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PEN International Case List 2020

Monday 17 May 2021 - 8:41am

Case List 2020

May 21: Today PEN International release its yearly Case List. PEN International Case List 2020 provides a global overview of attacks, imprisonment and persecution of writers and those who use the written word to express themselves, including an overview of key events that have impacted on freedom of expression by regions, and a summary of cases of concern to PEN.

2020 saw a global COVID-19 pandemic which brought much of the world to a halt. This year’s Case List records the impact of the pandemic on writers in their attempts to speak out under lockdowns and other restrictions imposed during the current crisis.

“The pandemic has allowed governments to impose strict controls and restrictions on civil liberties… Restricting a large number of people to meet in public may be necessary, but restricting journalists from reporting on that is not. Challenging conspiracy theories is essential, but jailing commentators or writers who question the authorities is not. Being transparent about government policy is crucial, but dismissing critics as purveyors of fake news, and worse, prosecuting them, is not”. Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

Many authoritarian governments saw the pandemic as an opportunity to further stifle critics. In China, for example, coronavirus prevention checks have been used to gain access to the home of a dissident writer who was then arrested.

Restrictions on public gatherings meant that the opportunity to protest was severely curtailed. Many of the thousands that took to the streets in countries including Belarus, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania and the USA, were met with detentions, police violence, bans on social media and attacks on the press. In Zimbabwe two people, one of whom is a writer, were arrested, ostensibly for breaking COVID-19 regulations after staging a two-person protest criticising the government. Both wore face coverings and were walking in a largely empty street.

In some countries COVID-19 regulations have entered the realm of insult and defamation laws used to suppress criticism of governments. In Iran staff members of a newspaper were arrested for insulting the country’s leadership in a cartoon that suggested that Ayatollah Ali Khamanei recommended fake remedies for the virus.

New laws and tighter regulations linked to COVID-19 led to increasing control of digital communication, including digital blackouts where the virus is dominant or in areas of conflict such as in Myanmar and in Ethiopia.

In total, 220 attacks on writers were reported in 2020. While there were no reported murders of writers, the killings of journalists continued unabated, with the Committee to Protect Journalists recording at least 32 killed in 2020. 22 had been singled out in retaliation for their reporting, double the number for 2019. Mexico and Afghanistan were the deadliest countries for reporters.

Alongside the new cases linked to the current pandemic, this year’s Case List features long-term cases that are often forgotten. In Turkey, several writers and over 40 journalists who were arrested between 2009 and 2010 and who spent periods in prison before being released on trial, are now entering their tenth year of court hearings with no end in sight. In Eritrea, five writers have been held since 2001 and are entering their twentieth year in prison, with their whereabouts unknown.

The PEN International Case List 2020 also features the case of 44 women writers who suffered imprisonment, trial, attack and threats for standing up against human rights abuses, exposing corruption, challenging the powerful, and defending minority rights. These cases include:

• Writer and rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (Iran), who continues to be held in dire conditions in an Iranian jail for her unpublished book that features the stoning to death of a woman;

• Writer Patrícia Campos Mello (Brazil), whose investigation into reports of illegal financing of President Jair Bolsonaro’s election campaign led to her being accused of being willing to trade sexual favours for information;

• The feminist arts collective LASTESIS (Chile), who in 2020 worked with the Russian punk feminist band Pussy Riot to produce a video denouncing police violence, the increase of domestic abuse under the pandemic and social inequality, and for which they were accused of threatening violence against the police.

The Case List 2020 will be launched on Friday 21 May, at 15.15 GMT, during the PEN International Writers in Prison Committee and The International Cities of Refuge Network meeting, and will be streamed on PEN International YouTube channel and Facebook page. Sara Whyatt, the Case List’s editor, will be in conversation with PEN International’s team of regional experts to discuss key findings, as well as present thoughts on future threats to freedom of expression.

Notes to editors:

• PEN International activities to celebrate the launch of the Case List 2020 are part of a series of events planned throughout 2021 to mark PEN International’s Centenary. Founded in 1921 by English writer Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, PEN International has spent 100 years celebrating literature and protecting freedom of expression. You can stand up for persecuted writers by making a donation today.

• For further information, please contact Sabrina Tucci, Communications and Campaigns Manager, t. +44 (0)20 7405 0338 |Twitter: @pen_int | Facebook: |