NEWS
#IndexAwards20: Online ceremony reveals Freedom of Expression Awards winners
16 Apr 2020
BY INDEX ON CENSORSHIP

A Russian artist currently under house arrest for her work on gender and sexual equality and one of the first free investigative journalism and fact-checking websites in Poland are among the winners of the 2020 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards. The winners, who were announced today on Twitter as part of a digital gala hosted by BBC presenter Timandra Harkness, also include a prominent lawyer fighting for the release of activists and journalists unlawfully detained in Turkey, a Bahraini activist living in exile in the UK and an Arab non-profit promoting digital rights of Palestinians. 

Awards were presented in four categories: arts, campaigning, digital activism and journalism. The winners are: Russian artist Yulia Tsvetkova (arts); Turkish lawyer Veysel Ok and Bahraini activist Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei (campaigning); Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, also known as 7amleh (digital activism); and OKO Press (journalism).

Selected from hundreds of nominations from across the globe – a list of some of the most inspiring and courageous individuals and organisations operating today – the winners of the awards represent those who have had a significant impact fighting censorship. Now celebrating their twentieth year, previous recipients of the awards include activist Malala Yousafzai, Chinese author Ma Jian and journalists Anna Politkovskaya, Rafael Marques de Morais and Mimi Mefo.

“Today we acknowledge the winners of the Index 2020 awards as amazing people who do amazing things, while overcoming incredible challenges in difficult times. They fight for freedom of expression when others can’t,” said Rachael Jolley and Matt Townsend from Index on Censorship. 

“This is the 20th year of the Index on Censorship awards, and we would also like to mark the  winners of the previous ceremonies here today. It’s a highly unusual ceremony this year. We were forced to move online at the last minute, but it has meant that people from across the globe can join us today in noting the work that our winners 7amleh, Veysel Ok, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Yulia Tsvetkova and OKO Press have done,” they added. 

Each winner is now part of a year-long fellowship, which involves them working closely with Index who offer long-term, structured support. The goal is to help winners maximise their impact, broaden their support and ensure they can continue to excel at fighting censorship and free expression threats on the ground. 

This year’s panel of judges included New York-based artist Molly Crabapple, award-winning Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman and Cindy Gallop, founder of social sex video platform MakeLoveNotPorn. Speaking on the awards, Gallop said: 

“I am in awe of all of the candidates we were asked to review for these awards and just blown away by what they are doing around the world. And I am thrilled that the Freedom of Expression Awards exist to celebrate that courage and those triumphs at a time when the need could not be greater.”

All of the winners spoke of how the awards had given them hope.

“It shows that our work has found support from the international community,” Ok said, while Nadim Nashif of 7amleh said the award would motivate them “to work more to advance digital rights and to achieve our vision of a safe, fair and free digital world”.

“The award pretty much reminds me that not everything is that bad. That there are still people who believe that [what I do] is important. For me, it changes pretty much everything. So thank you,” said Tsvetkova, who explained that over the last year she had received death threats and found it hard to focus on why what she was doing was important.

They also spoke about the greater challenges posed as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Alwadaei said:

“During the coronavirus crisis, I would like to pay tribute to those imprisoned in Bahrain for speaking out against the regime. This award is very special to me because my dear friend, Nabeel Rajab, was awarded this prize in 2012. Nabeel is currently serving 5 years in prison for criticising the government on Twitter.”

He added: “In these difficult times, it is more important than ever that freedom of speech is protected and that independent, critical voices are heard.”

But looking ahead OKO Press sounded a note of optimism:

We believe the danger will wane, both epidemic and political. We will wake up in a healthier world.”

Bahraini human rights activist Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, who lives in exile in the UK, winner of the 2020 award for campaigning

Winning in the Arts category was Yulia Tsvetkova, a Russian artist and activist promoting women’s well-being and LGBTQ awareness. Her work has brought about positive change in discussions towards body positivity and gender stereotypes in Russia. But this acclaim has also made her a target. In 2018 she began a campaign promoting body positivity which resulted in her being named a suspect in a criminal pornography distribution case. Tsvetkova, currently under house arrest, could face up to six years in prison if convicted. In March 2019, her youth arts festival was cancelled after officials accused Tsvetkova of illegally trying to hold a gay pride event under the guise of a youth theatre festival. 

The award for Campaigning went to two individuals. The first is Veysel Ok. Ok is a prominent Turkish lawyer providing pro-bono legal support to journalists, activists and academics who have been subjected to intimidation, surveillance, smear campaigns and harassment. His work has been instrumental in the release of several unlawfully detained journalists and writers. Ok is one of the first to challenge the Turkish laws of accreditation which determine whether a journalist meets official requirements to do their job. As part of his work, he received a five month suspended sentence for criticising the independence of the Turkish judiciary. He has been subject to surveillance and harassment ever since.

The second winner in the Campaigning category is Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a Bahraini activist currently living in exile in the UK. He was forced to flee Bahrain in 2011 after being arrested for taking part in anti-government protests. The Bahraini government revoked his citizenship and launched a smear campaign labelling him a terrorist. As the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, his work has become a vital resource for international media and NGOs. One such case was the discovery that institutions supported by UK taxpayers have been implicated in torture and other human rights abuses. Despite the danger faced by him and his family, Alwadaei continues his work as a prominent critic of the Bahraini government.

The Journalism award and Digital Activism award both went to organisations doing invaluable work in the digital sphere. One of the first free investigative journalism and fact-checking websites in Poland, OKO Press picked up the journalism award. OKO investigate and evaluate statements made by politicians, monitor public spending and fight for access to public information. In so doing they’ve paved the way for other news sources to follow suit. This has contributed to a safer and stronger public sphere, fighting for immunity from government propaganda. 

Their work also supports grassroots activism; crucial in Poland, a country which is sliding further and further into authoritarianism and censorship. Indeed, the environment in which they work is becoming increasingly hostile. Political polarisation, lack of transparency, suspicion, threats and withholding of information are common. In the face of this, OKO Press shows resilience and determination. As they said in their acceptance speech:

“We are honoured to receive the award, but also humbled but the fact that other nominees, from Hong Kong, Venezuela and Burundi are acting in much harder circumstances. Friends, we admire your courage, determination and quality of work. 

Kaczyński is no Maduro, Nkurunziza, Putin, or Erdogan, but apparently he takes his inspiration from them. We are not a dictatorship yet, though we are close to the so-called electoral authoritarianism, where all forms of public scrutiny, besides the elections, are being suppressed.

Finally, the Digital Activism award went to the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, or 7amleh as they’re known, a non-profit organisation focused on protecting the human rights of Palestinians in the online space. As Israel increases online monitoring, Palestinians are taking to social media to express disdain. 7amleh’s work protecting online safety and digital rights has been crucial. Through capacity building, research, advocacy and campaigning, 7amleh works to ensure that policies and companies are complying with human rights and are working towards greater accountability. Their campaign work with NGOs has seen huge numbers of participants. They’ve worked towards amendments in the Palestinian Authority’s Cybercrimes Law, the development of the first Arabic Digital Security Manual and digital training being implemented into the Palestinian education system.

If you believe in the work Index do please think about donating. For more information on how to donate click here.


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