SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

PEN America: Freedom to Write Index 2020

Source PEN America
Friday , 23 April 2021

While many writers included in the Index hold multiple professions and are, for example, both literary writers and poets, the most prevalent professions of those incarcerated are: literary writers (107), scholars (54), poets (57), singer/songwriters (30), publishers (13), editors (11), translators (8), and dramatists (3). Of these 273 individuals, 2 died while in custody, 3 died following their release, and 176—roughly two-thirds—remain in state custody at the time of this report’s publication.


The majority of those writers and intellectuals included in the 2020 count were initially imprisoned or detained prior to 2020, or had faced previous detention or imprisonment. Of the 273 in prison or detention during 2020, roughly 71 percent of them had also spent multiple days behind bars in 2019. This figure also includes 12 cases of individuals who were detained or imprisoned prior to 2020 but whose status only became publicly known during the past year. Such cases are common especially in environments where there is little transparency to the judicial process and limited press access; for example, in Xinjiang and Tibet in China. In many of these cases, detention is not confirmed until formal charges are made. The remaining roughly 29 percent of the 2020 Index comprises 79 writers and intellectuals, in 25 different countries, who were newly detained or imprisoned in 2020.


The largest number of new cases of writers and public intellectuals detained or imprisoned in 2020 came from Belarus, where the cultural community has played a leading role in the protests that followed the August 2020 presidential election, in which Alexander Lukashenka claimed victory despite election monitors concluding the election was “neither free nor fair,” and the European Union rejecting what it called the “falsified” results. Lukashenka’s regime has responded to the protests with a violent crackdown and widespread detentions, and has targeted influential cultural figures playing a role in the protests and broader movement to reject Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule. As a result, after having had no cases included in the 2019 Index, Belarus entered the top tier of the 2020 Index, ranking fifth in the world for detaining and imprisoning writers and intellectuals.


The remaining majority of these 79 new cases of writers and intellectuals have been detained or imprisoned during 2020 in countries that were within the top 10 jailers of this group in the previous Freedom to Write Index: China (12), Egypt (6), Vietnam (5), Iran (5), Saudi Arabia (3), India (3), and Turkey (2). Individuals were also newly detained or imprisoned during 2020 in countries that held a smaller number overall, including Bangladesh (3), Thailand (3), Cambodia (2), Cuba (2), the Palestinian Territories (2), Sri Lanka (2), Israel (1), Jordan (1), Kazakhstan (1), Morocco (1), Oman (1), Pakistan (1), South Sudan (1), Sudan (1), Tajikistan (1), Uganda (1), and Venezuela (1).

Importantly, a number of these newly detained writers have also been threatened, harassed, or detained for their work in the past, with their 2020 detentions forming part of a larger pattern of ongoing governmental retaliation against them for their writing or expression over time. Writers who fall within this subset include Moroccan historian Maati Monjib, Chinese legal scholar Xu Zhangrun, Palestinian writer Abdullah Abu Sharkh, Iranian literary and arts critic Anisa Jafari-Mehr, and Indian professor of literature Hany Babu.

Many of the trends documented in the 2019 Freedom to Write Index persisted in 2020. National security remains the primary claim authorities use to justify detaining or imprisoning writers and public intellectuals: at least 55 percent of detentions were based on allegations of undermining national security or membership in a banned group. Arbitrary detentions—unaccompanied by formal charges—made up at least 20 percent of the cases, leaving the accused writers and intellectuals in a state of legal limbo, without recourse to challenge the claims against them. Cases of arbitrary detention are particularly common in Saudi Arabia, where at least 66 percent of writers and public intellectuals are held on unknown or undisclosed charges.

Charges related to organizing, assembly, and activism were used in at least 16 percent of cases against writers. Retaliatory criminal charges, defamation, and charges related to disinformation were levied against writers as well, though in fewer instances. At least 25 cases were identified of writers and public intellectuals detained for alleged disinformation crimes, including those related to spreading allegedly false news about COVID-19, demonstrating the troubling ways in which authorities have abused such laws to quash critics and quell divergent views. A relatively smaller percentage of cases were brought against writers for allegedly making threats against religious authority, producing obscene materials, or inciting violence. One of the most significant trends of 2020 has been the targeting of writers, commentators, and others who have spoken out in criticism of their governments’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic; these cases were often brought on the grounds of national security, public order, or prohibitions against disinformation.

Governments of countries in the Asia-Pacific region continued to jail the most writers and intellectuals for their writing or expression. In total, 121—or nearly half of the global count—were jailed in Asia-Pacific, with the vast majority of those, 81, held in China. Significant numbers of writers were also held in Vietnam (11), India (9), and Myanmar (8). Countries in the Middle East and North Africa have also jailed significant numbers of writers and intellectuals, including Saudi Arabia (32), Iran (19), and Egypt (14). Countries in this region contributed to almost a third of the global count of imprisoned and detained writers, at least 81 individuals, in 2020.

Detentions and imprisonments of writers and intellectuals in Europe and Central Asia occurred largely in two countries: Turkey and Belarus. Turkey maintains its position as the jailer of the third-highest number of writers and public intellectuals worldwide, having held 25 of the 50 prisoners and detainees in Europe and Central Asia during 2020. The crackdown against those protesting Belarus’s stolen presidential election led to a startling number of writers and cultural figures being detained or imprisoned: while Belarus did not jail any writers in 2019, in 2020 the number jumped to at least 18 that can be documented—the actual number is likely higher. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa contributed to roughly 5 percent of the 2020 Index, representing 14 writers and public intellectuals detained or imprisoned. Two countries in the Americas contributed to just three percent of the 2020 Index, with six writers detained or imprisoned in Cuba and one in Venezuela.

About the Freedom to Write Index

The 2020 Freedom to Write Index provides a count of the writers, academics, and public intellectuals who were held in prison or detention during 2020 in relation to their writing or for otherwise exercising their freedom of expression. For the past century, PEN America and the global PEN network have defended the rights of writers and intellectuals to express themselves freely, and advocated on behalf of those who have faced threats as a result of their writing or other forms of expression. The criteria for inclusion in the Freedom to Write Index thus adhere closely to PEN International’s standards for selection for their annual Case List.

The Index is a count of individuals who primarily write literature, poetry, or other creative writing; essays or other nonfiction or academic writing; or online commentary. The Index includes journalists only in cases where they also fall into one of the former categories, or are opinion writers or columnists. To be included in the count, individuals must have spent at least 48 hours behind bars in a single instance of detention between January 1 and December 31, 2020.

For the purposes of the Index and the status designations used to classify cases, imprisonment is considered to be when an individual is serving a sentence following a conviction, while detention accounts for individuals held in custody pending charges, or those who have been charged and are being held prior to conviction. Writers are, of course, also subject to other types of threats, including censorship, harassment, legal charges without detention, or physical attacks, and these are also analyzed to a lesser degree in this report.

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