Freedom to Write Index 2023

Key Takeaways

  • The number of writers jailed reached a five-year high, with at least 339 behind bars during 2023, an increase of 9 percent from 2022.
  • China, already the world’s top jailer of writers, registered a significant increase, exceeding 100 writers behind bars for the first time. The majority were jailed for online expression that was critical of official policies or expressed pro-democracy viewpoints.
  • The crackdown on writers and the creative community continued in Iran, with 13 new arrests and the silencing of previously detained writers through various conditions placed on their release. Women who wrote or advocated against the compulsory hijab remained particularly at risk, and Iran jails the highest number of female writers worldwide.
  • War and conflict had a significant impact on writers in 2023, as the crackdown on dissent in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and in Russia resulted in substantial increases in the number of jailed writers, placing both countries in the top 10 for the first time.
  • As the annual Freedom to Write Index marks its fifth edition, an analysis of trends over the past five years shows a clear and steady increase in the number of writers jailed globally, from 238 in 2019 to 339 in 2023. Notable increases were seen in the number of female writers jailed, from 35 to 51, as well as in the number of jailed writers classified as online commentators, from 80 to 180.


Authoritarian regimes instinctively understand the significant role that writers—and, by extension, free expression—play in promoting critical inquiry, fostering connections between people, and cultivating visions of a better world anchored in fundamental human rights. They recognize the power of words to affirm historical truths, develop or maintain culture, and hold individuals and institutions to account. For these reasons, repressive governments and ruling authorities the world over seek to suppress or control writers.

And it is for these same reasons, and many more, that the international community must assume a greater role in protecting and supporting writers, and ensuring their ability to freely express themselves. But democracies have been slow to understand that attacks on writers are both the precursor to and a consequence of broader attacks on human rights, democracy, and free expression.

Pham Doan Trang, a Vietnamese author and activist, will be the 2024 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honoree. (Photo by Thinh Nguyen)

When the scholar Ilham Tohti is handed down a life sentence for writing about Uyghur rights in China, or activist and author Narges Mohammadi is repeatedly jailed for her writings advocating for women’s rights and an end to abuses within Iran’s prisons, or author and activist Pham Doan Trang is imprisoned for demanding democracy in Vietnam, it sends a strong signal to would-be independent or dissenting voices everywhere that the repercussions for putting pen to paper can be severe. As geopolitics continue to shift and authoritarian tendencies spread to countries that were once considered safely anchored in openness, we anticipate that free expression, and therefore writers, will increasingly be under threat in a much wider range of countries. Worrying signs of this deepening repression include: the increase in book bans in the United States, the undermining of independent literature and art by the Georgian Ministry of Culture, and the limitations on free expression amid war and conflict in Israel and Russia.

The erosion of free expression invariably leads to the deterioration of other liberties, clearing the path for repressive states to impose their own rules unchecked. Only in a society where free expression is respected can citizens fully realize political, social, and cultural rights. This is why the incarceration of a writer, whose voice can offer an independent perspective or a narrative of hope, goes beyond the silencing of individual voices and represents a broader assault on the freedom of all of a country’s citizens.

The Freedom to Write Index tracks the detention and imprisonment of writers, and in 2023, at least 339 writers were detained or imprisoned around the world for their writing or otherwise exercising their freedom of expression. Since the first edition of the Index was published in 2019, we have witnessed a steady increase in the number of writers jailed globally.

The rise in imprisonments and other attacks on writers documented in this report must be met by a more robust defense by governments that value freedom of expression and human rights. This should include a new international framework, led by the United Nations Human Rights Council, for writers’ security and protection.

The Global Picture

During 2023, at least 339 writers and public intellectuals in 33 countries were unjustly imprisoned or detained in connection with their writing, their work, or related activism.

Sixty-two writers were newly jailed in 2023, bringing the total number in custody for exercising their free expression during the year to 339.

Based on available information, these writers in 33 countries—in all geographic regions around the world—were unjustly detained or imprisoned in connection with their writing, their work, or related advocacy. As in previous years, countries in the Asia-Pacific region jailed the highest number of writers, followed by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); the two regions together accounted for a staggering 76 percent of the total worldwide. Although relatively few writers are jailed in either the Americas or sub-Saharan Africa, they face other threats, including physical harassment, forced displacement or exile, or spurious legal charges.

PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database currently contains 923 active cases in 88 countries (as well as dozens of inactive, or resolved, cases). The Database tracks not only imprisonment but also forcible disappearance, murder, continual harassment, and displacement or exile, presenting a comprehensive picture of the threats faced by writers in all genres and on a range of platforms when they criticize those in power or imagine alternate visions of society. In particular, the Database provides insights into those countries that do not necessarily use imprisonment as their primary tactic of repression. In 2023, there were 51 cases of murder in the Database (including 46 past cases where perpetrators have not been brought to account), 15 of forcible disappearance, and 88 cases where individuals were displaced or forced to flee from their countries because of their work or their identity as a writer.


The vast majority of writers behind bars during 2023 (85 percent) were men, and men also make up the overwhelming majority of cases in the Database. Women comprise 15 percent of the 2023 Index count, compared to 14 percent in 2022 and 12 percent in 2021, and there were no cases identified as non-binary in the 2023 Index. Countries that have detained the highest number of women writers and public intellectuals generally track closely with those that have jailed the highest total number of writers.

