Shortlists announced for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards

For the last 22 years Index on Censorship has been proud to host the annual Freedom of Expression Awards. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the brave artists, journalists and campaigners from around the world who fight for freedom of expression in the most challenging of circumstances. There are some truly incredible nominees for the awards this year, who more than ever, are challenging the repressive regimes they live under to fight for the rights of ordinary people.

2023 has seen the continuation of Russia’s war on Ukraine with its horrific consequences for the people of Ukraine and the severe repression for those speaking out against the war in Russia. The CCP in China continues to repress journalists, particularly those who attempt to uncover the crimes against the Uyghur people, and activists and protesters for women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan face vicious attacks from the authorities.

The shortlisted candidates for the Arts award are Visual Rebellion, a platform for sharing the work of photographers, filmmakers, and artists documenting the protests in Myanmar; Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, who sings about injustice and the abuse of civil society by the authorities, for which he has been imprisoned; and Ukrainians, curator Maria Lanko and artist Pavlo Makov, who have worked to protect Ukrainian art in the face of Russian war crimes.

The shortlisted candidates for the Campaigning award are Matiullah Wesa from Afghanistan who has worked to ensure all children, but especially girls, have access to education and educational materials; Russian student Olesya Krivtsova who has publicly opposed Russia’s war on Ukraine and has fled the country to avoid up to 10 years’ imprisonment; the Xinjiang Victim’s Database, which records the incarceration and persecution of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province; and the Africa Human Rights Network which works to support and protect human rights defenders across the Great Lakes region of Africa.

And the shortlisted candidates for the Journalism award are Bilan Media, Somalia’s first women-only media organisation and newsroom; Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the Indian fact-checking platform Alt News which has led to threats after challenging misinformation; and Afghan Mortaza Behboudi, in exile in France, who continues to travel to Afghanistan every month to work with different media outlets to ensure the voices of Afghans are heard.

The Freedom of Expression Awards are a time to remind ourselves of the importance of freedom of expression and to commit ourselves to protecting our own freedom of expression. It is easily lost but hard fought for. We must not forget that.

Nominees for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards – Journalism

Bilan Media (Somalia)

Bilan Media is Somalia’s first women-only media organisation and newsroom, which aims to challenge gendered threats against women in journalism, as well as covering under-reported issues. 

It is incredibly dangerous to be a journalist in Somalia. In 2022, Somalia topped the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Global Impunity Index for the eighth year running. Journalists are a specific target of militant Islamist groups, especially Al Shabaab, and are regularly shot, imprisoned and physically harmed by the authorities and other powerful groups. Women face a range of other significant threats that prevent many from being able to work safely. In a society where women are marginalised and in a country where huge swathes of territory are controlled by groups linked to Al Qaeda and Islamic State, Bilan Media believed the only way female journalists can fight censorship and find a degree of freedom of expression was to set up the country’s only all-women media house. In addition to distributing their films and reports on Somali TV, radio and websites, they have established partnerships with international media outlets, such as The Guardian, BBC and El Pais.  

As a career for women in Somalia, journalism is considered to be “the bottom of the pile”. This perception shaped how Bilan approached the type of journalism they focused on. In order to reduce verbal and sexual harassment and the threat of physical attack, Bilan decided to work as “Mobile Journalists” where they use mobile phones and other small equipment for their reporting so they are less visible to a hostile public and could escape the scene quickly if needed. 

Bilan focuses on stories that are not represented in the broader media coverage in Somalia. These include stories about people living with HIV/AIDS, girls who have recently undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); orphans who were abandoned when their orphanage closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic only to return with babies of their own after being raped or forced into temporary marriages; female opioid addicts; the mistreatment of people living with albinism; underage girls sold into marriage and young children forced into hard labour to earn money for their families.

Mohammed Zubair (India)

After co-founding the leading Indian fact-checking platform, Alt News, Mohammed Zubair faced significant threats after challenging mis/disinformation propagated by influential members of the ruling party.

