PEN America: Freedom to Write Index 2021


On February 1, 2021, a military coup violently disrupted Myanmar’s fragile and uncertain experiment with civilian rule. Writers and filmmakers were among those immediately imprisoned. Protesters and poets were soon shot in the streets. As this report goes to press, the world’s eyes are on Russia’s brutal, devastating assault on Ukraine—its people, language and culture, and democracy. Putin’s unbridled aggression, however, is part of a larger resurgence of authoritarianism around the globe.

The past year has repeatedly seen authoritarian forces seek to reclaim powers and territories that had previously passed outside their control; the echoes of the past are heard not only in Europe, but in Myanmar, where the military’s naked attempt to retrieve its lost power brought shock, horror, and then resistance; and in Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s swift recapture of the country following U.S. military withdrawal seemed to—almost overnight—decimate the progress Afghans had painstakingly made over the last 20 years and are struggling to uphold, including with regard to women’s rights, freedom of expression, cultural and artistic creativity, and the development of independent media. From Tunisia to Sudan to Nicaragua, old forces re-exerted themselves and moved to quash democratic progress. And in Hong Kong, a city with a robust history of vibrant freedoms, the reach of the Chinese government has been extended, most formally in the application of the National Security Law against writers and independent media. This has not only led to a crackdown, but also created a climate of looming fear and a sense that safety may only lie in silence, or exile. In Russia, a concerted effort to eliminate what remained of independent media and the space for dissent over recent years laid the groundwork for Putin to maintain total information control in wartime.

In democracies as well, authoritarian tactics are being employed. Censorship and intimidation of dissenting voices is rife in India. In the United States, efforts to ban books and enact laws that would bar discussion of certain topics in classrooms spiked in 2021. Much of this debate centered around the freedom to contend with and openly debate the complexities of history. This, too, has echoes around the globe. Just before Russian troops began this latest incursion into Ukraine, Putin gave a speech in which he attempted to rewrite Ukraine’s history to suit his own ends. For years now, Putin has held in prison the historian Yury Dmitriev on specious charges of child pornography; Dmitriev’s true crime was uncovering and documenting mass graves from the Stalinist era, a historical truth that contradicted Putin’s attempts to whitewash and glorify the memory of Stalin. Government attempts to silence those who study, document, and debate history are typically also an attempt to exert a sole narrative over the past, one that serves the interests of the present.

Yet in all of these cases, authoritarian regimes have been met with resistance. In Myanmar, widespread and sustained civil disobedience—including the creative resistance of writers and artists—followed the coup. Afghan women refused to be silenced and they, too, have taken to the streets. Belarusians have continued their resistance against a president holding onto power despite an election he seemed to think he could steal without a fight. And today, Putin must contend not only with the fierce resistance of the Ukrainian people, but also Russians inside the country and around the world who persist in speaking the truth.

Writers and artists—including composer and musician Laurie Anderson and authors Jennifer Egan and Gary Shteyngart—read from the works of Ukrainian thinkers and poets at a candlelight vigil held by PEN America in support of a free Ukraine. Photo by PEN America

As truth-tellers, creative visionaries, and documentarians, writers have been at the forefront of these movements to resist authoritarianism, and they have been targeted as a result. The Iranian Writers’ Association has become a prime target of its government for its persistence in celebrating literature, condemning censorship, and commemorating past attempts to silence Iranian writers. PEN America’s sister organization PEN Belarus, despite being formally dissolved by a Belarusian court in August 2021, perseveres in documenting its government’s assaults on writers, artists, and all those who insist on their right to speak freely.1 Myanmar’s creative community has braved brutal violence and used their writing and artwork to resist the coup and represent the public’s demands for freedom.2 Cuban artists and writers have persisted, despite repeated arrests, in critiquing their government and calling for change.

In these countries and others, and as PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index documents, writers and public intellectuals have been unjustly locked up for their exercise of free expression; dozens are currently serving sentences of 10 years or more for their words. In countries notorious for poor prison conditions, the mistreatment of political prisoners through solitary confinement or torture has been compounded by the grave threats to their health posed by COVID-19 and its spread inside jails. But governments’ attempts to muzzle dissent have failed to extinguish individual writers’ voices. In the face of repression, literary communities have come together in defense of writers under threat; writers in prison have gone on hunger strikes—not to call for their own release, but on behalf of others unjustly jailed. Translators have made threatened writers’ words available to a global audience. And across the world, advocates and allies have read aloud the words of those whose governments would see them silenced, and shared the work of those whose governments would see it destroyed. And that work has offered hope to all who seek to push back against the forces of repression.

In the face of an authoritarian resurgence, writers are at the forefront of the defense of free expression and also have an essential role to play, pushing back against attempts to control the narrative; sustaining cultures and languages under threat; holding governments to account—on issues as varied as corruption, their response to COVID-19, or upholding basic rights; and envisioning new possibilities for the future. The freedom to write guarantees our collective ability to imagine and to inspire, and it demands our defense.

The Global Picture

During 2021, according to data collected for the Freedom to Write Index, at least 277 writers, academics, and public intellectuals in 36 countries—in all geographic regions around the world—were unjustly held in detention or imprisoned in connection with their writing, their work, or related advocacy. This number is slightly higher than the 273 individuals counted in the 2020 Freedom to Write Index, and significantly higher than the total in 2019 (238). By far the most significant increase was seen in Myanmar, as a result of the crackdown that followed the military coup there on February 1, 2021, which has included the deliberate targeting of writers and the broader creative community. The numbers of those detained in Saudi ArabiaTurkey, and Belarus dropped from 2020, although many of those released from prison in Saudi Arabia continue to face draconian, unjust conditions on their release, including constraints on their freedom of movement and expression. In Belarus, the sharp uptick in detentions—many of them short-term—that accompanied the protests after the stolen election of August 2020 dropped off, though 2021 increasingly saw targeted arrests of writers and others who continued to speak out, and longer-term detentions.


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