Writers in Prison Report (2021)

Image Credit: Md Mahdi

Writers in Prison Report
PEN Perth Annual General Meeting, 26 August 2021
Christopher Lin, Writers in Prison Coordinator

Summary of 2020-21:

PEN Perth’s Writers in Prison program has continued to focus its attention on the South-East Asian region and on Australia. Situated in Western Australia, our proximity to the region informs this focus, as does the fact that the Asia-Pacific features the highest number of cases of writers who have been harassed, on trial, imprisoned, or killed with impunity in the recent 2020 PEN International Case List.

Since the last Annual General Meeting in October 2020, PEN Perth has coordinated letter writing, social media campaigns, Empty Chairs at public events, and written an article in the Australian Book Review to draw attention to the plight of writers who are experiencing persecution in the region. Our letter writing has involved writing to embassies, ambassadors, and government ministers, and our Centre has also participated in joint letter campaigns with PEN Melbourne and PEN Sydney.

Following the decision in 2020 to further integrate social media into our advocacy, our Communication Officers and Writers in Prison Coordinator profiled our adopted cases via social media information tiles and newsletters, with the aim of increasing awareness. We also performed public readings of the work of detained writers at poetry events—in collaboration with local poetry collective, Voicebox—to lend light to the issues related to free expression that impact these parts of the world. Our work has focused on the following writers in particular:

Myanmar – Peacock Generation (Members: Kay Khine Tun, Zay Yar Lwin, Paing Pyo Min, Paing Ye Thu, Zaw Lin Htut, Su Yadanar Myint)
Six Burmese poets arrested in 2019 following a poetry performance that criticised the Myanmar army, and sentenced to 1 year imprisonment.

Iran – Kylie MooreGilbert
Australian academic from The University of Melbourne sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in Iran for allegedly spying.

Vietnam – Chau Van Kham
Australian activist arrested in Vietnam in 2019 and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for pro-democracy activities.

Vietnam – Pham Doan Trang
Vietnamese writer/blogger arrested in October 2020 for disseminating
content that criticised Vietnam’s government; charged and faces 20 years imprisonment if convicted.

China – Yang Hengjun
Chinese-Australian writer detained since 2019 on charges of espionage; faced a closed trial in May 2021; verdict yet to be published as of August.

Peacock Generation – all six members of the Peacock Generation have since been released, although more members of the troupe have been detained since February 2021.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert – released in November 2020 and since returned to Australia.

There are two channels through which information about detained, harassed, or at-risk writers is received by PEN Perth and which inform our case selection:

  1. The annual PEN International Case List, which provides details of long-term cases. The most recent Case List (2020) is available on the PEN International website: https://pen-international.org/who-we-are/case-lists
  2. The Rapid Action Network (RAN), a group of email-connected PEN committee
    members around the world who share information of rapidly-emerging and urgent developments regarding threats to writers.

In November 2020, committee members from PEN Perth participated in the 86th PEN International Annual Congress, which took place online. Christopher Lin and Krishna Sen attended the Writers in Prison Committee meeting, where we reported on the issues and initiatives pertinent to our region and Centre. A highlight from the Congress was the connection and solidarity with representatives from over 90 Centres worldwide. It was energising to see that PEN Perth is part of a truly global network of talented, committed, and courageous people dedicated to freedom of expression. It was also sobering to realise that many of our colleagues work in much more constrained and dangerous circumstances than ours, something that gives extra impetus and motivation to our advocacy.

Agenda for 2021-22:

In 2021-22, PEN Perth will continue to work primarily on the writers and issues that are prevalent in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese state’s brutal treatment of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region continues to be a pressing issue, while its surveillance and use of a social credit system comprise instruments with which to suppress Chinese civil society and freedom of expression. The suspension of telecommunications services as a strategy to deter access to information and platforms for expression is a common issue in countries such as India, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Furthermore, the frequent use of religion-motivated legislation to prosecute writers in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh presents another area of concern. Recently, the military coup d’état in Myanmar has led to the widespread detention, torture, and killing of poets, journalists, filmmakers, and artists. These trends merit continued scrutiny of our region.

During the 2020 Annual Congress, Regional Coordinators identified emerging issues which also require attention. These include:

  • State exploitation of the pandemic to introduce broad powers that erode free expression;
  • The impact of technology and social media on the misuse and manipulation of information; and
  • the use of specious lawsuits by the rich and powerful to silence journalists.

In this climate, PEN Perth will continue to strengthen new and existing partnerships, and undertake coordinated action with our fellow PEN Centres in Sydney and Melbourne. Lastly, our Writers in Prison Coordinator, Dr Christopher Lin, who has served since June 2020 will be stepping down from the role. The post will be taken up by Prof. Krishna Sen for the 2021-22 period.

Christopher Lin
Writers in Prison Coordinator (outgoing)
25 August 2021

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