Mohammed Zubair and others decided to found, a portal dedicated to busting fake news to address flaws in the Indian media ecosystem, such as overt political pressure on media outlets and opaque methods by which government funding was awarded to media outlets. Alt News’ goal was to dismantle propaganda networks in a manner that could be used by other publishers. Alt News’ approach focuses on political fact-checking to scrutinise claims made by political parties, leaders and other persons in positions of authority; debunking social media rumours; and examining media misinformation and bias.

Alt News aims to foster a stronger and more vibrant media environment by amplifying dissenting voices and creating barriers to prevent mis/disinformation from spreading. As a result, the outlet has faced considerable social, litigious and political pressure to halt their work. Using both his personal twitter account, as well as the outlet’s website, Mohammed Zubair and his colleagues have reported on inter-communal violence in India, the actions of vigilante groups, as well as the use of social media platforms to amplify hate speech. 

In June 2022, following a tweet exposing a national spokesperson of the BJP making hateful and Islamophobic utterances on national TV, Mohammed Zubair was arrested by the Delhi and Uttar Pradesh state police. Based on an earlier satirical tweet posted in 2018 and reported by another user, Zubair was charged with "promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc." and “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. It has been reported that whenever Zubair was granted bail on one case another FIR (or First Information Report) would be lodged against him. This led to six FIRs being lodged against Zubair, resulting in him being caught in a 24 day cycle of arrest, bail and re-arrest. The following month, the Indian Supreme Court granted Zubair bail and ordered his release, as there was no justification for keeping him in custody.

Mortaza Behboudi (Afghanistan/France)

Already living in exile in France due to previous threats as a result of his reporting, Mortaza Behboudi was detained by the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence on 7 January 2023 in Kabul.

At the age of two Behboudi’s family fled Afghanistan to live in Isfahan in Iran. In his early twenties, Behboudi started reporting on the opium trade in Afghanistan. As a result of his work, he received a number of death threats from the Taliban, which resulted in him having to leave the country for France. After learning French, he continued his work, helping to co-found Guiti News, the first refugee and French-led news media in France, for which he was coined one of Forbes 30 under 30 in the media category. 

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Behboudi had been travelling back to Afghanistan every month to work with different media outlets, such as Business Insider, France 2, TV5 Monde, France 24, Liberation, La Croix, and many more. Notable works include "They will not erase us, the Fight of the Afghan Women", which was produced in 2022 and broadcasted on Mediapart and Arte, and "Les petites filles afghanes vendues pour survivre" for France 2.

On 7 January 2023, members of the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) detained Behboudi in Kabul. According to CPJ, Behboudi was detained in the GDI’s headquarters in Kabul. On 6 February Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed to Voice of America that Behboudi was detained by the GDI, saying that details of his case could not be made public “but he is fine and he was treated well.” Reporting by Le Monde suggests that Behboudi was detained at a checkpoint in Kabul due to his name being on a list held by the Taliban related to ‘undesirable’ people, which includes names of media outlets, journalists and individuals who may have press cards but are considered political activists.


Nominees for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards – Campaigning

Matiullah Wesa (Afghanistan)

Through Pen Path, Matiullah Wesa has worked to ensure all children have access to education, teaching materials and books. After the Taliban’s takeover, this focus turned to protecting education for girls and women.

Matiullah Wesa established Pen Path in 2009 to campaign for greater access to education for boys and girls in Afghanistan. In this role, Wesa visited 34 provinces of the country and almost all districts. Pen Path’s first step was to re-open closed schools, after The Taliban had previously shut them down in the remote villages of Afghanistan. Prior to The Taliban’s takeover, Pen Path acted as mediator between the government and the Taliban, while also encouraging local elders to collaborate with them to re-open those schools. It is estimated by Pen Path that their team, to date, has re-opened more than a hundred schools and established a number of new schools across the country.

To date, Pen Path has also provided stationery and children’s books to approximately 300,000 children. Pen Path also established 39 libraries in rural areas to provide access to books for the general public (especially women who could not go to school due to restrictions).

