Record Number of Writers Were Jailed Globally in 2023, PEN America Says

The number of jailed writers in China surpassed 100 for the first time as the country continued to be the biggest jailer of writers, according to PEN America, a free expression group, which released its annual Freedom to Write Index on Wednesday.

PEN America reported that 339 writers were imprisoned in 2023, the most in the five years it has been producing the index.

The number of jailed writers — a list that excludes reporters, but includes literary writers, poets, online commentators and opinion writers — has generally gone up over the past five years, said Karin Karlekar, the director of writers at risk at PEN America. “We are seeing worsening threats against writers,” she said.

There are 107 writers incarcerated in China, the organization said, 50 of whom are “‘online commentators’ writing about political and economic issues and expressing pro-democracy viewpoints.” Others faced trial last year under the 2020 national security law that squashed dissent in Hong Kong.

Some of the key numbers from 2023 include:

  • Newly-jailed writers: 62

  • Writers at risk of being jailed: 923

  • Male writers jailed: 288

  • Female writers jailed: 51

  • Online commentators jailed: 180

PEN America also gave special mention to Iran as a place where the “crackdown on writers and the creative community continued” last year. Iran arrested 13 writers in 2023, the second-highest in the index after China, bringing its total to 49 imprisoned.

“Women who wrote or advocated against the compulsory hijab remained particularly at risk, and Iran jails the highest number of female writers worldwide,” PEN America said.

Saudi Arabia and Vietnam were tied for third place in the index, with 19 writers jailed in each country.

Notable increases from 2022 included the number of female journalists jailed (to 51 from 35) and the number of jailed online commentators (to 180, from 80). PEN America defined an online commentator as anyone who writes on social media or other online platforms.

“In many countries this is the only space for dissenting views to be heard,” Ms. Karlekar said. Online expression tends to worry authoritarian governments, she added, because of the internet’s immediate impact and global reach.

Russia and Israel entered the list of the Top 10 biggest jailers, as Ms. Karlekar noted that countries with conflict or war crack down on dissent.

“As geopolitics continue to shift and authoritarian tendencies spread to countries that were once considered safely anchored in openness, we anticipate that free expression, and therefore writers, will increasingly be under threat in a much wider range of countries,” PEN America said in a statement.

The Israel-Hamas war has also roiled PEN America itself. The organization canceled its 2024 literary awards ceremony, which had been planned for Monday, after months of protests and as nearly half the prize nominees withdrew over the organization’s response to the war, which was criticized as overly sympathetic to Israel.

Journalists around the world are also facing more danger. The Committee to Protect Journalists said that 320 journalists were incarcerated as of Dec. 1, 2023, the second-highest year-end total since the organization began tracking them in 1992.

Among those imprisoned is the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested during a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg, Russia, in March 2023.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said the high number of jailed journalists was a “disturbing barometer of entrenched authoritarianism and the vitriol of governments determined to smother independent voices.”

PEN America’s index largely focuses on individual writers’ cases. “When a single dissenting voice is jailed, it has a much broader impact on society as a whole,” Ms. Karlekar said, adding that it can lead to less discussion, less discourse and self censorship.

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