People of Word (32)

Freedom to Write Index 2020

Writers are vital for bearing witness to the truths of our time. In the past year especially, writers have been crucial for informing the rest of the world about what is transpiring in their home countries during the COVID-19 pandemic—and helping us imagine alternate visions for the future. 

Since its launch last year, PEN America’s annual Freedom to Write Index has helped to inform the greater public about threats to writers around the world, shedding light on the individuals who have been silenced and detained for their words and which countries present the largest threats to writers and public intellectuals. 

READ PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index 2020

Key findings regarding free expression in Belarus from this year’s report: 

  • Belarus, which accounted for zero cases in the 2019 Index, now ranks as the fifth worst jailer of writers and intellectuals, with 18 documented cases in 2020, as a result of a brutal post-election crackdown on mass protests that has targeted translators, artists, and other cultural figures.
  • Belarus is the only new country to make it into this year’s top ten list of the world’s worst jailers of writers and public intellectuals.
  • We highlight the cases of Ihar Bancer, Dmitry Strosev, Olga Shparaga, and Mikola Dziadok, among several other urgent cases of cultural repression and injustice against writers and public intellectuals in Belarus.

Other findings of this year’s report include: 

  • For the second year in a row, China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey topped PEN America’s list of the world’s worst jailers of writers and public intellectuals. 
  • In 2020, at least 273 writers, academics, and public intellectuals in 35 countries were in prison or unjustly held in detention in connection with their writing, their work, or related activism. This represents a 9 percent increase over the prior year, signaling a serious deterioration for the climate for free expression globally.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened free expression in many countries, as governments are using the pandemic to further restrict speech, with policies criminalizing “false information” or “rumors” about the pandemic—with some even using the virus as an excuse to criminalize criticizing the government itself.
  • Meanwhile, numbers increased in Iran, Vietnam, and Egypt, and expanded dramatically in Belarus, comprising some 7 percent of the total as a result of a brutal post-election crackdown on mass protests and cultural resistance.
  • India continues to be the only democracy to place in the top ten rankings of countries that jail writers and public intellectuals, with additional writers detained in 2020.
  • Among the dissidents targeted include our 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree Xu Zhiyong in China; late Bangladeshi political commentator and writer Mushtaq Ahmed; and Kakwenza Rukirabashaja, a Ugandan novelist detained, interrogated, and tortured under charges purportedly related to the pandemic.
  • Though the report only counts writers jailed during calendar year 2020, Myanmar nonetheless was in the top ten (tied with Eritrea), signaling that even pre-coup, the country remained a restrictive environment for writers and public intellectuals.

Alongside the Index, PEN America is also proud to present updates to the Writers at Risk database, which contains details of each of the writers in our 2020 Index along with hundreds of other cases of writers, journalists, artists, and intellectuals under threat around the world, including historical cases that PEN America has worked on from 1987 onwards. This database offers researchers, rights advocates, and the public a wealth of actionable evidence of ongoing global threats to free expression. Explore the Writers at Risk Database here.

We hope you will explore the Freedom to Write Index and the Writers at Risk Database, and as always, we thank you for your support.