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Alarming rise in cases of writers persecuted for their use of digital media

Thursday 14 November 2013 - 12:00am

Each year on 15 November PEN International and its world-wide membership of writers commemorate their colleagues from around the world who are imprisoned, attacked and killed.

In the first six months of 2013, PEN monitored over 630 cases of attacks on writers, journalists and bloggers. Of these, around 187 are in prison, some serving sentences of over 15 years. Others are suffering unfair trials, harassment and threats.

Every year PEN focuses on five writers from around the world that represent the type of threats and attacks faced by our colleagues. This year PEN looks at cases of writers that are suffering violations of their right to freedom of expression for using digital media.

‘Digital surveillance has become the partner in crime for states in their war on freedom of expression’ said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee

‘We have seen an alarming rise in the number of cases that have a digital component over the last decade. Almost half of our most serious cases are now related to digital media.’

In response to threats to freedom expression presented by digital media, PEN launched the Declaration on Digital Freedom in 2012, a set of principles on censorship, surveillance, targeting of individuals, and business and human rights in a digital age. PEN has been campaigning for greater awareness of the scale of the problem throughout 2013.

PEN International’s focus cases for this year are:

Dina Meza - Human rights defender and journalist. the victim of harassment and threats since 2006 which have not been properly investigated, while national protection mechanisms for journalists are ineffective. PEN International believe that she is targeted for exercising her right to free expression and that her physical security is at risk. For more information click here.

Fazil Say - Writer, composer and musician. His 10-month suspended sentence for “religious defamation” was upheld on 20 September 2013. His conviction relates to a series of tweets and retweets made in April 2012, including a verse attributed to the 12th Century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. For more information click here.

Zahra Rahnavard - Author and Political Activist. She has been held under unofficial house arrest in Tehran since February 2011 for her and her husband’s political activism. For more information click here.

Kunchok Tsephel Gopey Tsang - Internet writer and editor of the Tibetan language website Chomei (The Lamp). He was convicted of “disclosing state secrets” on 12 November 2009, currently serving a 15-year prison sentence. For more information click here.

Rodney Sieh - Founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of award-winning daily newspaper FrontPageAfrica – On 8 November Sieh was released following the expiration of a 30-day compassionate leave granted by the Liberian authorities. Sieh was jailed on 2 August 2013 for failing to pay US$1.5 million to a former minister in libel damages. PEN International will continue to support Sieh and monitor his case.

During the days surrounding 15 November, PEN members around the world send protests to governments, issue petitions, write articles, and stage events. This year activities will take place across the globe including in Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, Japan and many more.

PEN members’ support and campaigning for their colleagues at risk have enormous impact, not only in supporting families of writers at risk, but also in contributing towards their release and in ensuring that the need to protect freedom of expression is high on the public agenda.

In the first six months of this year, PEN International learned of the release of 23 writers on its case list. Chinese poet, journalist and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC) Shi Tao, was released 15 months before the end of his 10-year sentence.

Shi Tao had been a PEN main case since his arrest in 2004. In 2008 his poem ‘June’ was the focus of the PEN Poem Relay, a campaign to raise awareness about freedom of expression in China in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Writers and poets around the world produced 127 translations of the poem in 100 languages which were published via a specialist website. Upon his release Shi Tao thanked all PEN colleagues who supported him during his long imprisonment.

PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee launched the first Day of the Imprisoned Writer in 1981 and since then has used 15 November to campaign on behalf of persecuted writers.

Focus cases have included writers such as Orhan Pamuk (2005), Hrant Dink (2006), Zargana Maung Thura (2007), Tsering Woeser (2008) and many others. While ­­PEN uses this day to direct focus on specific cases of writers at risk, PEN continues to campaign on behalf of all persecuted writers throughout the year.

For more information contact Ann Harrison, Programme Director, Writers in Prison Committee: or Sahar Halaimzai, Communications and Campaigns Manager:
Phone: + 44 (0) 20 7405 0338 | @pen_int