Why we cannot afford to look away

The world seems to be breaking at the seams. Our news is filled with images of war and the horror and fear that accompany them. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the suffering and devastation wrought by war and to be distracted from established conflicts as new ones emerge.

This week, Russia’s ongoing and illegal aggression in Ukraine has almost passed without comment but Russia’s announcement of more mercenaries, coupled with Ukraine’s adjustment of conscription laws to enlist younger individuals, and the dwindling air defences amidst brutal bombardments by Russia on innocent families, serve as stark reminders of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

It’s a scenario we’ve seen unfold before. Initially, a conflict captures our attention, eliciting outcry and calls for action. However, as time passes, disaster fatigue sets in, a new disaster hits the news and the plight of those affected fades from public discourse. This is understandable and a completely human reaction. Horrors being played out on television screens night after night harm wellbeing and in some situations drive communities in other nations further apart.

The situation in Sudan stands as a harrowing testament to this phenomenon. Last week marked the first anniversary of the war in the region, yet over 8 million people are displaced, journalists continue to face persecution and activists and human rights defenders who strive to tell us the stories of atrocities unfolding are finding it harder by the day.

We must not allow history to repeat itself. In Ukraine we are at risk of seeing this happen. Every conflict demands our attention and action. While these wars may seem distant, the consequences of our indifference reverberate globally. Without international pressure for de-escalation and accountability, the waves of violence will inevitably crash upon our shores.

At Index on Censorship, we understand the fundamental role that freedom of expression plays in holding power to account and safeguarding human rights. When journalists are silenced, when dissidents are suppressed, the fabric of democracy unravels, leaving room for tyranny to flourish.

The illegal invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin is not just a regional conflict; it is a test of our collective resolve to uphold the principles of peace, freedom, and justice. As the world watches, we cannot afford to look away. We must stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, amplifying their voices and advocating for an end to the Russian violence and aggression.

It is imperative that we keep the spotlight firmly fixed on Ukraine, ensuring that the atrocities committed do not fade into obscurity. Through relentless advocacy, robust journalism, and unwavering solidarity, we can make a difference. Let us not forget the lessons of the past, nor forsake our responsibility to act in the face of injustice.

Together, let us reaffirm our commitment to a world where freedom of expression is cherished, where human dignity is upheld, and where dissidents are free to highlight the plight within their nations.

Ukraine’s resilience shows us how to stand up to oppression

As we mark the second anniversary of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, it is imperative that we reflect not only on the ongoing conflict, the deaths, the child kidnapping, the sexual violence, the fear and the pain of the last two years, but also what came before and the impact on our collective human rights.

Many will consider 24 February 2022 as a turning point in global security and instability, which I of course do, but this wasn’t the first attack on Ukraine by Putin’s Russia. At Index on Censorship we have recorded the horrors which have occurred in Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin in 2014. This part of Ukraine’s story is just as important as the widely-marked second anniversary of the invasion by Russia and we must share the stories of those dissidents as well as those currently on the frontline of the war.

The annexation of Crimea and the subsequent persecution of the Tatar community – an ethnic Muslim minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula – serve as stark reminders of the human cost of authoritarian aggression and the importance of defending fundamental rights when they are under attack rather than waiting to see what happens next. Crimea should have been a warning for the global community, it should have alerted the world to the real threat coming from the Kremlin. Instead the world was seemingly distracted and Putin suffered little consequence for his invasion. That cannot be said of the people whose land he stole. For over 10 years, the Tatars have faced systematic persecution at the hands of the Kremlin.

But even in the depths of war and despair there must always be hope.

Ukraine, in the midst of its fight for sovereignty and freedom, serves as a beacon of hope in the face of tyranny. The Ukrainian people have bravely resisted Russian aggression, not only on the battlefield but also in the realm of ideas and expression. Despite facing immense pressure and intimidation, they continue to champion the values of democracy, freedom of identity and freedom of expression.

In the midst of this conflict, individuals like Nariman Dzhelyal stand as symbols of resilience and defiance. Dzhelyal, a prominent Tatar activist, has dedicated his life to advocating for the rights of his community in the face of persecution and repression. Despite his imprisonment and harassment from the Putin regime, he has remained steadfast in his commitment to justice and human rights.

