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Chaos, Conflict, Impunity: PEN International, Case List 2021

Wednesday 13 July 2022 - 9:30am

Chaos, Conflict, Impunity: PEN International, Case List 2021

July 13: PEN International releases Chaos, Conflict, Impunity: PEN International, Case List 2021 today. A yearly compilation of PEN International’s most emblematic cases from 2021, Chaos, Conflict, Impunity provides an overview and an indication of global trends, as well as a guide to the type of challenges writers faced, in different countries worldwide, and the actions other writers took in their support.

‘It is an honour to launch our annual Case List on the 5th anniversary of the death of Liu Xiaobo, former president of Independent Chinese PEN and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, as a stark reminder of the need to continue fighting for the right to freedom of expression around the world. As Liu said: “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth”. Today, we commemorate his memory and demand justice for all those around the world who are being silenced for simply upholding this right’. – Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

2021 saw the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread conflicts have a devastating impact on the lives of countless people globally, among them writers and artists.

For a second year, many governments put in place measures to censor commentary on COVID-19 and their handling of the pandemic, as well as criticism of their policies on broader issues. Online platforms were shut down and journalists in Bangladesh and Venezuela were arrested for spreading ‘fake news’. In Tunisia, COVID-19 was one of the reasons used to justify a sudden ousting of the government and suspension of parliament by the President.

2021 also saw the re-emergence of violent autocracies, including with the military’s coup d’état in Myanmar in February, and the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in August, resulting in many writers and PEN members being forced to flee to ensure their safety, and those who stayed behind being forced into silence. Two PEN members, Abdullah Atefi and Dawa Khan Menapal, were shot dead within a day of each other as the Taliban seized control over Kabul. At least five poets and writers were killed by junta forces in Myanmar, including poets Myint Myint Zin and K Za Win, who were fired upon by security forces while taking part in a peaceful demonstration, and poet Khet Thi, who was abducted and reportedly tortured to death.

Further tragic loss of life was witnessed in Bangladesh, where writer Mushtaq Ahmed passed away while in pre-trial detention; in Lebanon, where writer and publisher Lokman Slim was found dead, brutally murdered in his car outside Beirut; in Kazakhstan, where poet Aron Atabek died of Covid-19 only months before he was due to be released following the completion of an 18-year sentence; in Mexico, where journalist and writer Fredy López Arévalo was shot dead outside his house in Chiapas; and in the Netherlands, where Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries died from injuries sustained in a shooting in Amsterdam.

Entrenched conflicts and longstanding repression remain a reality for imprisoned writers in China, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Cuba, countries that have featured in PEN International’s Case List for much of its existence. In Belarus, pro-democracy activists continued to protest the disputed August 2020 presidential elections while the Belarusian PEN Centre, dissolved by the Supreme Court in August, was forced to relocate to continue its ground-breaking work.

In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, journalists attempting to report on the conflict found themselves harassed and arrested, amidst an internet blackout in the war-torn area. Freedom of expression was also a victim of violence in the Israeli-Palestine conflict in May, which saw assaults on journalists, media and cultural offices in Gaza.

In Nicaragua, censorship around the widely criticised November elections led to scores of journalists being arrested, media outlets closed and dissidents, including PEN members, forced to leave the country. Similarly in Uganda, elections were marked by widespread state violence, with opposition candidates and their supporters being arbitrarily arrested, detained and prosecuted on trumped up charges, and journalists being harassed and beaten for covering opposition campaigns.

In Morocco, the Pegasus spyware was used to spy on writers who were subsequently imprisoned. Complaints about its use against reporters in Azerbaijan, Hungary, India, Mexico, Morocco and Togo were registered against its Israeli-owned manufacturer, NSO, in September.

2021 marked twenty-years since 12 Eritrean writers and journalists were detained, incommunicado and without trial. The year also saw scores of writers serving long prison sentences or in long term pre-trial detention in Bahrain, China, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, the UEA and Vietnam, among others.

2021 ended with the threat of further armed conflict in Ukraine, with Russia accused of waging a deliberate campaign of disinformation and curtailing freedom of expression.

Yet this bleak picture is accompanied by the creative resistance of PEN Centres and writers, even those experiencing repression, who spoke out and stood up for those in trouble, publishing the work of fellow writers, observing their trials, finding safe places for them to flee, and lobbying governments across the globe.

Good news came from China, with the conditional release of ICPC members DU Bin and LIU Feiyue, and Tibetan linguistic rights activist Tashi WANGCHUK; Egypt, with the release of journalist Khaled Dawoud and photojournalists Solafa Magdy and Hossam Sayyad; Mexico, where the former mayor of the Chihuahua city of Chínipas was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the murder of journalist Miroslava Breach, and where gang leader Juan Francisco Picos Barrueta was sentenced to 32 years and three months in prison for the murder of journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas; Turkey, with the release of writer and journalist Ahmet Altan; and Zimbabwe where the High Court ruled in favour of award-winning novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga, arrested in 2020 while peacefully protesting government corruption.

‘As Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga said, the work of writing is: ‘to do and to keep on doing, regardless of circumstances.’ One should add that defending free expression is a work that needs to be kept on being done, whatever the challenges’. Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

Notes to editors:

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