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.

Targeted activists vow “the voices of Hongkongers will never be eliminated”

Pro-democracy activists exiled from Hong Kong will never be silenced despite attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to use transnational repression against them, an urgent press briefing held at the UK House of Commons on Wednesday heard.

This is despite what some are calling a “Chinese fatwa” which has seen the Hong Kong Police Force issue arrest warrants againt eight activists, including Christopher Mung, Finn Lau and Nathaw Law in the UK, and others in the US, Canada and Australia. The authorities have also offered rewards of up to one million Hong Kong dollars for information leading to their capture.

Mung and Lau both spoke at the briefing, which was chaired by Bob Seely MP.

Mung stressed the repercussions of the long reach from the authorities, but vowed he will never be silenced.

He said: “The Chinese and Hong Kong governments are extending their hands abroad, suppressing freedom of speech and silencing activists with a chilling effect.

“But they will never eliminate my voice, or the voice of Hongkongers. For the rest of my life, us Hongkongers will fight together.”

Lau said it wasn’t the first time the CCP had tried to exert transnational repression of speech in the UK, citing the harassment of protestors outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester by staff in 2022.

He also issued a set of demands to the British government in response to the warrants. These included an urgent meeting with both the British foreign and home secretaries, as well as calling for legal action against anybody in the UK who passes on information about the activists for reward.

“We simply need concrete action and measures to tackle this,” he said.

Mark Clifford, president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, went as far to call the warrants and bounties a Chinese “fatwa”.

He said: “The CCP and their enablers in Hong Kong have crossed a red line here. What they’re saying is democracy is illegal around the world under their National Security Law.

“We need actions because China will keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing.”

When asked why the warrants and bounties were issued now, Lau said that any guess is just speculation.

He continued: “Personally, I think it’s just simply a way of discouraging Hongkongers from fighting for their democracy and speech in the future.”

Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, which monitors freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong, recounted attempts by the CCP to repress his own freedom of speech, while acknowledging these have been less severe than those now faced by the eight activists.

“About a year ago I received a letter from the Hong Kong police informing me that what I do with Hong Kong Watch in the UK violates the National Security Law in Hong Kong, and I could face a prison sentence there,” he said.

“I’ve also received anonymous threatening letters from Hong Kong, some even posted to my mother.”

Finishing off the session, Mark Clifford said that the battle with the CCP’s repression will be a long-term struggle, and to ensure talk of damaging trade relations doesn’t affect it.

“It’s an evil, evil country; and we must remember our values are just more important than economic commerce.”

Read our statement on the arrest warrants and rewards.

The international community must resist Hong Kong’s attempts to threaten human rights across the globe using the National Security Law

Index on Censorship is deeply alarmed by the reports that the Hong Kong Police Force have issued arrest warrants for eight pro-democracy activists living in exile in the UK, USA and Australia. According to the police force, all those targeted “are alleged to have continued to commit offences under the Hong Kong National Security Law that seriously endanger national security, including ‘incitement to secession’, ‘subversion’, ‘incitement to subversion’ and ‘collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security’.” Index has long condemned the National Security Law as it has fundamentally criminalised dissent and “paralysed pro-independence and pro-democracy advocates in the city.”

Index further condemns the reward offered by the Hong Kong authorities of HK$1 million (£100,581) for information leading to their capture. By offering financial incentives to members of the public to report on these pro-democracy activists, the authorities are trying to turn society against itself to isolate those who have spoken out against China’s attack on human rights. This is especially damaging for those living in exile. Through the Banned By Beijing project, Index has documented how Chinese authorities – both in Hong Kong and mainland China – have threatened those who have fled to Europe, targeting their ability to work, express themselves, seek education, or continue advocating for human rights back home in China. 