Collectively, China and Iran—the top two jailers of writers during 2023—accounted for almost half (24 of the 51) of the women writers in the 2023 Index. As in 2022, Iran held the most women writers (15) behind bars, reflecting the continued crackdown on women during and after the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests and broader movement. In 2023, female writers were jailed for opposing the mandatory hijab rules, and female political prisoners such as Narges Mohammadi engaged in sustained writing and activism on themes of women’s and human rights from behind bars. Roughly a third of the newly jailed writers in both Israel, or 6 out of 17, and in Russia, with 5 out of 16, were women, reflecting women’s roles in social movements in both countries.

Professional Designation

The most prevalent professions of those incarcerated in 2023 were online commentators (180), literary writers (115), journalists (108), activists (80), poets (68), scholars (63), creative artists (38), singer/songwriters (31), translators (14), publishers (13), editors (12), and dramatists (5). Many writers included in the Index and the Database hold multiple professional designations, reflecting the reality that their writing and expression take multiple forms across diverse platforms. The category of “journalist” includes news reporters as well as opinion writers and columnists; according to our methodology, a journalist is only included in the Index if they also have another professional designation in the list, or primarily write commentary, in order to not duplicate data produced by peer organizations regarding journalists. 

The high numbers of writers in the online commentator and journalist categories suggest that a significant proportion of the individuals included face jail or other threats because of their writing commentary on politics or official policies, economic or social themes, or advocacy for a range of greater human rights.

Notably, individuals tagged as online commentators—a category that includes bloggers and others who use social media platforms as a key vehicle for their expression—remained at the top of the list, reflecting the reality that in many environments that are closed for independent literary and journalistic writing, the online space remains the key meaningful medium for those attempting to voice their ideas, tell stories, and express dissenting views. Additionally, the prosecution of writers for their online expression demonstrates authoritarian governments’ interest in controlling narratives on social media platforms and in curbing influential voices of conscience and dissent. Thus, the vast majority of new 2023 cases in China were individuals writing online, and the numbers in other extremely closed political systems, such as Iran, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia, also remained high.

Top 10 Countries of Concern


Writers Jailed in 2023 

1. China* (107)

2. Iran (49)

3. Saudi Arabia (19)

3. Vietnam (19)

5. Israel** (17)

6. Belarus (16)

6. Russia (16)

8. Türkiye (14)

9. Myanmar (12)

10. Eritrea (7)

*Including autonomous regions
**Including the Occupied Palestinian Territory


In 2023, there were some notable shifts in the list of top 10 countries jailing writers, including those reflecting the impact of war and conflict on free expression. Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Russia entered the top 10 due to significant jumps in the number of jailed writers in both locations in 2023.

Meanwhile, crackdowns on the creative sector continued in other countries. China and Iran are by far the most inhospitable places in the world for writers exercising their free expression. The two countries jail the most writers, 107 and 49 respectively, or a combined 46 percent of the total, and also occupy the top two positions in PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database. In Iran, releases of those jailed in late 2022 amid the protests were offset by a number of new arrests and detentions. The numbers of jailed writers remained largely the same as 2022 in four other countries in the top 10: Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Belarus, and Türkiye.

Two years after the coup, Myanmar’s position shifted downward, continuing the trend seen in 2022 in which the number of writers in jail has decreased, but other threats continue to chill free expression. Rounding out the top 10, with seven writers who have been detained for more than 20 years, was Eritrea.

China remains the world’s leading jailer of writers and public intellectuals. In 2023, China jumped above 100 cases, jailing 6 writers during the year for a total of 107. Of the total number of writers, 9 are female.

Of the 107 cases, 50 are online commentators—writers who regularly use social media platforms to post their opinion and commentary on a range of political, economic, and social topics. Typically arrested and imprisoned under the vague charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” these online commentators signify the continued rise in social media’s power in China as a legitimate and far-reaching medium for political writing in the digital age. Many of the online commentators were targeted for writing and posting about the government’s controversial COVID-19 policies, such as Sun Qing, Xiaolong Ji, and Yu Qian. Other online commentators criticized President Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party, discussed democracy, or spoke out about a range of human rights issues. Online spaces have also been used as platforms to disseminate more traditional forms of writing, like essays and open letters; one example of this is Yang Shaozheng’s essay about the economic costs of China’s funding of party organizations. 

Uyghur writers in Xinjiang continue to face punishment for contributing to rich literary and poetic traditions. They are often arrested and imprisoned on vague charges that allege general “separatism” from the Chinese government. Gulnisa Imin (Gulhan), a Uyghur literature teacher and poet, was detained on separatism charges for writing about preserving and promoting the Uyghur language and culture as part of her poetry project, “One Thousand and One Nights,” in which she wrote one poem a night for 1,001 nights.

Many writers in Hong Kong charged under the 2020 National Security Law saw their trials begin in 2023. After over three years in prison, the trial of Jimmy Lai, an opinion journalist and the founder of prominent Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, began in December. He faces a potential life sentence on two charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces. Lai has pleaded not guilty, though earlier this year Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang boasted that the national security law has a 100 percent conviction rate.

Writers, especially those facing long-term sentences, continue to struggle with health problems in jail. Yang Hangjun, a novelist and former diplomat who was given a suspended death sentence in February, was reported to be at risk of death due to a kidney-related illness.

Iran remained in second place globally, jailing a total of 49 writers during the year, down from 57 in 2022. Of this total, 34 are men and 15 are women. This represents a decline from the sharp spike seen in 2022, when writers were caught up in a wide-ranging crackdown on protests and other forms of dissent, including by the creative community.    

