Free Expression Under Threat – PEN International’s 2018 Case List

04 Jun 2019
Free Expression Under Threat – PEN International’s 2018 Case List

PEN International has released its 2018 Case List, which details the global threats to freedom of expression documented over the last calendar year, including attacks, harassment, imprisonment and murders of writers and journalists.

In his introduction to the 2018 Case List, Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee notes that the number of cases investigated by PEN has marginally declined from approximately 220 in 2017 to 205 in 2018.

“But what does it mean?” he asks. “Is it reason to rejoice? Does it mean that fewer writers are under threat, or that some threats are so insidious that we don’t get to hear about them? Does it mean that those who torment writers – governments, religious groups, other opponents – are so successful at intimidating the writers that their stories don’t even get out? Or has the situation actually improved?”

Tripathi goes on to say that only a fifth of the cases currently being followed up by PEN International concern women writers.

“Does it mean male writers are more likely to get intimidated or arrested? Or that we don’t even get to hear the stories of women writers facing intimidation?”

Of grave concern is that of the many cases involving women writers, the threats they face are overwhelmingly gendered – such as threats of rape, bodily harm and a deluge of sexually-graphic imagery sent to their personal inboxes.

This is harassment to which male writers are not typically subjected.

Ultimately, Tripathi urges readers to remember that numbers never tell the full story.

“Numbers do provide evidence of the existence of a phenomenon, but their absence does not mean the phenomenon has not occurred,” he writes.

In the interest of increasing accessibility to the report, PEN SA is featuring Tripathi’s introduction below. The full report may be downloaded here.

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Numbers never tell the full story. As writers, poets, journalists, and publishers, we know that truth to be self-evident. Numbers tell us possible trends of what has taken place. But numbers alone do not convey the truth. Numbers do provide evidence of the existence of a phenomenon, but their absence does not mean the phenomenon has not occurred. Sherlock Holmes knew that when a dog doesn’t bark, it doesn’t mean a crime has not been committed.

And so it is with statistics about cases PEN investigates and examines, about writers at risk or in jail. The number has gone down from about 220 in 2017 to 205 in 2018. But what does that mean? Is it a reason to rejoice? Does it mean that fewer writers are under threat, or that some threats are so insidious that we don’t get to hear about them? Does it mean that those who torment writers – governments, religious groups, other opponents – are so successful at intimidating the writers that their stories don’t even get out? Or has the situation actually improved? But how can we say it has improved, if hundreds of writers – not one or a dozen, though even that’s too many – are still classified as writers facing risks?

Of these, about a fifth of the cases concern women writers. Does it mean male writers are more likely to get intimidated or arrested? Or that we don’t even get to hear the stories of women writers facing intimidation?

We know of the more prominent cases – the murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Gauri Lankesh in India remaining unresolved. They were brave and feisty reporters who took on the powerful. Male writers taking on those causes would also have faced anger and intimidation, but some of the threats these writers faced were gendered. And like Anna Politkovskaya, these two cases are visible because of the cold finality of murder silencing them.

Other cases abound.

I’m thinking of Stella Nyanzi in Uganda, arrested repeatedly for her strategic use of ‘radical rudeness’ in driving home her criticisms of the Ugandan President; Itatí Schvartzman in Argentina, who gets death threats because of her activism against and writing about violence against women; Claudia Piñeiro, also from Argentina, attacked because she speaks for abortion rights; Sushmita Banerjee, murdered in Afghanistan, and no justice in sight; Swathi Vadlamudi, being tried in India for a cartoon she did of a rape of a child; the sustained harassment of Maria Ressa in the Philippines, who is taking on the might of the Duterte administration; artist Zehra Doğan in Turkey, imprisoned for more than two years for her writings and artwork; Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee in Iran, in jail for a book on the stoning of women; Hatoon al-Fassi in Saudi Arabia, tortured in prison, and arrested because she has championed women’s rights; and the sustained online trolling and harassment of women journalists and writers in many parts of the world – but particularly so in India, where Swati Chaturvedi, Rana Ayyub, Barkha Dutt, and many other women journalists and writers have been sent sexually graphic imagery and rape threats.

These horrendous examples remind us why we focus on individuals and cases, although numbers matter and are important.

A rise in abuses is alarming; a fall is not a reason for complacency. Each case is a violation. And we must work together to help our colleagues, in particular our sisters, facing threats from those who wield power and who are uncomfortable when truth stares back at them.

We admire and salute that gaze.

Salil Tripathi Chair,

Writers in Prison Committee PEN International

The full report may be downloaded here.

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