed by Arun Ferreria and Vernon Gonsalves. Sudha Bharadwaj, who secured bail in December 2021, must still seek permission from the court every time she wishes to leave the jurisdiction of Mumbai per the conditions of her bail.
Besides formal imprisonment and detention, some writers are subject to various forms of judicial harassment. Prominent journalist and commentator Rana Ayyub continued to face egregious harassment: In March 2022, officials detained her briefly at Mumbai Airport, confiscated her passport and prevented her from boarding a flight to London. The Enforcement Directorate continues to pursue a spurious money laundering charge against her; meanwhile, she appealed the jurisdiction of the case filed against her in September 2021 by a Hindutva-aligned group in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. A February 2023 study by the Washington-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) found that Ayyub is targeted online every 14 seconds by a highly coordinated network.
Lawyer, writer, and online commentator Prashant Bhushan has also been subject to harassment. Bhushan was convicted of contempt of court in 2020 over two tweets critical of the functioning of the judiciary. In 2022, the Supreme Court dropped a contempt case dating back to Bhushan’s 2009 allegations that several Chief Justices of India were corrupt. However, Bhushan had to face the cancellation of one of his lectures at Delhi University among other measures. Among the consequences of questionable legal charges or investigations is that an individual can be prevented from traveling outside the country, which limits their freedom of movement and ability to interact with colleagues globally. Artists such as the filmmaker and poet Leena Manimekalai have also faced both online and legal threats; in July 2022 Manimekalai was subjected to death and rape threats, as well as having legal complaints filed against her for “offending the Hindu religion,” after publishing a film poster depicting the goddess Kaali smoking a cigarette and holding a pride flag.
Select courts at both the state and federal level displayed some willingness to proactively intervene to protect the rights of writers. In the Bhima Koregaon case, authorities were given deadlines for framing charges. At the same time, a number of high-profile cases of murdered writers have yet to go to trial, including the 2015 murder of Govind Pansare where the trial has not yet begun, and the 2015 M.M. Kalburgi and 2013 Narendra Dhabolkar murder cases which have yet to see any convictions.
The Modi regime’s targeting of minorities was reflected in the cases of journalist Fahad Shah and fact-checker Mohammad Zubair. Zubair is a Muslim journalist and co-founder of the non-profit fact checking site AltNews. He was arrested in June 2022 for allegedly insulting Hindu religious sentiments in a 2018 retweet that featured an image of Hanuman, a Hindu deity. Zubair, a prominent critic of Prime Minister Modi, was also charged with criminal conspiracy and violating foreign funding regulations. He was granted bail on July 15, on condition that he does not leave India without court permission. The cases against Zubair were filed by the police in Uttar Pradesh, a state governed by the BJP, although Zubair is based in the southern city of Bangalore.
In 2022 Fahad Shah, a Kashmiri journalist, founding editor of The Kashmir Walla, and contributor to foreign news outlets, was also detained. Shah was first arrested in February 2022 for publishing “anti-national content” and in April was charged under the UAPA in the third of four cases brought against him, with legal experts questioning the validity of this move. Shah was denied bail by a National Investigation Agency court in July, and remained in jail at year’s end.
In 2022, after the Supreme Court’s order restricting the application of the offense of sedition, 108 senior retired civil servants urged the Supreme Court to strike down restrictive provisions of the Indian Penal Code and to amend provisions of the UAPA that provide for an offense of inciting unlawful activity. The letter expressed grave concern that state governments can use these provisions to initiate prosecutions against those who express dissent, and stated that democracy cannot exist without “the right to promote opinions unfavorable to the government.”
To the Indian government:
- Judicially and legislatively review colonial-era laws that restrict freedom of expression—including sections of the Indian Penal Code relating to sedition (Section 124), promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion, race, or place of birth and residence (Section 153A), and defamation and hate speech (Section 295A)—and amend them as necessary to ensure they adhere to current international standards;
- Review and revise the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to ensure it is consistent with international human rights law, and curb its use against writers and those engaging in free expression;
To governments that engaged with the Indian government:
- Urge the Indian government to cease its misuse of official agencies to instigate spurious administrative or financial investigations against writers, journalists, and activists who are critical of the Indian government;
- Encourage the reform of laws that are used to restrict free expression.
To the United States government:
- Reinforce the need for the Indian government to adhere to human rights and free expression principles as a foundational element of the U.S.-India bilateral relationship; and
- Condition foreign assistance to the Government of India on improvements in human rights and civil liberties in the country.