The extraterritorial reach of the National Security Law explicitly targets those who have fled due to their work defending democracy. The US Government highlighted this specific issue in their statement responding to the warrants, stating that “the extraterritorial application of the Beijing-imposed National Security Law is a dangerous precedent that threatens the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people all over the world.” All states must ensure they can respond robustly to all threats of transnational repression. This was highlighted in an exhibition launched by Index last week in London to mark the third anniversary of the enactment of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which featured Badiucao, a Chinese-Australian artist and human rights defender; Lumli Lumlong, a husband and wife painting duo; and leading Uyghur campaigner, Rahima Mahmut.

All countries must stand firm to their commitment to ensure that all those targeted by these warrants and the National Security Law are protected from transnational threats wherever they are. 

Tiananmen Square? Don’t mention it

As always the Chinese authorities cracked down on public commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which occurred 34 years ago last Sunday. As always more things were added to the list of what cannot be said in the lead-up. And as always people got creative in their response to getting round the censorship. Here’s a roundup of what happened recently for the anniversary Beijing would rather we all forgot.

White candles not welcome

Armoured police vehicles were deployed and hundreds of police conducted stop and search operations near Victoria Park in Hong Kong, where vigils for the victims of the massacre had previously been held for decades. The UN were “alarmed” that 23 people were arrested on Sunday for “breaching the peace”, including a veteran activist knows as “Grandma Wong”. A solitary elderly man who held a candle on a street corner was also reported to have been arrested. Commemorations of the event have become increasingly off-limits in the city state since China imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020. Still, Twitter was filled with images of people lighting candles from the relative safety of their own homes in Hong Kong.

Don’t mention Sitong Bridge

Words or symbols that reference the massacre are notoriously scrubbed from the internet by the Chinese authorities. Last week, this censorship extended to the Sitong Bridge in Beijing, when Chinese language online searches of the bridge yielded no results. It comes after a banner was unfurled on the bridge in 2022 calling for the removal of Chinese president Xi Jinping. A Weibo post by the British Embassy in Beijing showing how the Chinese state media originally reported the massacre (namely in more detail than the silence now, with state media making reference to mass casualties in hospital at the time) was removed by the authorities. The anniversary is sometimes known as “internet maintenance day” because of the number of websites taken offline.

Literary pursuits

In the weeks building up to the anniversary, it was reported that books and videos about the massacre were pulled from Hong Kong public libraries, after government auditors requested works that were “manifestly contrary” to national security be taken away. Wio News reported in mid-May that searches of library archives involving keywords on the massacre turned up no articles or references.

Tiananmen Square surveilled

No shocker here, but worth saying nonetheless – any form of rally or protest was absent at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sunday due to additional security checks in the area. Pedestrians on Changan Avenue, running north of the square, were stopped and forced to present identification. Journalists were also told they need special permission to be in the area.

New York new museum

A new museum dedicated to the Tiananmen Square massacre opened on Friday in New York. Zhou Fengsuo, who opened the exhibit as part of the 4th June Memorial Museum, felt it was needed as a pushback to the decades-long campaign by the CCP to eradicate remembrance of the massacre around the world. Despite being in the USA, there are still security fears for the museum’s workers. Speaking about how the museum will operate a visitor booking system, Wang Dan, a former student leader during the Tiananmen protests, told the Guardian: ““We cannot open the door for anyone who wants to come in because we’re really worried they [the Chinese embassy] will send somebody.”

The world remembers

Commemorations for the massacre were held around the world, including in Sydney, where speakers included exiled former diplomat Chen Yonglin, and demonstrators chanted “Free Hong Kong”. In London, hundreds gathered outside the Chinese Embassy calling for justice for the victims of the massacre, and for the release of human rights lawyer Chow Hang-Tung. Over in Taipei in Taiwan, less than a month after the seizure of Hong Kong’s “Pillar of Shame”, a statue commemorating the victims of the massacre, people gathered around a replica on Sunday as part of the city’s commemorations. Now the only place in the Chinese-speaking world to openly hold a memorial, organisers hoped to show solidarity with both Hong Kong and Chinese dissidents.