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Communication has never been easier or more universally distributed. There are more than five billion active mobile phones worldwide—the majority of them smartphones. People have unprecedented access to information and the ability to share it, potentially reaching vast audiences with a single viral post on WhatsApp or WeChat. But the same computing technologies that enable those links have also enabled new tools to shape the messages we see and send — or cut them off entirely. The simple promise of the internet as a tool of free expression has darkened as private companies and governments have gained the power to monitor and control speech with a thoroughness, speed, and ubiquity unimaginable a generation ago.

This May, PEN America began a new, two-year project to catalogue the threats currently faced by writers and public intellectuals. The project, funded in part with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, will document and produce a database of writers and other public intellectuals around the world facing threats such as intimidation, violence, censorship, arrest, and legal prosecution.

The new project, which will stand alongside existing metrics, including the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index, and the Committee to Protect Journalists’ datasets, aims to provide a cutting-edge resource to detect emerging trends affecting free expression around the world, helping activists to effectively lobby governments, companies, and international bodies to protect writers’ freedom of expression where it is threatened.

Founded in 1922, PEN America is the largest of the more than 100 centers worldwide that make up the PEN International network. The new project is headed by Karin Deutsch Karlekar, who directs PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk Programs. Karlekar brings deep experience in issues related to press freedom, internet freedom, and freedom of expression. She previously spent more than a decade leading Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press project.

Under Karlekar’s leadership, the project will expand PEN America’s existing records of free speech cases into a sophisticated database, allowing researchers to track global trends and highlight compelling stories while also protecting the identity of individuals who are at risk. Analyses produced by the database will be publicized alongside PEN America’s previous work highlighting issues such as government controls on social media in China and attacks on free speech in Putin’s Russia.

“PEN America has an excellent track record on these issues, and the organization’s recent growth — tripling in size over the past five years — highlights both the urgent need for work on free expression, and the capacity to create a new resource with the potential to help writers, intellectuals, and activists around the world,” says Amy Proulx, the John Templeton Foundation’s Director for Individual Freedom and Free Markets. “Societies can only be truly free if people have the freedom to criticize their governments without fear of reprisal. Knowing where that freedom is threatened can help to protect freedom everywhere.”


Learn more about PEN America’s work to protect freedom of expression worldwide.