Yulia Tsvetkova’s hunger strike: “I have reached a dead end”

“They say that a hunger strike is declared out of despair, and yes, it’s hard not to agree with that,” Yulia Tsvetkova, a Russian feminist and LGBTQ+ activist and artist, wrote on social media on 1 May as she announced that she would start a hunger strike. “Why a hunger strike? As a person accused of a ‘serious’ crime, I have almost no rights. There is no freedom. No voice. No ability to stand up for myself and my beliefs in the outside world.”

Tsvetkova, who won Index on Censorship’s 2020 Freedom of Expression Award in the arts category, was charged with criminal distribution of pornography in June 2020 for having published body-positive drawings on a social media group she had called the “Vagina Monologues”. She is facing up to six years in prison. While the trial is ongoing, she is forced to remain in her home city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia’s Far East.

“I’ve recently realised that I can no longer sit still and watch the shame of what’s going on in this country and how my life is being derailed. And when I think about it, what other options do I have for non-violent protest?” she wrote in what was her first social media post in eight months. She also used the opportunity to call on the authorities to stop subjecting her to the protracted judicial harassment. “I just ask you not to waste any more of my time on a farce called ‘Russian justice’”.

Shortly thereafter, photos from the search of her apartment, which had taken place in 2019, were posted online and were being circulated on homophobic public forums. “I don’t know how they got on the web,” Tsvetkova’s lawyer Aleksandr Pikhovkin told Index on Censorship via email, “but we should understand that these [photos] were taken by the criminal investigation department and are under a special procedure of admittance and only for a [small] number of officers. Anyway, disclosure of these materials was made to demoralise Yulia. I think she perceived it like a kind of psychological pressure. And yes, as I realise, she felt herself harassed, suffered and disgusted.”

At the same time, a state channel ended up with Tsvetkova’s personal documents, correspondence, and tickets from her work trips. According to a social media post from Yulia on 6 May, the same channel broadcast an “expert” alleging that Tsvetkova’s work is “aimed purely at molesting minors” and that her drawings “have the same impact as the actions of paedophiles.” “Whether or not [these events] are related to my statement [on 1 May on social media] is probably up to everyone to decide for themselves,” Yulia said in the post.

“Were these abhorrent actions part of a coordinated effort to intimidate and punish Yulia for criticising the authorities? It certainly seems likely,” Index on Censorship’s CEO Ruth Smeeth said. “Yulia has done nothing more than express her very justifiable frustration with this ongoing judicial harassment. We continue to be appalled at Yulia’s treatment and stand in full solidarity with her. We call – yet again – on the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against her.”

On 7 May, Yulia announced that she was ending her hunger strike. “I reach a dead end, realising that those on the other side have no honour,” Yulia posted. “If the strategy has proved to be unworkable, it needs to be changed. I am stopping the hunger strike for now, because it is the right thing to do (just as it was the right thing to start it). And I’m looking for a new strategy.

Index announces first digital fellowship week

As part of the Freedom of Expression fellowship week, we’ve become used to working with individuals or organisations who cannot get to London. Individuals who are imprisoned, for example, or those who have had their travel restricted. But this year’s global lockdown presented challenges on a different scale. As a result we did our first ever digital fellowship week.

“Because the fellows were not physically together, it has been harder to find times to work for everyone. Most fellows have internet access so we can keep in contact but communication can be difficult,” said Leah Cross, Index’s senior events and partnership manager, speaking about the challenges of creating the first online fellowship week for the winners of the Index 20th Freedom of Expression awards.

“It was a shame not to meet them in person but everyone has been quite flexible,“ she added.

This year more than ever, we have recognised that our Freedom of Expression Awards are not just about a single night in a London hotel. The coronavirus crisis meant we had to hold the awards ceremony online in mid-April rather than at The May Fair hotel but, in fact, even in other years when a physical awards ceremony was possible, the awards are more than just the symbolic handing over of a prize.

“We usually plan a week of activity including workshops, meetings with partners and other fellows and radio interviews. This year, the awards ceremony itself was held online and we have done the same with the fellows week,” said Cross.

In any normal year, the ceremony is just the central focus of a wider range of activities of awards week. All of the award winners become part of the Index Freedom of Expression Awards fellowship which celebrates individuals or groups who have had a significant impact fighting censorship anywhere in the world. Index works with the winners to provide longer-term assistance to help fellows maximise their impact and broaden their networks.

Cross said: “Despite the challenges, we are committed to working with the fellows throughout the year.”

This has meant using video-conferencing technology such as Zoom and Google Hangouts, as shown above.

The workshops last two to three hours and cover a range of practical skills that fellows can use as they widen their reach and continue their important work.

“The workshop topics are intentionally quite broad,” says Cross. “A few years ago, Index settled on digital security, business development and communications and branding as they are quite versatile and can be relevant to all the different fellows.”

This year things have been a little different, said Cross, “Because the fellows were not physically together, it has been harder to find times to work for everyone. Most fellows have internet access so we can keep in contact but communication can be difficult.”

She added, “Some of our fellows have been called away for professional commitments and, in some cases, to take part in ongoing legal battles. They are obviously doing incredibly important work.”

This week the fellows have participated in two workshops online: one on communications and branding led by freelance workshop leader Helen Walton and the other on business development led by Charlie Dawson at management consultancy The Foundation.

In the first, fellows chose between two exercises: a brand key exercise for establishing fellows’ product and brand, customer/audience and key things to communicate; or a strategic exercise to think holistically about individual strengths and weaknesses and how they match to what is happening in the environment in which the fellow operates. They then work through individual goals in a one-to-one session with the instructor.

