Why do dictators fear literature?

All over the world, writers are being threatened, arrested, tortured, and even murdered. And it’s only getting worse

Salman Rushdie (photo: Andrew Matthews/AP/picture alliance via DW)
Salman Rushdie (photo: Andrew Matthews/AP/picture alliance via DW)


Arts Unveiled spoke to authors from around the globe and asked them why dictators are so afraid of literature. 

In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, alleging that his novel “The Satanic Verses” was blasphemous. It was 32 years before an attempted assassination was carried out, nearly killing him. On August 12, 2022, the renowned author was critically injured in a knife attack. 

Ugandan writer Stella Nyanzi has been imprisoned twice in a high-security prison, while her family has been threatened because of a poem she wrote insulting President Yoweri Museveni. 

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega revoked the citizenship of bestselling author Gioconda Belli, confiscating all her property. She lives in exile but says she will continue writing to fight against an unjust regime.

Burhan Sönmez, president of the writers’ association PEN International, says that the number of writers being persecuted and driven into exile has been increasing worldwide for years. A Turkish Kurd, he was also imprisoned under various Turkish regimes — and continues to receive death threats to this day. 

Dmitry Glukhovsky
Dmitry Glukhovsky
(photo: Hannelore Förster/IMAGO via DW)

Dmitry Glukhovsky is a bestselling author of dystopian novels. And he’s been living in exile from Russia since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Only a few weeks ago, he was accused of being a “foreign agent” and was sentenced to eight years in prison. For condemning the war, he’s been accused of being an “enemy of the state.”

Arts Unveiled spoke with Salman Rushdie, Stella Nyanzi, Gioconda Belli, Burhan Sönmez, and Dmitry Glukhovsky about the power of novels and poems — and why they all refuse to give up.

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