In the last four years as head of Index I have used various ways to describe this organisation, but a friend hit it on the head earlier this week when she emailed about a vigil she was organising in London. “Index,” she said “please don’t forget to bring your megaphone.”
And that’s us. That’s what we do. Index brings the megaphone. Both literally and metaphorically.
We amplify the voices of those facing censorship – by publishing their work, by campaigning on their behalf, and by supporting them through initiative like the awards fellowship. And we amplify the cause of freedom of expression by promoting debate about it.
Why do we do it?
We do it because we believe freedom of expression is not just a fundamental freedom, but the fundamental freedom. The one on which all others are based. Without freedom of expression how do we begin to articulate our desire for all other freedoms – the freedom to love whomever we choose, to express our faith – or lack of it – or our political beliefs. Freedom of expression allows us to test our ideas, posit our opinions – and to have those ideas and opinions tested. Freedom of expression is not a freedom that benefits only the powerful and privileged. It is what allows us to hold them to account. Free speech has been at the heart of resistance and reform movements since time immemorial. From women’s suffrage to gay rights. As civil rights activist and US congressman John Lewis observed: “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings.”
Freedom of expression gives hope, thought and desire flight — and it is a right that continues to benefit modern movements for change.
It is also freedom that is hard won but easily lost.
Index has fought for this freedom for the past 46 years. We make good on our belief that everyone should be able to express themselves free from fear of harm or persecution by publishing work by censored writers and artists, by monitoring threats to media freedom, and through our awards fellowship.
Our goal in all of this is the same: to amplify the voices of those fighting to be heard – no matter what their views.
We are proud to know and to celebrate not just tonight’s winners, but also all of this year’s nominees – and we are glad that some, like Silvanos, are able to be with us this evening. We are proud to be joined by former winners Zaina Erhaim, Safa Al Ahmad and to be celebrating tonight’s winners with other courageous defenders of free speech: Sayed Alwadaei, Matthew and Paul Caruana Galizia – who are ensuring not only that the killers of their mother Daphne are brought to justice but that her stories and those of individuals like her see the light of day.
And as we remember Daphne we also think of those winners who cannot be with us this evening such as Nabeel Rajab and Bassel Khartabil.
Freedom of expression needs such passionate defenders. We need such passionate defenders of freedom of expression.
But freedom of expression is not simply about defending a principle. Freedom of expression needs defenders, yes, but it also needs friends. As we heard from Zaheena Rasheed, sometimes all you need to carry on is the knowledge that you are not alone.
Your presence here this evening reminds all those who fight to make their voices heard, and who champion the rights of everyone to speak freely, that they are not alone.
But, as those of you who have attended an awards event before know, freedom of expression is not free. Even megaphones cost money. Index achieves an enormous amount with a staff of just 12 people, whom I salute and applaud this evening, and with the help of supporters like the Edwardian Hotels Group who have generously provided tonight’s venue, drinks and canapes – as well as the accommodation for our winners. Despite this, we cannot help all those we want to. We want to do more. And we’d like you to help us to do that.
So, this is the part of the evening where you get to express yourselves. I’d like to ask each and every one of you who does not already support Index – and those who do – to take that pen and to express yourself by making a donation to Index. Now.
Let’s speak loudly together and lift up the voices not just of Yanelys and Luis, Wendy, Guy and Ahmad but all those fighting to speak freely.