Of the dozens of writers arrested after the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests in late 2022, the majority were released either in late 2022 or early 2023, including several members of the Iranian Writers’ Association. However, about two-thirds were released conditionally on bail and subject to rearrest, and/or had other conditions tied to their release, such as a ban on social media and technology use or on being employed. Anecdotal reports from individual writers suggest that many lost their jobs—particularly in the state sector—and that the fear of reprisals or being summoned back to prison has led to various levels of self-censorship. Writers are also continuing to flee into exile.

Overall, the crackdown on the creative community that began in late 2022 continued in 2023. There were a number of new arrests, including singer-songwriter Mehdi Yarrahi, rapper Vafa Ahmadpour, and writer Peyman Farhangian, and lengthy sentences were handed down to writer and translator Keyvan Mohtadi, activist Anisha Asadollahi, writer Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, and poet and artist Sattar Rezaei Mirqaid. Meanwhile, longstanding political prisoners such as Narges Mohammadi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2023, persisted in writing and speaking out from jail in support of political change and against human rights violations. 

Female political prisoners continue to face punishments for their writing and advocacy in protest of the compulsory hijab. A prominent example is poet and activist Sepideh Rashnu, who was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in October 2023 and to four additional months in December; combined with other charges, her sentence totals almost four years. Human rights defender and writer Nasrin Sotoudeh was also briefly detained in October for attending the funeral of a young woman beaten to death for “improper hijab.” Rapper Toomaj Salehi, who was arrested in 2022 for his advocacy for women’s rights in his music and public statements, was released in November 2023 but promptly rearrested later that month.

Saudi Arabia continued to hold writers in prison in large numbers in 2023, though this year’s Index does not include any new cases and the number decreased by one, to 19, from the previous year. The use of draconian sentences against social media users indicates authorities’ interest in closing all avenues for unsanctioned expression. In an interview in September 2023, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman confirmed reports that a teacher was sentenced to death for social media posts earlier that year, blaming the verdict on “bad laws” while claiming authorities were “changing that.” But anti-terrorism laws and other sweeping legislation continue to be used against a range of expression, and online commentators who have neither a history of dissent nor substantial social media followings have been imprisoned for years or even decades. 

Among those detained as online commentators are Osama Khaled and Ziyad al-Sofiani, who, as volunteer administrators for Wikipedia, updated women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s page on the site, as well as Abdullah Jelan, who started posting about unemployment in Saudi Arabia when he was unable to find a job after graduation. Jelan, Khaled, and Sofiani were tried and convicted in Specialized Criminal Courts, which were originally set up to try terrorism suspects but have since been used to crack down on ordinary citizens for their peaceful expression. Others, including Adel Banaima, Essam al-Zamil, and Mohammed Saud al-Bishr, have been detained since bin Salman launched a wide-ranging crackdown on perceived opposition in 2017. Saudi authorities have conducted waves of arrests since then; the fact that some existing cases date back to 2017 points to the longevity of the crackdown. In many cases, Saudi authorities hold detainees for years without publicly stating the charges; when the charges are known, they are often vague. Overall, five of the writers counted in the Index are serving sentences of at least 11 years. Even once released, former prisoners’ ability to resume their writing and lives is circumscribed by conditions on their release, including travel bans and prohibitions on returning to their former jobs or engaging in online expression. 

Saudi authorities employ an extensive surveillance state, which not only effectively censors most criticism of the government but also prevents reporting on detention conditions and proceedings against detained writers. The ongoing impunity in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, along with Saudi authorities’ well-documented attempts to target other dissidents abroad, further contributes to the chill.

Vietnam tied for third place in the Index, with 19 writers imprisoned, as the government in 2023 increasingly clamped down on free expression. Vietnam has utilized legislation including the 2015 penal code, the Cybersecurity Law, and other decrees to imprison writers and dissidents and crack down on online free expression. 

Article 117 of the penal code targets anti-state propaganda and is frequently used to imprison writers. Similarly, Articles 109 and 331, which respectively criminalize activities aimed at overthrowing the government and “abusing” freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly, are often employed to imprison dissidents. These articles are overly broad, infringing upon protected speech under international human rights law, and must be repealed. In June 2023, Dang Dang Phuoc, a music teacher and online commentator from Dak Lak Province, was convicted of spreading “anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 based on his Facebook posts criticizing the government. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and four years of probation. Prisoners are often denied access to medical treatment; imprisoned online commentator Le Huu Minh Tuan’s health has greatly deteriorated in prison, leaving him unable to consume solid food and severely weakened. He suffers from a range of medical conditions, some as a result of unsanitary prison conditions. Despite repeated pleas from his family, Tuan has not received adequate medical care.

While imprisoning writers is one of the most extreme forms of suppression, the Vietnamese government cracks down on everyday free expression in several other ways, including monopolizing control over traditional forms of media like radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. The internet and social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube are some of the remaining spaces where Vietnamese citizens can hold discussions and express dissent. However, these spaces are also increasingly censored by the Vietnamese government. Force 47, the government’s digital militia, weaponizes platform community standards by orchestrating mass reports of content, aiming to manipulate algorithms and reduce the visibility of dissenting voices on social media platforms. This strategy, combined with tactics such as doxxing, trolling, and harassing dissidents, serves to silence opposition and control the narrative online. In addition to the digital militia, mandated data localization and ID requirements make online anonymity almost impossible, casting a chill on free expression.