Following terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the Eritrean government, on the basis of supposed threats to political stability, banned all independent media, expelled foreign reporters, and arbitrarily detained writers and journalists en masse. Already a country with limited free speech rights since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the extreme crackdown on press freedom by Eritrean authorities was part of a concerted effort to further stifle political dissent. In the years since, most forms of free expression have been limited, with strict regulations on internet usage and access, and persistent blocking of alternative media sources. In 2022, eight writers remained in detention, the vast majority of whom have been held incommunicado without trial for over 20 years. While little is known about their prison conditions, the writers are presumed to have been abused in custody and denied medical treatment. Their cases represent the longest detentions of writers globally.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
Amanuel Asrat, a poet, critic, and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Zemen, created a literary club called Saturday’s Supper with two friends in 2001. The effort was largely credited with the resurgence of Eritrean poetry in the early 2000s, inspiring the rise of similar clubs across all major towns, but Asrat was arrested on September 23, 2001 at his home. Temesgen Ghebreyesus, editor of Keste Debena’s sport section, was also arrested in 2001. He was reportedly transferred to a notorious prison in the Dahlak Archipelago in late 2008 for a brief period before being returned to the mainland, though no other information regarding his conditions and whereabouts is known. Dawit Isaak, a playwright and dual citizen of Eritrea and Sweden who founded Eritrea’s first independent weekly newspaper, Setit, was arrested at his home during the same 2001 crackdown. On July 21, 2022, a joint complaint was filed with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, calling on the Eritrean government to provide information about Isaak’s detention. Three of the writers detained in Eritrea in 2022—Medhanie Haile, Idris Said, and Fessehaye Yohannes—are presumed dead, though the government of Eritrea has never confirmed the status of these political prisoners.
To the Government of Eritrea:
- Provide proof of life or confirmation of death for all writers detained; and
- Repeal the 1996 Press Proclamation Law that requires all media broadcasts and journalists to be licensed, and allow for independent media.
To the United States government:
- Confirm a U.S. ambassador to Eritrea
To the Swedish government:
- Reinstate the Swedish Committee on Foreign Affairs’ commission investigating the Ministry for Foreign Affairs handling of Dawit Isaak’s case
To the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights:
- Urge the Eritrean government to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea to visit Eritrea and provide them with relevant access to detained and imprisoned writers.
In addition to country-specific recommendations provided above in this report, PEN America also calls 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 their legal representation, family, and health care
- Lift legislative and other restrictions on free expression
National governments, international agencies, and the private sector all have key roles to play in advancing and safeguarding global free expression and supporting the human rights of writers. They should boldly and regularly use bilateral and multilateral opportunities to raise concerns about the suppression of free speech in repressive countries, name writers in prison and at risk of persecution, and call for their immediate, unconditional release and the cessation of human rights abuses against them. They should publicly express support for the rights of writers and others who place their freedom, and sometimes their lives, at risk to exercise their rights to speak, criticize, and dissent.
National governments who support global free expression
Governments who explicitly support free expression as a human right should actively seek ways to protect individual writers in countries where free expression is at risk, and ensure their voices can be heard. They should use public and diplomatic channels to explicitly recognize the important role that writers and those who are punished for exercising their free expression play in advancing free expression. They should acknowledge them as a category of human rights defenders and call on repressive governments to allow them to continue their creative work and exercise their human rights without threat of criminal sanction, arbitrary arrest and detention, or other forms of harassment and abuse.
- Support efforts to end impunity for human rights violations and crimes against writers exercising their free expression. They can do this by calling for and supporting diligent and impartial investigations, speaking out about due process violations, and encouraging domestic efforts to hold perpetrators accountable.
- Monitor criminal trials and other judicial and administrative proceedings against writers and speak out publicly about due process violations and unjust verdicts.
- Seek information about writers at risk from independent sources, including family members, legal representatives, and civil society.
- Where possible, provide financial and other forms of assistance directly to writers at risk and/or to civil society organizations that assist them. Comprehensive and flexible support should include:
- The creation and expediting of special visas procedures or visa waivers that allow writers fleeing persecution to safely enter and legally remain in countries where they are safer, and procedures to extend such visas or issue special travel documents in cases where writers need to extend their exile due to ongoing risks at home.
- Emergency and long term financial support that is sufficient to allow writers to protect themselves from persecution and to continue to create.
- Recognize the diversity of writers and ensure that measures to protect and support them take into account gender, sexual orientation, religion, language, national origin, race/ethnicity, and other forms of discrimination that may affect issues of access and put individuals at greater risk.
These governments should also regularly press repressive states:
- To repeal laws that limit free expression, including those that criminalize speech and writing, and those that restrict the space for independent media and human rights organizations —e.g., “foreign agents” laws and those that undermine free and open access to the internet.
- Not to enact “false” news and cybercrimes laws that can be used to target writers and undermine free expression.
- Not to use counterterrorism, public security, and similar laws, to prosecute writers or the exercise of free expression.
