Marking a day that shouldn’t need to exist

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer shouldn’t need to exist because writers should be free to express themselves free from the threats of censorship, imprisonment or violence. Nik Williams marks the day with a call to action to protect writers across the globe.

This blogpost has been written by Nik Williams, Scottish PEN’s Project Manager in honour of Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2018

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer on the 15th November every year is a day that should not exist. It is a day we should not have to mark with readings and parliamentary debates, it is a day we should not have to call on the Scottish Government to officially mark every year. Blogs like this should not have to be written. It should not exist, because writers should be safe to express themselves, whether as fiction, poetry, journalism, essays or any other format they choose. Fiction is not a crime, poetry is not a crime, journalism is not a crime.

But every year, here we are, marking the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, standing in solidarity with at-risk writers who have endured threats of censorship, imprisonment, harassment, attacks or death, solely for the words they write or speak. If free expression is a guarantor of democracy, ensuring that the citizenry is afforded all the facts upon which their participation depends, attacks on those who help uncover secrets, challenge corruption and inform the public should be seen not only as attacks on individuals, but as attacks on the very fabric of democracy.

But this year, these attacks have continued unabated. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) “more professional journalists were killed worldwide in connection with their work in the first nine months of 2018 than in all of 2017”. This is an ongoing trend that needs to be addressed. The Committee to Protect Journalists has been documenting the killing of journalists and media workers since 1992 and according to their analysis, nearly 2000 (1953) have been killed (both motives confirmed and unconfirmed) across the globe. This includes war zones including Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria where journalists were targeted to restrict the flow of information from conflict areas, as well as countries such as Venezuela, Eritrea, China and Russia where attacks on writers were part of broader restrictions against civil society in attempts to consolidate power and stifle public engagement.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) “more professional journalists were killed worldwide in connection with their work in the first nine months of 2018 than in all of 2017”.

But this is not where these threats end. In an unprecedented erosion of press freedom in Europe in 2017/18 three journalists were killed in the European Union; investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta was murdered by a car bomb; in Slovakia, Jan Kuciak was shot dead alongside his fiancé, Martina Kusnirova; and TV journalist Viktoria Marinova was raped and killed in Bulgaria. All three were reporting on separate cases of corruption in their respective countries. Where ill-gotten power, opaque financial systems and allegations of corruption coalesce, the need for independent and adversarial journalism increases, but so do the threats. To ensure writers are free to cover these issues, any and all protections for free expression need to be coupled with robust responses to impunity and a justice system that ensures crimes against journalists are investigated. Without this, every attack or killing of a journalist will only chill free expression as other writers avoid certain topics or step back from writing all together.

Over the last 12 months there have been glimmers of hope. After being imprisoned in Israel for a YouTube film she recorded, reciting her poem Resist, my people resist them, Palestinian poet, Dareen Tatour was released in September; after years of house arrest after her opposition to the state and the death of her husband, the Nobel-laureate, Liu Xiaobo, Chinese poet and artist, Liu Xia was allowed to leave the country and now lives in Germany; and Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known by her blogging pseudonym, Me Nam “Mother Mushroom”, was released after being convicted of “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”. While she has been released, Mother Mushroom has to live in exile, but these are faint points of light in an otherwise dark night for free expression.

Whenever we hear of writers being censored, imprisoned, threatened or attacked, we need to ask: what is it they are doing that others want stopped; what are they saying that others want silenced; what are they offering that others desire restricted? Violence and imprisonment are orchestrated responses to democratic attempts to force light into the shaded areas of our society that enable violence, corruption and abuses of power to occur beyond public view and scrutiny, to bring to life ignored or suppressed narratives of marginalised and persecuted communities, to bring to bear the true lived ideals of democracy beyond the hollow commitments to human rights and democracy that many states hide behind.

Whenever we hear of writers being censored, imprisoned, threatened or attacked, we need to ask: what is it they are doing that others want stopped; what are they saying that others want silenced; what are they offering that others desire restricted?

So again, on 15th November we are marking a day that should not exist. The Day of the Imprisoned Writer need not exist if we truly value free expression and democracy. But while the need remains, Scottish PEN joins PEN centres across the globe standing in solidarity with those brave enough to stand up against coerced silence to have their voice heard. This evening we will speak the words of those who have paid too high a price for expressing themselves. We will try to keep their voices alive, share their work and actively push back against those trying to silence them, with a simple message; We will speak louder for those you target and we will speak every word you try to stifle.

There is power in the written and spoken word. That is why states go to such lengths to drown them out, but courage is courage, bravery is bravery, and some will never be silenced. In the words of Dareen Tatour as she was released from an Israeli prison “I have gained my freedom and I will continue to write.”

Tags: Bulgaria China Daphne Caruana Galizia Dareen Tatour Day of the Imprisoned Writer Europe imprisoned writers Israel Jan Kuciak Liu Xia Liu Xiaobo malta PEN International Russia Slovakia Vietnam Viktoria Marinova Writers At Risk Committee