Following the October 7, 2023, attack on Israel by Hamas, Israeli authorities have conducted a wide-ranging crackdown on free expression, placing Israel in the Index’s top 10 for the first time, at fifth place with 17 writers behind bars. Fourteen of these are new cases. Prior to October 7, Israel already used charges of incitement or “sympathy with terrorist organizations” to detain, censor, and surveil Palestinians. After the Hamas attack, the Israeli government amended the country’s counterterrorism law in order to criminalize “consumption of publications of a terrorist organization,” a move that rights groups warned would effectively criminalize “thoughts and feelings.

All 14 individuals detained in 2023 are Palestinians, both with and without Israeli citizenship, living in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza; the majority of cases involve individuals detained in the West Bank who were or still are held in jails within Israel. All were arrested after October 7. Among them is writer and activist Ahed Tamimi, who was detained by Israeli forces for incitement in connection with a social media post she denies writing (she reported that her account was hacked), and Mustafa Sheta, opinion writer, researcher, and producer for The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, whom Israeli forces are holding in administrative detention. Some, such as journalists and online commentators Mohamad al-Atrash and Mirvat al-Azzeh, were charged with incitement or other terrorism-related charges explicitly in connection to their posts or writing. Singer-songwriter Dalal Abu Amneh was arrested after her social media team posted the phrase “The only victor is God” with a Palestinian flag emoji on her social media accounts.

Israeli authorities have broadly defended the crackdown as targeting Hamas members, those sympathetic to the group, and people engaging in “incitement” or otherwise justifying, celebrating, or glorifying the October 7 Hamas attack. Many however appear to have been detained simply for expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, using Palestinian flag emojis or filters, or even making jokes interpreted as being supportive of the attack or Hamas.

Israel is holding 8 of the 17 writers counted in the Index in administrative detention, which requires neither evidence nor formal charges to be brought and allows Israel to hold them indefinitely. In the case of Mustafa Sheta, an Israeli military court ordered him held in administrative detention after a session where only his lawyer was present. At least two of the writers, Alaa al-Rimawi and Musab Khamees Qafeisha, are being held in the Israeli-administered Ofer Prison in the West Bank, while others were or are being held in jails within Israel. In Gaza, Israeli forces detained poet Mosab Abu Toha at a military checkpoint after they identified him using facial recognition technology; Israeli soldiers took him out of Gaza to a detention camp in southern Israel before releasing him without charge after several days.

Nine of the 14 new Index cases this year, such as Alaa al-Rimawi, have previously been arrested, in some cases several years earlier; in a few of those cases, they were arrested over their writing or journalism. The large numbers of writers with previous arrests or with a past profile of dissent, combined with new arrests without explanation or under questionable pretexts, point to an expansive pattern of Israeli authorities targeting people for free expression during a time of conflict.

Free expression rights in Belarus have been steadily deteriorating in recent years. Belarusian authorities held 16 writers in jail this year, the same number as last year, while making punishments for free speech more dire.

 Threats against free expression have increased in the country as the world’s attention has waned since President Aleksander Lukashenka’s illegitimate 2020 presidential election sparked international condemnation and widespread protests. Blogger and author Mikola Dziadok continues to serve a five-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges of “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order,” “illegal actions with combustible substances,” and harming the national security of Belarus in relation to his online writings. Belarusian human rights groups, including Viasna, recognize him as a political prisoner.

Belarus keeps political prisoners in brutal conditions. Prison authorities have enforced incommunicado detention that extends for many months. Political prisoners have also been subject to other forms of ill-treatment, including torture, that appear to be systematically harsher than for the general prison population. Writer and philosopher Uladzimir Matskevich’s health has worsened since he was jailed in 2021 to serve a five-year prison sentence, requiring him to undergo surgery. Many political prisoners have also received little to no medical care. This has led to the death of at least two people: blogger Mikalai Klimovicz and Ales Pushkin, the highly celebrated dissident artist. According to PEN Belarus, as of December 31, 2023, there were at least 1,499 cultural rights violations and human rights violations against cultural figures in Belarus.

The Belarusian government has sought to quash dissent even outside of its borders, including against persecuted writers who have fled the country. Belarusian consular services have imposed unreasonable restrictions on the rights of citizens in exile to obtain documentation, such as passports, in an apparent attempt to lure them back into imprisonment. If their passport expires abroad, they need return to Belarus, where they are often in danger of immediate detention. Authorities have also targeted family members of exiled writers and subjected them to arbitrary searches, detentions, and other forms of harassment. Authorities searched the home of exiled writer Sasha Filipenko’s parents and imprisoned his father for 13 days.

Russia’s crackdown on free expression intensified in 2023, as part of broader efforts to stifle opposition to its war in Ukraine. Russian authorities jailed 16 writers during 2023, 11 of whom were targeted for anti-war expression. Others were jailed for their activism, journalism, or artistic expression. This number marks a significant increase: despite broad restrictions on free expression, Russia was not represented in the top 10 countries of concern in 2022; it now shares sixth place with Belarus.