Cross said: “The brand and communications workshop helps fellows crystalise their brand as much possible and let them identify what audiences they want to reach. Many fellows are known only in their own countries and need to gain interest from other parts of the world. Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, one of the two campaigning fellows this year, works exclusively with Bahrain, for example. It is important for him to know there is an awareness around what he is doing. This workshop also gives fellows an opportunity to tell their personal stories. Yulia Tsvetkova, our arts fellow, found that incredibly helpful.”

In the second workshop, the aim is to look at how to raise funding and awareness; develop business sustainability, growing and networking; and improve international networks. It helps them establish what they need from external audiences – what they value and what matters to them, the problems they need to solve or the outcomes they want

The fellows will also take part in a digital security workshop led by open source personal virtual private network service Private Internet Access.

The value of the extended support fellow receive is clear from the feedback Index has received in previous years. Mimi Mefo, the 2019 journalism fellow, says, “It was an amazing and inspiring week. It was not just about the award, it was about building this strong bond we have today and sharing our experiences.”

Terry Anderson of Cartoonists Rights Network International, the 2019 campaigning fellow, said taking part in the week last year was “humbling, enlightening and energising in equal measure”.

Cross said, “The fellowship is hugely valuable and it is a real privilege to work with people who are doing such incredible work while facing threats such as imprisonment and torture. They show incredible courage in what they are doing and we are looking forward to seeing what support they need through the year and using Index’s network to help them in any way we can.”

Find out about all the 2020 fellows here.

Nominations open for 2020 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Fellowship

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”107432″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]

  • Awards Fellowship honours journalists, campaigners, digital activists and artists fighting censorship globally
  • Fellows receive a year-long package of assistance
  • Nominate at indexoncensorship.org/nominations
  • Public nominations are open from 1 July to 31 July 2019
  • #IndexAwards2020

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_column_text]This press release is also available in Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Nominations for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Fellowship are open. Now in their 20th year, the Awards honour some of the world’s most remarkable free expression heroes.

2020 will mark 20 years of the Freedom of Expression Awards, with 87 winners awarded over the years. Since 2015, Index has expanded the Awards programme to include the Awards Fellowship, supporting and championing 22 fellows in their work defending freedom of expression internationally.

The Awards Fellowship seeks to support activists at all levels and spans the world. Past winners include Honduran investigative journalist Wendy Funes, Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, Pakistani education campaigner Malala Yousafzai, Saudi investigative journalist Safa Al Ahmad and South African LGBTI photographer Zanele Muholi.

Index invites the general public, civil society organisations, non-profit groups and media organisations to nominate anyone (individuals or organisations) who they believe should be  celebrated and supported in their work tackling censorship worldwide.

We are offering four fellowships, one in each of the following categories:

  • Arts for artists and arts producers whose work challenges repression, injustice and celebrates artistic free expression. This could include visual artists, musicians, cartoonists, creative writers, whether solo or collectives.
  • Campaigning for activists and campaigners who have had a marked impact in fighting censorship and promoting free expression on the ground. This could include individuals or organisations.
  • Digital Activism for ground-breaking technology that circumvents censorship enabling the free and independent exchange of information. This could include new apps, digital tools or software.
  • Journalism for courageous and determined journalism that exposes censorship, threats to free expression and demands access to information. This could include bloggers, news outlets and investigative nonprofits.

All winners become Awards Fellows who receive 12 months of mentorship, networking and strategic support. The year commences with a week-long, all-expenses-paid residential in London (April 2020) with workshops, training and public events. Over the course of the year, Index works with the fellows to significantly enhance the impact, profile and sustainability of their work.

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index, said: “The Freedom of Expression Awards have showcased some of the world’s most fearless and unsung defenders of free expression for 20 years. We’ve sought to recognise the work of groups and individuals who have enhanced freedom of expression, often in the face of immense obstacles and great danger. In recent years, we’ve expanded the Awards programme to include fellowships that help winners amplify their efforts through targeted support and training. Use your voice by nominating a free expression champion to make sure their voice is heard.”

The 2020 Awards shortlist will be announced in early 2020. The fellows will be selected by a high profile panel of judges and announced in London at a ceremony in April 2020. Nominations will be open from 1 July 2019 to 5pm BST 31 July 2019.

The Freedom of Expression Awards were launched in 2001 to raise the profile of individuals and organisations that were defending freedom of expression globally.

For more information on the Awards and Fellowship, please contact Sean Gallagher, [email protected].

About the Freedom of Expression Awards Fellowship

2020 will mark 20 years of the Freedom of Expression Awards, with 87 winners honoured over the years. Since 2015, Index has expanded the Awards programme to include the Awards Fellowship, supporting and championing 22 fellows in their work defending freedom of expression internationally. Winners of the 2020 Awards Fellowship will receive 12 months of mentorship, networking and strategic support. More information

About Index on Censorship

Index on Censorship is a London-based non-profit organisation that publishes work by censored writers and artists and campaigns against censorship worldwide. Since its founding in 1972, Index on Censorship has published some of the greatest names in literature in its award-winning quarterly magazine, including Samuel Beckett, Nadine Gordimer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arthur Miller and Kurt Vonnegut. It also has published some of the world’s best campaigning writers from Vaclav Havel to Elif Shafak.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_column_text]This press release is also available in Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1561623587103-71ce28d9-6c09-8″ taxonomies=”5692″][/vc_column][/vc_row]