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Visualizing the Digital Repression of Writers

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How do you visualize the repression of thought? About two years ago, our team at PEN began reckoning with the fact that an increasing number of writers were being persecuted for their use of digital media: what they Tweet, blog, and post about on Facebook. At the same time, we had evidence that the persecutors themselves were also using digital tools to repress writers by surveiling their movements or monitoring their communications. We'd seen anecdotal examples of this trend: in 2000, we documented the case of a Mexican journalist who was receiving email death threats, and in 2005, we joined other groups in calling for Yahoo to be held accountable for passing along the personal identifying information of Chinese writer and activist Shi Tao to Chinese authorities, leading to his arrest and jail. (Shi Tao was recently released from prison this year.)

Since PEN is a 90-year-old organization that has had some illustrious writers in its membership, we had to decide who we would consider a writer in the 21st century. If anyone can Tweet a poem or even dictate a short story into their iPhone, should we consider them writers? How about citizen-journalists who blog about local politics with no formal training? We gathered an international team of writers and activists to come up with the PEN Declaration on Digital Freedom, a concise statement on the targeting of individuals, censorship, surveillance, and business and human rights. The Declaration takes an inclusive approach: while a PEN Center can be selective about who it allows to be members, PEN clubs should commit to defending writers of all stripes and across all media to support the free flow of ideas.

We decided to take a deeper look at our caseload and identify trends, while providing a visual representation of that information beyond three-color Google Doc or Excel palettes. And we wanted to keep our eye on the goal of getting writers out of prison and protecting free expression. We combed through and documented our caselists over more than a decade, noting the use of digital media where possible. We came across some surprises—the Democratic Republic of Congo clamped down on the emails of journalists after President Laurent Kabila was assassinated, for example—but also noted a gradual rise in cases. In particular, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Asia regions experienced a sharp increase, mostly because of China and Vietnam. We also discovered alarming trends in legal charges, such as the use of government authorities to charge bloggers with the catch-all category of subversion (sometimes called propagating against the regime) or charging digital writers with insulting royalty or public figures. Still, more frightening was the fact that many writers who use digital media are never charged with any offense at all, and hence can not defend themselves.

Next, we had to find a tool that could allow us to visualize the information in our database, while allowing us to promote the fact that behind every data point is a human being whose life may be in danger. We decided to publish this interactive report exactly one year after we finished the Declaration on November 15, the Day of the Imprisoned writer. The stats are troubling: 92 writers in prison for using digital media, with 51 in the dock awaiting trial.

But we also decided to spotlight the cases of individual writers in their own reports. As PEN member Nicole Krauss explained during the 2011 PEN Literary Awards ceremony:

Uncertainty, doubt, questioning, these are the innermost workings of literature. These are the writer's true implements... In the digital world, ambiguity is a bug or flaw to be worked out. In literature, it's a chance to expand the definition of being.

You can support one remarkable individual by looking at the infographic of Kunchok Tsephel Gopey Tsang, an ethnic Tibetan who was jailed in China for promoting Tibetan culture and ideas and you can take action to help keep him out of prison.