“A Year of Oppression, Collusion and Lethal Threats” – the 2017 PEN International Case List

30 May 2018
“A Year of Oppression, Collusion and Lethal Threats” – the 2017 PEN International Case List

Following up on the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s State of Media Freedom report, which we shared last week, PEN International has released its 2017 Case List, in which our colleagues have detailed threats to freedom of expression worldwide over the last calendar year, including attacks, harassment and murders of writers and journalists.

“The statistics for 2017 are numbing enough,” writes Salil Tripathi, the Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee in her introduction to the report. No less than “218 attacks on freedom of expression [were] documented by PEN in a year”. Two of these attacks took place in South Africa, with death threats leveled toward PEN SA member Nakhané, and state harassment toward journalist Jacques Pauw, author of The President’s Keepers.

In the interest of increasing accessibility to the report, we’re reproducing Tripathi’s introduction on our website. The full report may be downloaded here, while a shorter summary may be downloaded at this link.

The statistics for 2017 are numbing enough: 218 attacks on freedom of expression documented by PEN in a year. Writers have been murdered. Many writers and journalists have been imprisoned, detained without trial, and threatened with lawsuits, and the powerful continue to attack those who express themselves freely. But these numbers tell only a partial story. If the figures go up this year, it does not mean the previous years were somehow better; it may only mean that more incidents are being reported now. And if the figures go down, it does not mean the situation has necessarily improved; it still means that journalists and writers are threatened. It also means that in some societies blunt force and pressure are so successful that few dare to speak up. It is silence, but of the graveyard.

Writing, reporting, and truth-telling remain dangerous. Older forms of suppression – solitary confinement, defamation and criminal libel suits, religious defamation and blasphemy laws, abuse of anti-terror laws and emergency provisions, and threats of physical violence continue. But more governments are using more laws and ingenious methods to stifle free speech. To that, now add outrageous charges, callous states, impunity for non-state actors, state collusion with crime, ‘universalisation’ of repression, and threats from unexpected quarters – it is a grim world. And the Internet, once considered the bastion of free expression, has seen rampant proliferation of lies, euphemistically referred to as ‘fake news,’ as well as ceaseless trolling and bullying as a weapon, particularly targeted at women and women writers, often threatening them with sexual violence.

As we look back at the dismal narrative of 2017, five patterns of oppression – through violence and intimidation – stand out. While these tactics are used across the globe, and have been for many years, they are emerging in new places and regions.

Collusion between the corrupt and the criminal has long been apparent in countries in the Americas and Africa, and investigative journalists (like Rafael Marques de Morais in Angola, for example) have been targeted for exposing such ties, but such collusion has recently revealed itself in Europe. The Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was exploring – and exposing – those named in the Panama Papers (a leak of 11.5 million les from the database of one of the world’s largest o shore law rms) who were shielding their business and nancial a airs from the reach of authorities. In October 2017 she was killed in a car bomb. That a murder like this could occur in the European Union was cause for alarm, revealing the inability of its human rights charter and ideals to protect a journalist. In late February 2018, a Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner Martina Kusnirova were murdered, execution-style, most probably because he was investigating the siphoning o of European Union aid money by government o cials colluding with gangs).

Repressive laws, the use of which we might expect in countries such as Ethiopia, are being applied in unexpected places like Spain. True, Spain is undergoing political turmoil, with the prosperous Catalan region seeking secession. In this charged atmosphere, Spanish police attacked and intimidated journalists and writers reporting on the referendum on Catalan independence, once again revealing how the commitment of some governments which profess human rights and freedoms gets diluted, even evaporated in times of crisis. In February last year, musician and poet Valtonyc (the stage name of Josep Miquel Arenas Beltrán), was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison on several grounds, including insulting the crown, charges that are more reminiscent of the lèse-majesté laws in Thailand.

The case of Liu Xiaobo is a striking example of the state’s callous disregard for the well-being of a writer in prison. The Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo died a prisoner – China granted him so-called medical parole days before his death last year, to in uence public perception that China was being compassionate, when the reality was that Liu should never have been in jail in the rst place. Liu was an honorary member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, and one of the architects of Charter 08, which Chinese intellectuals had drafted in 2008, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China jailed Liu, and in jail his health deteriorated. Fearful of protests at his funeral, China had him cremated and his ashes were released in the ocean, as if to erase him. His widow, the poet Liu Xia, is living under police watch without any charges. Liu’s was not the only such case. In late 2017, writer Yang Tongyan too died, succumbing to brain cancer, while on medical parole just weeks before his 12-year sentence was due to expire.

Violence perpetrated by non-state actors is widespread across the globe. In Iraq, Saad Saloum, who runs a cultural organisation and has written extensively on the human rights of minorities, has received death threats from unknown Islamic groups. Shockingly, in India, we are witnessing a growing public sympathy with the perpetrators. Gauri Lankesh was a fearless Indian journalist who wrote passionately and  aggressively. She condemned politicians who sowed religious discord, and she championed young progressive activists. In a murder that followed the pattern of other recent murders of writers and intellectuals in India, a man came to her doorstep on a motor scooter and shot her. While tens of thousands across India mourned Gauri’s murder (PEN South India announced an award in her memory), many people in India professing Hindu nationalist ideology, on social media in particular, celebrated her death, because she was critical of their politics.

And fth is the placing of outrageous charges on those who dissent, and using the power of national security laws in courts to browbeat critics. Nowhere is that more visible than in Turkey, where writers, translators, journalists, and editors have been facing ridiculous charges which unconvincingly attempt to link up reporting of facts and expressing dissenting opinion with undertaking propaganda for extremist organisations. PEN International has attended several of their trials and has grave concerns over due process in all cases it has observed.

We stand in solidarity with all those writers. Our weapons are our words – governments and others with power have tried, for centuries, to silence them, but they know we will resist, we will persist, we will insist on freedom. PEN’s members and centres stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the writers whose freedom they campaign for – by picketing in front of Chinese and Saudi embassies, by writing letters and postcards, by holding candle-light vigils, by observing trials, by providing nancial assistance, by assisting in nding shelters and placements for writers at risk, by publishing reports, by organizing fund-raisers, by arranging public readings of jailed writers and poets, by celebrating the creativity of cartoonists and playwrights in prison, by intervening and advocating for freedom of expression at the Human Rights Council, by lobbying home governments and embassies, and by bearing witness. We will continue to do so, as long as those threats remain, and so long as writers are in prison. We will raise our voices, until every one of our brothers and sisters is free, until the threats, intimidation, and violence disappear.

Salil Tripathi
Chair, Writers in Prison Committee PEN International

The full report may be downloaded here, while a shorter summary may be downloaded at this link.