The PEN Pod: Defending the Freedom to Write with Karin Deutsch Karlekar
Today, we at PEN America launched the Freedom to Write Index, a comprehensive look at the writers and public intellectuals who have been imprisoned or otherwise detained in 2019. The Index takes a close look at the risks to free expression worldwide, and it’s also a crucial tool in our now century-long fight to defend the freedom to write. Here today on The PEN Pod to discuss the Freedom to Write Index is PEN America’s own Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk programs. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Karin is up until the 11:25 mark).
And check out our video clip below featuring Egyptian writer and journalist Ahmed Naji, who was prosecuted and jailed in 2016 for content in his novel, The Use of Life, and was cleared of charges in 2018. Naji talks about his experience in an Egyptian prison and what international solidarity meant for him and his case.
What are the big takeaways here?
KARIN DEUTSCH KARLEKAR: Well, I think just the scale of the problem. Last year, we noted, of all the writers and intellectuals whose cases we were looking at who spent time in jail—and that’s either time in prison after facing legal charges and trials, or being detained without charge—we found that almost 240 were jailed last year or spent time in jail last year. About 35 countries held writers and intellectuals in prison. But what was really surprising to us is that about 60 percent of all the cases were found in just three countries—China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. So really, it’s a very concentrated crackdown on free expression and writers, where you see basically three countries holding the majority of writers in prison around the world.
What are the big trends that you and your team are finding?
Some of these countries have been known for many years to be very repressive, but we did see huge increases in the numbers in recent years in all three countries in the top three. In China, there’s been a huge crackdown on the Uyghur ethnic minority group, which has really affected writers and intellectuals as well, so the numbers in China have skyrocketed because of this broader crackdown on their Uyghur population. In Saudi Arabia, we saw a huge crackdown on all forms of dissent starting a few years ago, under the current crown prince, and that has affected women human rights defenders and writers; it’s affected bloggers, online commentators, and intellectuals. In Turkey, we’ve also seen a huge crackdown in the last few years, following a failed coup, so that’s also swelled the numbers in Turkey.
In terms of other interesting trends and findings, many of the other countries in our top 10 list are known for very repressive environments and crackdowns on both journalism and broader free expression, but India really stood out as being the only very democratic country on that list, with five writers and intellectuals in jail last year. That does stand out as being a worrisome trend in India, where free expression is coming under increased attack under the present government.
“What was really surprising to us is that about 60 percent of all the cases were found in just three countries—China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. So really, it’s a very concentrated crackdown on free expression and writers, where you see basically three countries holding the majority of writers in prison around the world.”
In terms of other broader trends, what we found quite interesting was when you look at all the charges that writers are charged under, about half were prosecuted under laws concerning national security. These laws are very broadly worded and can be used to basically detain, imprison, charge, and jail writers for their writing, but they’re often accused of terrorism, endangering state security, or separatism, things like that. And it’s particularly an issue in Turkey and China. What we found conversely, in Saudi Arabia, most of the writers are actually held even without charge, so that Saudi Arabia tends to detain people and not even charge them, or have undisclosed charges. And that’s particularly worrying because there’s really no way to fight the detention if they’re not even being brought to trial or charged with anything in particular.
Many of the people, actually, in these countries are being held incommunicado. They have no contact with friends and family. In some cases, people don’t even know really if they’re dead or alive, and they’re subject to horrific forms of abuse and torture. So it’s particularly a concern in these countries that have very repressive and opaque legal and judicial systems, and where the prison conditions are not very good.
We saw that writers were targeted for particular types of writing, expression, or academic research, for example. Particularly historians in a number of countries who are seeking to expose painful truths about their country’s histories and challenging narratives—those writers we saw in Russia and China in particular were singled out for attack. In general, women were quite a small percentage of the total number of cases—only about 16 percent around the world of writers in jail were women. But quite a few of these women, particularly in both Saudi Arabia and Iran, were targeted directly for their writing and advocacy on women’s rights issues. So it seems like women writing in favor of women’s rights, or speaking out in favor of women’s rights, was a particular reason for their targeting in these two countries.
We also saw that general crackdowns on ethnic minorities and ethnic identities was another reason for it. The tensions, particularly again in China with the Uyghur, so people writing in Uyghur language and talking about Uyghur culture, also Tibetan writers and those advocating on behalf of Tibetan language rights. We’ve also seen issues with Kurdish writers in Iran and Turkey. So the use of languages is a very particular problem that writers face as well, in terms of being singled out for attack.
“It’s also incredibly important to not just look at numbers and to give the trends a human face, and to really look at the individual cases of writers and intellectuals behind bars, with the hope that as more people know the stories of the writers and intellectuals, that more of them will be urged to take action to ensure their freedom.”
Both PEN America and PEN International—our sister organizations around the world—we’ve always had these highlight cases that we pursue, but why did you think it was so important that we do this annual survey and put it out into the world? How does it advance our work to defend free expression?
The PEN network has been defending the rights of writers who are in prison and aren’t able to defend themselves for almost 100 years, and this work is the bedrock of the PEN network’s work on behalf of writers around the world. But one thing, I think, in terms of the crucial nature of it, is that what we’re seeing is that these attacks are actually increasing, and they are expanding to cover more creative types of expression as well, so it’s not a problem that’s going away. There’s a need to be able to analyze both the scale of the problem and look at the actual numbers and the trends and see which countries and regions it’s affecting and what the issues are that are getting writers in jail.
It’s also incredibly important to not just look at numbers and to give the trends a human face, and to really look at the individual cases of writers and intellectuals behind bars, with the hope that as more people know the stories of the writers and intellectuals, that more of them will be urged to take action to ensure their freedom. So we’re trying, with this report and the database that’s going to go with it, to enable people—writers around the world, human rights activists, journalists, governments, and policymakers—to find these cases easily, to get information about them, and then to use that knowledge to take action to ensure the freedom for people who are still behind bars.
“Even in very intransient cases, we do see success, and for myself and my colleagues, probably the greatest thrill is when we finally got to meet a freed writer whose case we’ve been advocating on.”
Was there anything that you found that was hopeful in preparing this report?
Yeah, for sure. About two-thirds of the people that we found that were detained last year are still in state custody, but a third have been released. So that is, in itself, positive in that there’s a significant number of people who were detained or imprisoned last year who were now freed. Some of them are in this state of conditional freedom, where they still have some conditions on their release. It could be a travel ban, restrictions on work, or continued harassment from the authorities. But the fact that many are being released is grounds for optimism.
And then, I think also just the point that advocacy really does work, even with very difficult cases where people have been given a 10- or 20-year sentence. I’m thinking particularly of one of our recent Freedom to Write awardees, Oleg Sentsov, who’s a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker, who was in jail in Russia in a prison colony, in very difficult conditions. The Russian government, as we know, is not very susceptible to pleas to release prisoners. He underwent a very difficult hunger strike the year before; he almost died. We for sure did not think that there was much possibility of him getting released, but he was released in September 2019 as part of a general prisoner swap.
So, even in very intransient cases, we do see success, and for myself and my colleagues, probably the greatest thrill is when we finally got to meet a freed writer whose case we’ve been advocating on. Sometimes it can take 10 or 15 years, and it finally happens. So that’s actually, I think, good grounds to end on. That’s what helps us all keep doing this work and trying to free writers who are in jail at the moment.
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