Jodie Ginsberg is chief executive of Index on Censorship.
I hope you are indeed having an extraordinary evening. It’s extraordinary because of the individuals and groups we have honoured here tonight and it’s extraordinary because you make it so.
Many of you are old friends of Index. Others are new acquaintances. For those of us who are new to us – and the old friends who may have forgotten – I want to take this opportunity to tell, or remind, you a little bit about us and what we do.
Index was founded 45 years ago to tell the stories of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain and beyond – from the very first magazine we featured stories from across the world by and about censored writers and artists: from Brazil to Greece to Bangladesh. We were concerned then, as now, not just with the written word but all forms of expression. And we have continued to publish this magazine – the only of its kind in the world – ever since.
Our aim is to put ourselves out of business. Our ambition is modest: nothing less than an end to censorship. Sadly, however, the enemies of free speech seem as strong as ever. It is for that reason Index not only publishes its magazine but campaigns against censorship, targeting countries and issues where we believe our specialist knowledge and expertise can have a marked impact. In Europe, we monitor threats to press freedom and next week we publish a groundbreaking report on US media freedom in the Trump era. We also encourage debate about free speech and – through the awards fellowship – support groups and individuals tackling censorship to be even more effective.
Why do we do this? We do it because we believe freedom of expression is the bedrock of all other freedoms – a necessary condition for the flourishing not just of life, but a life with meaning.
But it is a fragile freedom. Across the globe, freedom of expression is under threat. We still live in a world where writers can be killed for voicing their religious or non-religious beliefs and a blind eye turned by authorities, where journalists are detained for criticising their governments even in supposed democracies, and where taking offence has become a sufficient benchmark to enforce silence.
This is not the world I want to see. Nor is it the world I want my children to grow up in. I believe that if we want a more tolerant, inclusive society we need to defend freedom of expression – and that means defending the rights of those with whom you disagree as vigorously – if not more vigorously – than those whose views accord with your own.
Tonight we have heard remarkable stories of people fighting to speak out. But what we have also done is listen. Tonight we have celebrated not just what it means to speak freely but also what it means to be heard. Though Ildar and Rebel Pepper could not join us, the knowledge that there is a witness to their stories provides the strength to continue as it does for friends like former winner Nabeel Rajab, who has now been detained without trial for more than 9 months in a Bahraini jail simply for exercising his peaceful right to expression.
Noma said of tonight’s finalists: “These stories have to be told on behalf of people who cannot speak for themselves”. They also have to be heard. And I want to thank you for hearing them.