This year’s detentions targeted writers operating in a range of mediums. Theater director and poet Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petrychuk were arrested in May 2023 on a charge of “justifying terrorism” for their award-winning play, “Finist the Brave Falcon.” Berkovich, who had written anti-war poetry on Facebook, was vocally opposed to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Thousands of people within and beyond the cultural sector expressed public solidarity with Berkovich and Petrychuk after they were arrested for their play. Writer Aleksandr Byvshev also wrote anti-war poetry on Facebook, leading to his arrest in February 2023. Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American journalist detained in October 2023, edited the book Saying No To War: 40 Stories of Russians Who Oppose the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist and editor-in-chief of digital publication Rabkor, was arrested in July 2023 for writing commentary online about Ukraine’s attack on the Crimean Bridge in 2022. 

Detentions of writers have also been predicated on accusations that they are “foreign agents,” and, in multiple cases, more serious charges have followed the stigmatizing label. Kagarlitsky was first labeled a “foreign agent” before he was arrested for “justifying terrorism” and sentenced to five years in prison. Kurmasheva was first detained on suspicion of failing to register as a “foreign agent” before being charged with spreading “false information” about the military. At the time of this report’s publication, Byvshev, Berkovich, Petrychuk, Kurmasheva, and Kagarlitsky are still behind bars.

Criminal charges prohibiting “discrediting” and “disseminating false information” about the Russian armed forces have become common and have resulted in grave prison sentences. Sasha Skochilenko, a St. Petersburg artist and writer who replaced five shelf tags in a grocery store with information about the war, was sentenced in November 2023 to seven years in prison for spreading “false information.” Kurmasheva has been accused of the same crime for compiling a book and reportedly faces up to 15 years in prison. Writers jailed on other charges have also been handed lengthy sentences. In December, poets Artem Kamardin and Egor Shtovba, who were arrested in 2022 after participating in an anti-war street poetry reading, were sentenced to seven and five years in prison, respectively, for “inciting hatred” against Russian troops and making appeals against state security.

In 2023, Russian authorities detained a significant number of women writers. This could be attributed to a number of factors in Russian society and mirrors the trend in the country of women being jailed for protesting at an increasing rate. Experts cite a growing Russian feminist movement related to anti-war resistance and draft-eligible men avoiding protests for fear of being conscripted. Additionally, a large number of men left Russia to avoid conscription following President Vladimir Putin’s September 2022 announcement of a partial mobilization.

Türkiye’s numbers decreased slightly from last year’s Index, to 14 from 15 in 2022. Overall, the country remained a difficult place for free expression, as authorities continued to crack down on writers and journalism on many fronts during the year.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won reelection in May 2023. Ahead of the May general elections, Turkish authorities detained several journalists. At the same time, the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, began restricting unspecified content in Türkiye; the platform started doing so as Turkish authorities moved to censor more social media content under the 2022 amendments to the country’s disinformation law. The next month, in June 2023, counterterrorism officers arrested writer, journalist, TELE1 editor-in-chief, and PEN Türkiye head Merdan Yanardağ. On October 4, he was convicted of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization” and sentenced to two and a half years in prison; he was subsequently freed pending appeal. Yanardağ’s arrest and conviction stemmed from a broadcast in which he criticized Turkish authorities for putting imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan into solitary confinement. TELE1 was suspended for a week after Yanardağ’s arrest.

Among other prominent cases, a top court upheld the life sentence against activist and publisher Mehmet Osman Kavala on September 28, 2023. The next day, writer Pınar Selek, who has faced spurious charges for more than 20 years and currently lives outside of Türkiye, faced yet another trial on terrorism charges before it was postponed. Journalist Bariş Pehlivan was ordered imprisoned for the fifth time in August.

Meanwhile, Turkish authorities continued a steady campaign of arrests targeting Kurdish journalists, including by weaponizing broad anti-terror laws against journalists to accuse them of PKK membership and targeting them for arbitrary arrests.

At the beginning of the year Turkish authorities continued efforts to force social media companies to block sensitive news ahead of municipal elections at the end of March. Opposition candidates won overwhelmingly in cities throughout the country, handing Erdoğan his biggest defeat in years––and pointing to potential limits to his government’s efforts to stem the free flow of information.

In Myanmar, the oppression by the military junta that re-seized power in February 2021, coupled with fighting between the military and the array of forces that oppose its illegal takeover, have continued to result in immense violence and a further erosion of human rights. However, in 2023, the number of imprisoned writers decreased to 12, from 16 in 2022, putting Myanmar in ninth place in the list of top 10 countries of concern. A prime reason for the decrease was a mass amnesty in January 2023, in which a number of writers jailed since the initial days of the coup were released, including Htin Lin Oo, Maung Thar Cho, Maung Thura (Zarganar), Mya Aye, and Than Myint Aung.

Nevertheless, free expression remains tightly controlled as the military continues 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 false news, incitement, and hate speech; national security laws and the Unlawful Associations Act; and laws covering online communications—have been used to charge and sentence a broad range of dissenting voices, including writers and public intellectuals, chilling 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 2023, with authorities regularly employing targeted internet shutdowns, censorship of websites, and surveillance. Writers, intellectuals, and other creative artists have played a key role in voicing support for the broad-based, countrywide civil disobedience movement (CDM) and the 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.