To further extend the reach of education across Afghanistan, Pen Path launched a programme of mobile classes delivered via a specially designed motorbike fitted with a computer screen and speakers, as well as a bookcase, teaching materials and a mobile library.

On 27 March 2023, Matiullah Wesa was arbitrarily arrested by the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), while returning from evening prayer. The day after his arrest, the GDI raided his house and confiscated his personal mobile and laptop. On 29 March, the Taliban spokesperson confirmed his arrest, accusing him of illegal activities. His family have not been allowed to visit him and there has been no avenue to challenge the legality of his detention.

Olesya Krivtsova (Russia)

Olesya Krivtsova is a Russian student, who was targeted by the Russian authorities for opposing the unlawful Russian invasion of Ukraine

Over the first year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Olesya organised partisan anti-war actions in her small town of Arkhangelsk. This included posting anti-war leaflets and posting anti-war messages on her blog and the chat rooms set up for students based at her university. Olesya took the risks to do this to “counter Russian propaganda and promote alternative information about the war in Ukraine among students and other residents of my city.”

As a result of these acts, Krivtsova was placed under house arrest in January, and banned from using the internet on the charges of discrediting the Russian army and justifying terrorism. It has been reported that her classmates reported her to the authorities after taking screenshots of her anti-war messages. She was also added to the country’s official list of terrorists and extremists. Due to the severity of the charges, she faced up to 10 years in prison. In March 2023, Olesya uploaded  a video of her cutting off her monitoring tag and she fled Russia for Lithuania.

Xinjiang Victim’s Database (China)

The Xinjiang Victim’s Database attempts to overcome the secrecy and silence that defines the incarceration and persecution of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang by giving journalists and researchers resources and data to support their work. 

The Database aims to make Xinjiang and the mass-incarceration policies taking place there as transparent and accessible for the world at large as possible. This is done primarily by documenting the individual victims and their situations in as much detail as available data allow. In addition to this, they maintain a number of side databases, such as monitoring the facilities where victims are held, the villages/neighbourhoods they come from, the individuals in the government/police linked to their detentions, and the collection/translation of various primary-source materials, such as eyewitness accounts or government/police/court records.

The Database serves as a free-to-use tool for researchers, journalists, and advocates. Additionally, it provides several specific tools to the public: an ID search that allows 10,000s of internal and public documents held by the database to be searched for information about specific people, a name translator to convert Chinese pinyin versions to more appropriate Turkic versions (e.g. Memet instead of Maimaiti), and a translation bank that combines the Database’s 10 in-house dictionaries to assist with translation of Xinjiang-related texts.

Africa Human Rights Network (Africa-wide)

The AHRN works to support and protect human rights defenders (HRDs) across the Great Lakes region of Africa to ensure they can speak up and protect human rights and democracy across Africa.

The main goal of AHRN is to promote and protect the work of Human Rights Defenders, including activists, bloggers, journalists, feminists, environmental defenders and many others. This work includes advocating for and protecting HRD at risk. It does this through its protection programme and shelter city scheme, which started in 2017 with the launch of the Dar es Salaam Shelter City which is a regional temporary relocation program for at-risk HRDs operation in the African Great Lakes Region. In 2019, this scheme was expanded after the launch of the shelter city Benin to provide temporary relocation to at-risk human rights defenders from Central and west African countries especially those from Francophone countries. As well as direct support, AHRN also facilitates engagement between HRDs in Africa to share capacity building expertise, exchange experience and foster stronger relationships of support and solidarity.

The organisation also provides a platform to more than 175 grassroots civil society organisations that have proven capacity to implement human rights projects in Africa. As a result, AHRN has been able to establish a platform of local HRDs who have decided to organise themselves to improve their working environment and security. This networked approach has defined AHRN’s work. In 2021, they created the YADA Network (Young African Defenders in Action) following a workshop attended by young people from 18 African countries. While it is present in 18 countries, the AHRN’s goal is to extend the Network to 30 countries by the end of 2023. They also created, which is a specialised social media platform for HRDs to connect with others and share information in real time. 