But Dzhelyal is just one of many voices Putin’s authoritarian regime has attempted to silence both in Russia and Ukraine. Countless journalists, activists and dissidents have been targeted for their speaking truth to power, their only crime being a desire for freedom and democracy. In Russia alone OVD-Info report 19,855 people have been arrested for anti-war protests in the last two years and 896 dissidents have faced criminal prosecution. Their imprisonment serves as a chilling reminder of the lengths to which authoritarian regimes will go to suppress dissent and maintain power.

The silencing of dissent is not only an attack on freedom but also poses a grave threat to global stability and security. We cannot stand idly by as tyrants seek to crush the voices of those who dare to speak truth to power. Silencing dissent makes the world smaller, less safe and much more dull.

On this second anniversary, let us recommit ourselves to the defence of freedom of expression and the promotion of democracy around the world. Let us stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and all those who continue to fight for their basic rights and dignity. And let us never forget the sacrifices made by individuals like Nariman Dzhelyal, who remind us that the human spirit is indomitable in the face of oppression.

Slava Ukraini

Contents – Having the last laugh: The comedians who won’t be silenced


The Winter 2023 issue of Index looks at how comedians are being targeted by oppressive regimes around the world in order to crack down on dissent. In this issue, we attempt to uncover the extent of the threat to comedy worldwide, highlighting examples of comedians being harassed, threatened or silenced by those wishing to censor them.

The writers in this issue report on example of comedians being targeted all over the globe, from Russia to Uganda to Brazil. Laughter is often the best medicine in dark times, making comedy a vital tool of dissent. When the state places restrictions on what people can joke about and suppresses those who breach their strict rules, it's no laughing matter.

Up Front

Still laughing, just, by Jemimah Steinfeld: When free speech becomes a laughing matter.

The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest in the world of free expression, from Russian elections to a memorable gardener


Silent Palestinians, by Samir El-Youssef: Voices of reason are being stamped out.

Soundtrack for a siege, by JP O'Malley: Bosnia’s story of underground music, resistance and Bono.

Libraries turned into Arsenals, by Sasha Dovzhyk: Once silent spaces in Ukraine are pivotal in times of war.

Shot by both sides, by Martin Bright: The Russian writers being cancelled.

A sinister news cycle, by Winthrop Rodgers: A journalist speaks out from behind bars in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Smoke, fire and a media storm, by John Lewinski: Can respect for a local culture and media scrutiny co-exist? The aftermath of disaster in Hawaii has put this to the test.

Message marches into lives and homes, by Anmol Irfan: How Pakistan's history of demonising women's movements is still at large today.

A snake devouring its own tail, by JS Tennant: A Cuban journalist faces civic death, then forced emigration.

A 'seasoned dissident' speaks up, by Martin Bright: Writing against Russian authority has come full circle for Gennady Katsov.

Special Report: Having the last laugh - The comedians who won't be silenced

And God created laughter (so fuck off), by Shalom Auslander: On failing to be serious, and trading rabbis for Kafka.

The jokes that are made - and banned - in China, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Journalist turned comedian Vicky Xu is under threat after exposing Beijing’s crimes but in comedy she finds a refuge.

Giving Putin the finger, by John Sweeney: Reflecting on a comedy festival that tells Putin to “fuck off”.

Meet the Iranian cartoonist who had to flee his country, by Daisy Ruddock: Kianoush Ramezani is laughing in the face of the Ayatollah.

The SLAPP stickers, by Rosie Holt and Charlie Holt: Sometimes it’s not the autocrats, or the audience, that comedians fear, it’s the lawyers.

This great stage of fools, by Danson Kahyana: A comedy troupe in Uganda pushes the line on acceptable speech.

Joke's on Lukashenka speaking rubbish Belarusian. Or is it?, by Maria Sorensen: Comedy under an authoritarian regime could be hilarious, it it was allowed.

Laughing matters, by Daisy Ruddock: Knock knock. Who's there? The comedy police.

Taliban takeover jokes, by Spozhmai Maani and Rizwan Sharif: In Afghanistan, the Taliban can never by the punchline.

Turkey's standups sit down, by Kaya Ge: Turkey loses its sense of humour over a joke deemed offensive.