Despite the decline in the number of imprisoned writers counted in the Index, new cases continued to be reported, and lengthy sentences were handed down to individual writers, journalists, and creative artists who had been detained in the past several years. Most commonly, writers are targeted for covering subjects such as military operations and human rights abuses in conflict zones, corruption, political developments, or official policies. Wai Moe Naing, a writer and activist also known as Monywa Panda, was arrested in April 2021, and later found guilty of multiple counts of incitement; additional convictions on rioting and treason charges in 2023 have resulted in a combined sentence of 54 years. Byu Har, a prominent hip-hop artist, was arrested in May 2023 after live-streaming on his Facebook page to criticize military authorities for their handling of nationwide power outages, and in August was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The pioneering screenwriter and filmmaker Shin Daewe, who also expressed her criticism of the junta through her social media platforms, was arrested by the military in October 2023 at a bus terminal in Yangon after they discovered a drone in her luggage, which she intended to use to make a film. On January 10, 2024, she was sentenced to life imprisonment under the Counterterrorism Law, accused of funding and aiding terrorists.

In 2023, Eritrea held seven writers in detention, down one from 2022 following the confirmed death of Fessehaye Yohannes after years of uncertainty and conflicting reports about his condition. Yohannes was one of the many journalists and writers arbitrarily imprisoned in 2001 following a series of crackdowns on independent and foreign media. This was part of an effort to stifle political dissent under the pretense of “national security” following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Since then, free speech and press freedom have been extremely limited, with the government enforcing strict regulations on media and internet access. 

Of these seven writers in detention, most have been held without trial for over 20 years. Their cases represent the longest detentions of writers globally. The Eritrean government has persistently failed to provide information on the status or condition of the prisoners. 

Dawit Isaak, dual citizen of Eritrea and Sweden, was arrested in September 2001 as part of the media crackdown. He founded Eritrea’s first independent weekly newspaper, Setit. On July 21, 2022, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention filed a complaint calling on the Eritrean government to provide information about Isaak’s more than 20-year-long detention. Also arrested in September 2001 was Amanuel Asrat, a poet, critic, and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Zemen, who created a literary club largely credited for the resurgence of Eritrean poetry.

Major Changes in Countries of Concern

The Impact of War on Free Expression

In contrast to previous years, the 2023 Index saw a number of changes in the top 10 list, with two new countries, Israel and Russia, added due to significant increases in detentions of writers, and other countries falling off the list because of declines in the numbers of jailed writers. The addition of Israel and Russia reflects the impact of war and conflict, as those governments have engaged in crackdowns on dissent and on expression of support for Palestine and Ukraine, respectively. Unsurprisingly, the increased threats against writers and the creative community have been accompanied by restrictions on journalists and the media, on cultural and academic life, on online sharing of information and commentary, and on activists and civil society more broadly.


Russia’s war against Ukraine has entered its third year, with over 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers and tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians killed as of February 2024. Journalists continue to be under threat in the occupied areas of Ukraine and where there is active conflict. Twenty eight media workers and citizen journalists are being held in captivity, including the 2022 Freedom To Write honoree, Vladyslav Yesypenko, in occupied areas of Ukraine. Russia has also continued its attacks against civilian infrastructure, including cultural heritage. UNESCO has stated that 341 cultural sites have been damaged since the 2022 invasion.

In Russia, authorities ramped up an already relentless crackdown on dissent, including against writers and the media. Human rights group OVD-Info reports that more than 19,000 people have been detained for their anti-war stances and many have been prosecuted under censorship legislation specifically intended to suppress criticism of the war against Ukraine. A record number of organizations were declared “undesirable,” four of which were media companies, including TV Rain, a prominent independent online broadcaster that was accused of false reporting on the war.

Even more individuals and groups––217 in 2023––were declared “foreign agents,” subject to massive fines; this marked an expansion of the government’s use of the “foreign agents” law to chill critical speech. Writers, songwriters, researchers, and public intellectuals are listed among the hundreds of “foreign agents,” alongside media outlets, journalists, human rights organizations, and others. In a striking escalation of the attack against free speech, Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist on a reporting trip to Russia, was arrested in March 2023 on suspicion of espionage. He remains in prison in Moscow, and his arrest and continued detention have prompted concerns about the safety of foreign and independent journalists in Russia, with many international news outlets pulling foreign journalists from the country.

Hundreds of thousands of people, including many writers, intellectuals, and artists, have fled Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. Many of these émigrés cite censorship and the repression of political opposition, which had already worsened prior to February 2022, in addition to the threat of conscription, as their reasons for leaving Russia. A small portion of people who fled returned to Russia in 2023, mainly for economic reasons, but a sizable number of political exiles do not envision returning.


Israel entered the list of top ten countries who jail writers for the first time amid the war in Gaza, where Israel’s military operation has, to date, killed over 34,000 Palestinians. The Hamas attack on October 7 that precipitated the operation killed 1,200 Israelis and saw more than 240 taken hostage. Israel’s bombing campaign has had a devastating impact on Palestinian culture, killing at least 14 Palestinian writers, according to PEN International, but the overall toll on writers is still unknown. Palestinian writer and academic Refaat Alareer was killed in an Israeli airstrike December 7; before his death, Alareer’s friends and neighbors said that he had received a phone call from an anonymous Israeli officer warning him that they knew his whereabouts. Reports from media outlets, civil society organizations, and the Palestinian Ministry of Culture show that Israeli strikes and bombs have damaged or destroyed dozens of cultural centers, libraries, and museums, as well as every university in Gaza; UN experts have pointed to the killings of thousands of students, hundreds of teachers and professors, and systemic damage or destruction to over 80 percent of schools. The destruction of cultural heritage, alongside the civilian death toll, has been cited in South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice

At least 97 journalists were killed in the first six months of the war, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists: 92 of them Palestinian, 2 Israeli, and 3 Lebanese. Among them was Lebanese Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah; multiple investigations have raised serious concerns that Israeli forces deliberately targeted Abdallah and several other journalists. Palestinian journalists, rights groups, and international bodies have pointed to Israel’s pattern of targeting journalists, both during the current military campaign and previously. Israel has also prevented international journalists from entering Gaza except on limited excursions accompanied by Israeli soldiers. Israel has bombed telecommunications infrastructure and cut internet connections to Gaza, resulting in repeated communications blackouts that have effectively cut people in Gaza off from the world. This has disrupted the free flow of information at a time when Gaza’s population is on the brink of famine, and when access to information is potentially lifesaving.