Nominees for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards – Arts

Visual Rebellion (Myanmar)

Visual Rebellion was established in December 2021 as a platform to showcase and support the edited work of journalists, filmmakers and artists across post-coup Myanmar.

Launched on International Human Rights day on 1 December 2021 by a team led by Nadja Houben (Human Rights in the Picture foundation) and Laure Siegel (Mediapart), Visual Rebellion is a platform to showcase and support the edited work of journalists, filmmakers and artists across post-coup Myanmar. The activities of Visual Rebellion consist mainly of a free public information service on what is happening in Myanmar and in Thailand, continuing education for their members in English, Thai and Burmese language on a range of topics including cybersecurity, investigations, photojournalism, as well as coordinating the production of photo exhibitions, documentary screenings and book publications to finance their studies or visas.

Toomaj Salehi (Iran)

Toomaj Salehi is an Iranian rapper who has been singing about injustice and abuses by the Iranian authorities against civil society. In 2022, during the ongoing protests, he was arrested and charged for his work.

Salehi is a well-known Iranian hip-hop artist who has released protest songs including Mousehole, Turkmenchay and Pomegranate. Many of his songs explicitly reference the human rights situation in Iran, as well as threats to civil society. This has led him to being targeted by the authorities, long before his recent detention.

Following the release of Mousehole, Toomaj was arrested in the middle of the night on 12 September 2021. He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the state," but after more than a week he was released on bail. In January 2022, he was sentenced to six months in prison but was released on a suspended sentence in February. He later appeared in front of the prison where he had been imprisoned as part of a music video for a song written in memory of the victims of Aban.

Due to Toomaj’s support of the the protests that erupted after the killing of Mahsa Amini while in custody, he was violently taken into custody on 30 October 2022. In November, Iran's judiciary charged Salehi with a number of crimes, including spreading "corruption on Earth," a charge that could see him sentenced to death, as well as charges that each carry 1-10 years of imprisonment: “propaganda against the state,” “formation and management of illegal groups with the aim of undermining national security,” “collaboration with hostile governments,” and “spreading lies and inciting violence through cyberspace and encouraging individuals to commit violent acts.”  While in detention, state media published a video purporting to show Salehi blindfolded, with bruising on his face, apologising for his words. Family members and human rights organisations have accused the authorities of torturing Salehi in prison to force him to make a false confession.

In July 2023, Toomaj was sentenced to over 6 years in prison for “corruption on earth”, as well as being banned from leaving Iran for 2 years. He is also banned from preparing, singing and producing music for 2 years. It has also been reported that he has been acquitted of two other charges - “insulting the supreme leader” & “communicating with hostile governments”.

Maria Lanko and Pavlo Makov (Ukraine)

In the midst of Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, the artist and curator worked to secure and transport Ukrainian art out of the warzone to ensure it could be protected and presented as part of the Venice Biennale. 

Maria Lanko (right) was a co-curator of Kyiv-based gallery, The Naked Room, who was selected to co-curate the Ukrainian national pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale. The piece selected to represent Ukraine was entitled ”Fountain of Exhaustion” by artist Pavlo Makov (left), which is a kinetic sculpture consisting of 78 bronze funnels, arranged in the form of a pyramid. The water poured into the top funnel divides into two streams, feeding the funnels below. “Only a few drops reach the bottom, symbolizing exhaustion on a personal and global level,” the curators said in a press release.

On the evening of 24 February 2022, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Lanko packed the installation into her car and she drove, heading for Venice. The journey took three weeks, after taking a week just to make it to the border between Ukraine and Romania. Due to Maria’s decision, the piece was able to be presented at the Biennale to enable Ukrainian art to be seen in this unique and important showcase of international art. The importance of this was highlighted by Lanko in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “When the sheer right to existence for our culture is being challenged by Russia, it is crucial to demonstrate our achievements to the world".