An unfunny double act, by Thiện Việt: A gold-plated steak and a maternal slap lead to problems for two comedians in Vietnam.

Dragged down, by Tilewa Kazeem: Nigeria's queens refuse to be dethroned.

Turning sorrow into satire, by Zahra Hankir: A lesson from Lebanon: even terrible times need comedic release.

'Hatred has won, the artist has lost', by Salil Tripathi: Hindu nationalism and cries of blasphemy are causing jokes to land badly in India.

Did you hear the one about...? No, you won't have, by Alexandra Domenech: Putin has strangled comedy in Russia, but that doesn't stop Russian voices.

Of Conservatives, cancel culture and comics, by Simone Marques: In Brazil, a comedy gay Jesus was met with Molotov cocktails.

Standing up for Indigenous culture, by Katie Dancey-Downs: Comedian Janelle Niles deals in the uncomfortable, even when she'd rather not.


Your truth or mine, by Bobby Duffy: Debate: Is there a free speech crisis on UK campuses?

All the books that might not get written, by Andrew Lownie: Freedom of information faces a right royal problem.

An image or a thousand words?, by Ruth Anderson: When to look at an image and when to look away.


Lukashenka's horror dream, by Alhierd Bacharevič and Mark Frary: The Belarusian author’s new collection of short stories is an act of resistance. We publish one for the first time in English.

Lost in time and memory, by Xue Tiwei: In a new short story, a man finds himself haunted by the ghosts of executions.

The hunger games, by Stephen Komarnyckyj and Mykola Khvylovy: The lesson of a Ukrainian writer’s death must be remembered today.

The woman who stopped Malta's mafia taking over, by Paul Caruana Galizia: Daphne Caruana Galizia’s son reckons with his mother’s assassination.

Putin’s control threatens Russian dissident voices

2023 has been a year with more news than days. Every corner of the world is a cacophony of broadcasts describing horror, injustice, sorrow and pain. There are times when you just want to cover your ears, close your eyes and hope for peace in all senses of the word. But in this barrage of bulletins dictators thrive.

Whilst the United Nations scrutinises the Israel-Hamas war, the United States Congress holds crunch talks over the future of funding for Ukraine in its defence and Beijing gears up for the trial of Jimmy Lai, Putin lurks in the shadows. His nefarious and nihilistic plots continue their march to his single goal of power at all costs. This week Vladimir Putin announced that he will be seeking yet another term as President of the Russian Federation. He boasts that he will hold polls in the occupied territories he illegally invaded in Ukraine and brushes over the matter he is riding roughshod over the Russian constitution once again.

However, Putin’s determination to cling to power can only happen when he oppresses and silences dissidents. The latest victim of the Russian President’s tyranny is Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. The trumped-up charges from the Kremlin are “spreading false information about the Russian army”. This is the latest crackdown on dissent being undertaken by the Russian state.

This week we also heard that lawyers for Alexei Navalny have been unable to contact the Russian opposition leader. His legal team have made two attempts to reach the two penal colonies where they believe Navalny is being held. Neither of the colonies have responded to the requests for information. Only last week the jailed Russian opposition leader fell ill within prison and was due to appear in court again this week.

Another thorn in the side of Putin, the former member of a Moscow municipal council Alexei Gorinov, has grown ill whilst incarcerated for seven years in prison. Gorinov no longer has the strength to sit up or even speak.

Gessen, Navalny and Gorinov all reflect the autocratic approach by Putin to his critics: imprisonment, abuse, and hunting down those who are able to escape. Whether you are a journalist, politician or member of the public in Putin’s Russia you are at risk of the whims of a man who yearns only for more control.

Whilst war rages in Ukraine it is easy to lose sight of the dissidents saying loudly that the Russian state doesn’t act in their name. During turbulent times it’s all too easy for us to be deafened by events and for dissidents' voices to be muffled. We cannot allow that to happen and as long as Index on Censorship exists we will give a megaphone to those fighting for freedom of expression to ensure you can hear what they are saying.

To finish - as we reach the end of 2023 - the only thing I can really promise you is that the team at Index will be required to keep fighting for dissidents in 2024 - and that will do our job with the dedication and commitment that you expect from us.

So from the team at Index - we wish you well over the holidays and hope for a much better 2024.