Israel’s pattern of arrests, detailed above and occurring largely in the West Bank, is part of a much wider crackdown on free expression across Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory since October 7, which includes targeting people for their expression in online spaces and on social media and escalates an already long-standing pattern of cracking down on expression. Israeli teacher Meir Baruchin posted stories about Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza after October 7 because he felt the Israeli public was not getting the full truth about the consequences of Israel’s military actions; he was arrested and initially investigated on treason charges after authorities interrogated him about his Facebook posts, some dating back more than four years. Charges against Baruchin were eventually dropped. Israeli authorities have also coupled arrests with extensive surveillance of social media activity.

Where numbers dropped in 2023: Writers released in India and Egypt

India dropped out of the top 10 countries jailing writers in 2023, as the number held behind bars fell from nine in 2022 to five in 2023. This is in large part due to the conditional releases of those wrongfully charged and detained in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case, such as Arun Fereira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, P. Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumbde, and others charged with “waging war against the nation,” promoting “enmity” between various caste groups, and spreading “Maoist ideology” under anti-terrorism laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

However, the overall environment for free expression remained challenging, as the government continued to impose internet shutdowns, censorship, website blockages, and persistent harassment of journalists and writers, including punitive administrative measures tied to denial of overseas citizenship (OCI) cards and visas for writers of Indian origin based outside of the country. The Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah remained behind bars for much of the year, facing trumped-up charges in multiple jurisdictions. On October 3, 2023, a number of journalists were subjected to intrusive raids by the Delhi Police’s Special Cell, and authorities confiscated around 300 electronic devices and detained several individuals for prolonged hours of questioning. Prabir Purkayastha, the founder and editor-in-chief of NewsClick, was detained under UAPA and criminal conspiracy charges, and remains held under extended judicial custody.

Egypt also dropped out of the top 10 in 2023 with a decline in the number of imprisoned writers from 10 in 2022 to six in 2023. This is predominantly due to several pardons granted by the Presidential Pardon Committee, re-established by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in April 2022 as part of his call for a greater “national political dialogue” in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. Among those pardoned were Abdel Nasser Salama, Hisham Fouad Mohamed Abdel Halim, and Ahmed Douma. Mohamad el-Baqer, a human rights lawyer who was arrested after he attempted to represent blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah following his detention, was also among those pardoned.

It is important to note that the pardons have not been accompanied by any meaningful changes in the frequency of the arrests of writers nor the other methods employed by the government to limit free speech. Criminal penalties, harassment, and surveillance, as well as the threat of torture and abuse in prison should a writer be arrested, continue to chill free expression, including for Egyptian writers. The government also repeatedly blocks and limits internet and news access, preventing the free spread of information and opinion. Additionally, despite the increase in pardons, releases are slow, specific to a small number of political prisoners, and occurring against the backdrop of a country where Egyptians still face a high chance of arrest or imprisonment for their political views and activity. Of the 754 released individuals who had been detained for their opinions, from the establishment of the committee until May 24, 2023, only 10 were pardons for prisoners who had final sentences, while 744 released on bail from pre-trial detention.

Five-Year Trend Analysis

This edition marks five years of producing the Writers at Risk Database and Freedom to Write Index, and the trend is clear: writers have been jailed at a steadily increasing rate over that time period, from 238 cases counted in 2019 to 339 in 2023. This time span has also seen significant negative political developments in a number of key countries that have had an outsized impact on the climate for free expression and have resulted in sharp upticks in writers being jailed. These developments include the flawed August 2020 presidential election and widespread protest movement in Belarus; the February 2021 coup and anti-military civil disobedience movement in Myanmar; the “Woman, Life, Freedom” demonstrations that erupted following the custodial death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini in the fall of 2022 in Iran; the Russian-instigated war in Ukraine that began in February 2022; and the Israel-Hamas war triggered by the Hamas-led October 7, 2023, incursion into Israel.

The trend lines track evenly for both our initially reported numbers and for the final numbers, which account for cases added retroactively in the years following their original year of arrest. These are cases that may not come to light or receive public attention immediately, and are likely to occur in the most politically repressive countries where the media and information environment is severely restricted, where family members of a jailed writer are initially hesitant to speak publicly about a case to the media due to fear of repercussions or hope that staying quiet may lead to a relative’s release, or where there is little in the public record about a case (for example, a writer is being detained incommunicado and/or without published charges). The largest numbers of cases added retroactively over the past five years have come from China—particularly the Xinjiang region—and Saudi Arabia.


The five-year trend analysis shows a clear uptick in the number of female writers detained starting in 2022, which was tied primarily to the crackdown on protesters and the creative community in Iran—during which women were particularly targeted. Alongside the higher-than-average number of female writers who continue to be jailed in Iran, many of whom were detained specifically because of their expression in support of the protests and greater women’s rights, in 2023 we registered a higher proportion of women writers jailed in both Russia and Israel. While the global average is around 15 percent, in all three of these countries approximately a third of jailed writers are female.

