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Pandemic is ‘devastating’ for freedom of expression

PEN: NO FREEDOM FOR THE WORD Philippines: Maria Ressa Maria Ressa is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the 'Rappler' online news portal in the Philippines. Previously, she worked as a reporter for CNN. In the Philippines, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is considered the harshest critic of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal anti-drug policy. The government is trying to silence Ressa by court order.

Worldwide, writers are being persecuted more than ever, says PEN Germany, including by autocratic regimes who have weaponized pandemic restrictions.

The COVID pandemic has had a “devastating” effect on freedom of expression in many countries, according to the international writers association, PEN.

Writers, journalists and critics taking issue with COVID restrictions have been especially targeted. “The free word is unfree as never before. The world has not become better,” said Cornelia Zetzsche, the newly-elected deputy president and chair of the Writers in Prison committee of the German PEN center in Darmstadt.

Online platforms for writers have been closed in many countries, PEN reports, while journalists in Bangladesh and Venezuela have landed in prison for allegedly spreading fake news. In Kazakhstan, poet Aron Atabek died in prison, having received no medical aid for a COVID infection.

In Uganda, author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was taken to hospital in January this year after being beaten in prison.

Worldwide author repression

In many countries, autocrats have brutally suppressed freedom of expression, according to PEN. In Myanmar, at least five writers, including the poets Myint Myint Zin and K Za Win, were killed by the junta’s security forces after participating in a peaceful demonstration.

In Afghanistan, PEN members Abdullah Atefi and Dawa Khan Menapal were shot after the Taliban regained power in August 2021.

Repression and use of force were characteristic of countries like Mexico, Bangladesh and Lebanon. In the Ethiopian region of Tigray, journalists who tried to report on the conflict were harassed and arrested. In Europe as well, the Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries was shot in Amsterdam in July 2021. Before his death, de Vries had been an adviser for a witness in the trial
of the alleged leader of a crime gang that police described as an “oiled killing machine.”

Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries was murdered in 2021

Common accusations against writers

The new PEN report also points to problems in China, Turkey, Egypt and Iran as well — countries that have featured in the organization’s case list for a long time.

Last week, on the fifth anniversary of the death of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, PEN’s headquarters in London published its latest case list of human rights abuses suffered by writers.

The rationale for such suppression is common across diverse regions, said Zetzsche of PEN’s Writers in Prison committee.

Sometimes, writers are accused of jeopardizing national security. Other times, it is alleged that they belong to a terrorist organization.

“The cases are similar,” said Zetzsche. “The instruments of suppression are always the same.”




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