- To issue standing invitations to UN Special Procedures and actively facilitate visits from those whose mandates intersect with free expression.
Donors, whether they are private institutions or governments, have enormous power to promote free expression and protect writers, including by publicly condemning attacks against free expression and writers. They should:
- Support the translation and publication of persecuted writers’ work.
- Provide financial support for emergency assistance funds, residency and fellowship grants, and project awards.
- Provide financial support to civil society organizations that work with writers and/or advocate for free expression.
- Provide financial support for independent local and diaspora media.
United Nations Special Procedures
Special Procedures, as independent human rights experts, can use their roles to call attention to violations of free expression and the particular role that writers play in advancing free expression and the risks they face to do so. They should:
- Monitor and report to the UN Human Rights Council on violations of free expression that intersect with their mandate, and follow up with the Council if it fails to act on areas of concern.
- Use their public platforms and closed door high-level meetings to call for the immediate release of writers in prison and the end of any persecution and harassment.
- If invited on a country visit, ensure that independent civil society experts, academics, and human rights activists are consulted and publicly push back if necessary on government efforts to control access.
- UN entities should monitor and call out instances of retaliation against human rights defenders and others who cooperate with the special procedures and other UN mechanisms.
About the Freedom to Write Index and the Writers at Risk Database
The 2022 Freedom to Write Index provides a count of the writers and public intellectuals who were held in prison or detention during 2022 in relation to their writing or for otherwise exercising their freedom of expression. The cases included in the Index are also based on PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database, and PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) case list. The Index and Database draw from PEN International’s Case Lists, which in turn reflect input from PEN Centers around the world. We also draw from press reports; reports from the families, lawyers, and colleagues of those in prison; and data from other international human rights, press freedom, academic freedom, and free expression organizations. The methodology behind the Index is explained in greater detail here.
The Index and Database provide a count of individuals who primarily write literature, poetry, or other creative writing; essays or other nonfiction or academic writing; or online commentary.
Journalists are included in cases where they also fall into one of the former categories or are opinion writers or columnists. Scholars and activists are also included only when they fall into the same categories. To be included in the Index count, individuals must have spent at least 48 hours behind bars in a single instance of detention between January 1 and December 31, 2022.
For the purposes of the Index and the status designations used to classify cases, imprisonment is defined to occur when an individual is serving a sentence following a conviction, while detention is defined as individuals held in custody pending charges, or those who have been charged and are being held prior to conviction.
The compiling of the data for the Index is an ongoing process and PEN America adds cases retrospectively. Thirty-four cases were added retrospectively to the 2021 Index and included individuals who were imprisoned as of 2021, but whose imprisonment only became known to PEN America while we were compiling the data for the 2022 Index. While such cases occurred in 12 countries, just under half were found in two countries, China and Saudi Arabia.
It is no coincidence that many of the delayed-reporting cases occur in countries with authoritarian governments, which by design are hostile to transparency around the fate of dissidents and critics. In some cases, PEN America has noted that governments deliberately withhold information about imprisoned writers and dissidents from their friends and family and from the public at large. The deliberate efforts of authoritarian governments to hide their abuses from public view makes it more difficult to create a comprehensive snapshot of imprisoned writers at any given time.
The annual Freedom to Write Index has become an essential component of PEN America’s long-standing Writers at Risk Program, which encompasses support for and advocacy on behalf of writers under threat around the world. Another flagship component of PEN America’s year-round advocacy is the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, given annually to an imprisoned writer targeted for exercising their freedom of expression. Of the 52 jailed writers who have received the Freedom to Write Award from 1987 to 2022, 46 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates.
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. PEN America also extends its thanks to PEN International—both the Secretariat and the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)—for its collaboration on this project. PEN America would also like to thank the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust for their generous support.
The Freedom to Write Index report was written by PEN America staff members: Angeli Datt, Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Talita Pessoa, Rachel Powers, Polina Sadovskaya, Justin Shilad, and Anh-Thu Vo. Leah Afid is the coordinator of the Writers at Risk Database and prepared the data on writers in prison and at risk for publication.
The report was edited by Liesl Gerntholtz, Director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Center and Summer Lopez, Chief Program Officer, PEN America. Nadine Farid Johnson, Managing Director, Washington Office and Laura Schroeder, Senior Manager, Legislative Affairs provided essential review and guidance. The Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) team provided guidance on case research and reviewed the report. The report was also reviewed by James Tager, PEN America’s Research Director and Ryan Howzell, Research Program Coordinator.
The Freedom To Write Center interns, fellows, and consultants, including NS, Daria Locher, Rosy Fitzgerald, SL, and Chaitanya Venkateswaran provided essential support with research, data analysis, drafting, references, and fact-checking throughout the year.