In terms of professional designation, the numbers for most of our categories have remained largely stable, with the exception of online commentators. Over the past five years, the number of jailed writers tagged as online commentators increased significantly, rising from 80 in 2019, to 97 in 2020, to 101 in 2021, to 134 in 2022, to 180 in 2023, suggesting that more and more writers globally are at risk or are being jailed for their online expression. In restrictive countries such as China, Vietnam, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, this is largely because offline platforms such as newspapers or book publishers are wholly under state control or subject to heavy censorship, whether from the state or the writer self-censoring. The online space may provide the only outlet—even if subject to surveillance, censorship, and manipulation—for independent or dissenting voices. In the West Bank, social media is a critical outlet for writers with limited opportunities to publish. In addition, the global audience and instantaneous reach of online platforms means that authoritarian governments are particularly anxious to exert control over digital writing and communications.

The turnover rate, or how many writers are released every year and how many new cases of detention are recorded, suggests that a significant percentage of the total cases involve shorter-term detentions, often without any charges being levied at all. Data from all five editions of the Index shows that between quarter and a third of the jailed writers each year are typically released, and there is a similar pattern for new cases of arrest and detention, with between 50 and 80 cases every year of each. On the other end of the spectrum, cases of lengthy imprisonment constitute a considerable proportion—roughly a third—of our cases. Over five editions of the Index, there are 96 cases where the individual has been in jail in all years; 45, or almost half, of these cases are in China, including the autonomous regions.


Top 10 countries of concern

The top 10 countries jailing writers should:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all writers in detention for their speech, including those in pre-trial and administrative 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 that are not consistent with international human rights laws and standards.
  • In cases where restrictions are imposed to protect national security and public order, ensure that the least intrusive restrictions are applied to realize those goals.
  • In cases of alleged offenses stemming from speech, writing, or other communities, provide credible public information about the basis for the charges and evidence to substantiate those charges.

Governments that support global free expression

Governments that 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. These governments should:

  • Support the creation of an international normative framework that recognizes the unique role that writers play in society preserving culture and defending free expression, and that advances their security and protection.
  • Support efforts to end impunity for human rights violations and crimes against writers exercising their free expression 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, in order to advocate on their behalf.
  • 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, such as “foreign agents” laws and those that undermine free and open access to the internet.
  • Stop the growing practice of transnational repression, and sanction those foreign governments that target writers on their own country’s soil.
  • Refrain from enacting “false” news and cybercrimes laws that can be used to target writers and undermine free expression.
  • Refrain from using counterterrorism, public security, and similar laws to prosecute writers or the exercise of free expression.
  • Issue standing invitations to UN Special Procedures—independent human rights experts—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 highlight 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 2023 Freedom to Write Index is a count of the writers who were held in prison or detention during 2023 because of their writing or for otherwise exercising their freedom of expression. Individuals must have spent at least 48 hours behind bars in a single instance of detention between January 1 and December 31, 2023. We define imprisonment when an individual is serving a sentence following a conviction, while detention is defined as individuals held in custody pending charges, or those held in pre-trial or administrative detention.

The cases included in the Index are drawn from PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database and its Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) case list. The Index and Database also draw from PEN International’s Case Lists which reflect input from PEN Centers around the world. We also draw from press reports; information received directly and indirectly from the families, lawyers, and colleagues of those in prison; and data from other human rights, press freedom, academic freedom, and free expression organizations. 

Individuals in the Index and Database primarily write literature, poetry, or other creative writing; essays, nonfiction, research, or academic writing; opinion or analysis articles; or they provide online commentary. Journalists are included if they are also opinion writers or columnists. Scholars and activists are included where they also fall into one of the categories above or are opinion writers or columnists.

Speech is vetted in line with PEN International’s approach: “The Writers in Prison Committee works on behalf of those who are detained or otherwise persecuted for their opinions expressed in writing, including writers who are under attack for their political activities or for exercising their profession, provided that they did not use violence or advocate violence and racial hatred.” In practice, we also include hatred against ethnic or religious groups, LGBTQ+ groups, and gender in this caveat. This test means that we include writers in the Index and Database whose speech may be offensive and inflammatory, but exclude writers who directly advocate violence or hatred. We make this determination by assessing as much written content as we are able to source and follow as far as is possible the principles set out in the Rabat Plan of Action. We assess this on a case-by-case basis.

The compiling of the data for the Index is an ongoing process and PEN America adds cases retrospectively. Thirty-three cases were added retrospectively to the 2022 Index. These cases included individuals who were imprisoned in or before 2022, but whose imprisonment only became known to PEN America while we were compiling the data for the 2023 Index. While such cases occurred in 12 countries, just under half were found in two countries, China and Saudi Arabia.

The Freedom to Write Index is 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 53 jailed writers who have received the Freedom to Write Award from 1987 to 2023, 46 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates.

For more details, please see our full methodology.


The Freedom to Write Index was researched and written by the staff of the PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Center and reviewed and edited by key staff from the Free Expression Program of PEN America. Data on writers jailed and under threat for the Writers at Risk Database was prepared by the Writers at Risk team. 

PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center interns, fellows, and consultants provided essential research, data analysis, drafting, references, and fact-checking throughout the year.

PEN America is deeply grateful to PEN International—both the Secretariat and the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)—for its collaboration on this project. PEN America also thanks the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust for their generous support.