Closing spaces

November 18, 2019


The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

FRIDAY last week marked the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, observed annually by the writers’ association PEN International to express solidarity for writers who have been harassed, detained, prosecuted or killed for expressing their views. The day offered yet another opportunity to reflect on the growing challenge to free expression, and emphasised why this should matter to everyone — not just writers.

Each year, PEN highlights the cases of five persecuted writers. This year’s list included a Mexican investigative journalist who has been repeatedly threatened and previously detained after publishing a book on child sex trafficking; a Sri Lankan writer who published a short story about child abuse in a Buddhist temple; a Ugandan academic who was detained for ‘cyber harassment’ after posting a poem on Facebook criticising the country’s president; a Turkish journalist who covered army operations in the country’s Kurdish area, now facing terrorism charges; and an Egyptian poet who wrote the lyrics to a song criticising the government that went viral weeks before last year’s presidential election.

These cases are a chilling reminder of the global dimensions of the challenges to free speech and the resistance — often violent — to increased transparency. They highlight the sweep of authoritarianism and majoritarianism worldwide, and the growing ease with which dissenting voices can be tracked and silenced.

No Pakistanis featured on PEN’s 2018 case list, the latest available, but this should be little cause for complacency. One can argue that individuals such as the academic Junaid Hafeez, currently in detention and under trial for blasphemy charges, should be included under PEN’s definitions because the goal of his prolonged imprisonment is to silence liberal voices. And while the number of Pakistani writers, journalists and activists who are detained may not be readily available, the recent metric indicating that Pakistan tops the list of countries with content censorship requests for Facebook should be proof enough of the surveillance state and its intent to suppress dissent.

Each year, PEN highlights the cases of five persecuted writers.

An interesting aspect of PEN’s lists is the number of writers who are dual nationals or live outside their native country (last year’s short list featured a Swedish-Eritrean journalist who has been imprisoned in Eritrea for 18 years for criticising the country’s president; the Mexican journalist on this year’s list went into self-exile for security reasons). This fuels the perception that dissenters can continue to speak out from ‘abroad’, lessening the urgency to protect free expression within each country’s borders.

But this is untrue. Individuals’ ideas and activism can be effectively tracked through their social media footprint or through cyber surveillance. The widespread introduction of national identity databases enable states to link dissenting voices in exile to their nuclear or extended family members back home, and continue to apply indirect pressure. Take the PTM-linked activist whose father was arrested after she relocated to the US.

The previous sense of security afforded by foreign citizenships or dual nationalities is also evaporating as Western states clamp down on immigration and demonise asylum seekers. Western democracies that have championed free speech are consuming themselves with hate politics, and have little capacity (or moral authority) to defend the outspoken from around the world as they crack down on their own dissenters. Just think of the weak global response to journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, or the sense of isolation inculcated by the UK’s denunciation of IS bride Shamima Begum — a citizen of Bangladeshi origin, promptly deemed an outsider.

Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, wrote of imprisoned writers, “they will not be silenced, their readers will not be silenced.” Tripathi’s conflation of the silencing of writers and their readers must be more widely deployed. One challenge of denouncing censorship is that people think this is a state activity that only affects the sub-group of those who speak out, whether writers, journalists, academics or activists. Once voices of dissent are thus isolated and marginalised, they can be demonised. Those who don’t routinely speak out begin to wonder: did they deserve it? Can they be trusted? And what does it matter to me?

It’s therefore essential that censorship is recast as a way of controlling society at large. The freedom afforded to writers is merely a gauge of the power equation within a country, a hint at the nature and quality of information flows, service delivery, wealth distribution and accountability. Broader constituencies must recognise how censorship skews the public record, data, national narratives and social cohesion for generations. The world’s imprisoned writers must be a matter of distress for all of us.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2019