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.

Moments of Freedom 2023

Moments of Freedom was Index on Censorship’s 2023 year-end campaign where we asked our readers and supporters to vote on the moments during the past twelve months that have given them hope that the world is not as bad as it sometimes feels.

Index’s staff and board looked back over the year and highlighted their moments where freedom of expression has been strengthened or celebrated. This could have been through the introduction of new legislation supporting free expression, the release of a prisoner of conscience or the escape of a dissident from tyranny to a safe third country.

Egyptian blogger Abdelrahman "Moka" Tarek reaches safety

Launch of the Begum Academy

First anniversary of women's protests in Iran

Rwanda declared "not a safe country"

Alexei Navalny's reaction to latest charges - Russia

Badiucao exhibition in Warsaw

Silent strike protests in Myanmar

Release of Mortaza Behboudi and Matiullah Wesa

Afghan TV present Spozhmai Maani finds refuge in France

Why academic freedom and freedom of speech are not the same thing

It seems every week there is a news story of another academic, a group of students or a vice chancellor detailing threats to academic freedom. Heartbreakingly this has become an even more common occurrence since the Hamas pogrom in Israel on 7 October and the subsequent war in Gaza.

Only this week the UKRI, a UK government body which distributes research funding, has suspended its diversity advisory panel, after a leading member of the British Government publicly criticised members of the panel for their social media comments regarding Hamas and Israel. This led to the resignation of several academics from posts at the UKRI.

And at Cornell University in the US, a student is currently facing charges for threatening to kill Jewish students via a range of graphic social media posts, resulting in his persecution and enhanced security measures now in place for Jewish staff and members on campus.

These are two of the more extreme examples of the impact of the current crisis on academic institutions.

And as angry as they make me, as heartbroken as I am about current events, I have to consider them through the prism of my job - defending freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is a very broad concept and there are as many definitions as there are forms of expression. But taking the two examples above at hand, academic freedom and freedom of speech are different things. What people debate and discuss in the lecture hall, in a seminar room or on the pages of an academic tome must always be protected. But academics are not afforded special protections outside of the confines of their intellectual endeavours. That’s not a matter of academic freedom, it’s one of freedom of expression and should be considered separately.

At the same time, the events in Cornell equate to hate speech and are not and should not be protected. Hate speech and incitement are against the law and should be dealt with accordingly. And every community, every student should have the right to feel safe on campus - not in fear of their lives. No one should be scared of walking onto their university campus whatever is happening in a war thousands of miles away.

This is all at a time when university campuses are increasingly considered to be the frontline in the ongoing battle to protect free speech.

Earlier this year, the UK saw the passage of The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act.

In the current context, this seems to have muddied the waters between academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus. The new law places an onus on universities, colleges and Students’ Unions to not only protect free speech but to actively promote it. But what does this mean when applied to the views of students and academics who are promoting views outside of their academic specialisms?

The very name of the Act it suggests that those on campus have complete freedom of speech without limitation. They do not; no one does. But as academics they must have complete freedom to teach and challenge without fear or favour (within the confines of the law).

Universities are meant to be seats of academic exploration, cathedrals of learning. They provide a forum for discussion and debate in which new ideas and minority opinions can be considered. The purpose is to expose students to the breadth of views and ideas that exist in their particular discipline and ideally challenge their worldview - allowing them to argue back. On campus, in the classroom - not on a social media platform.

It is always difficult to know what impact these debates and issues are having on campus. How safe academics feel to push the boundaries of their areas of specialism and how secure students feel to question and debate on campus - to ask the unpalatable question, to challenge the status quo. But in the midst of the current gloom and misery I am choosing to take a little bit of hope from a recently published survey.

The National Student Survey from the Office of Students would suggest that this endemic attack on free speech is not as pervasive as we sometimes believe it to be. They asked students from colleges and universities in England how free they felt to express their “ideas, opinions, and beliefs” and 86% said that they felt “free” or “very free”. Only 3% of the 300,000 respondents said that they felt they were ‘not free at all.”

On the face of it, this is good news. We should welcome the fact that an overwhelming number of students feel free to speak their mind and share their opinions. Self censorship is a real problem but not one, it seems, that plagues the majority of today’s students.

But we must ask the 3% why they don’t feel free at all to express themselves on campus. is it threats from external forces like the Chinese Communist Party, is it because of their identity or faith, or is it because they themselves hold minority opinions and are fearful of being challenged. Whatever the reason, 9,000 students who participated in this survey feel silenced. We need to know why and we need to find a way to support them.

In the interim I’m going to focus on the positive and celebrate the fact that we start from a position of academic freedom and that the overwhelming majority of students know that they can express themselves on campus without fear or favour.


Contents – In bad faith: How religion is being weaponised by the right


The Autumn 2023 issue of Index looks at blasphemy laws, and how they are being weaponised by the religious right as a means of imposing intolerance. We wanted to understand the ways in which religion is being used by states as an excuse for censorship, and how this has played out in a global context.

The writers in this issue have examined blasphemy laws in countries all over the world, shining a light on the those who have been left voiceless or have been persecuted in the name of religion. These worrying stories paint a picture of a growing movement amongst the religious right that threatens to suppress those who do not conform to increasingly strict cultures and norms.

Up Front

Faithful foot soldiers, by Jemimah Steinfeld: The religious right is in, our rights to speech out.

The Index, by Mark Frary: From fraught elections in Mali to Russians launching VPNs, this is free expression in focus.


Oiling the wheels of injustice, by Francis Clarke and Mark Frary: Behind a mega-city construction and the roar of Formula 1, Saudi Arabia is driving human rights further into the ground.

Pinochet's ghost still haunts, by Juan Carlos Ramírez Figueroa: The Chilean dictator is long gone, but support lingers on.

The dissident lives on, by Martin Bright: The dissident is not dead, long live the dissident.

No place to hide, by Nik Williams: Transnational repression has no borders in a digital world.

Peer pressure, by Thiện Việt: In China, enforced social rankings aren’t just confined to the realms of Black Mirror.

No country for anxious men, by Laura Silvia Battaglia: A mental health crisis in Yemen has left people locked up with no voice.

Nollywood gets naked, by Tilewa Kazeem: It’s getting hot in Nigeria, as the film scene strips back on what’s deemed inappropriate.

Policing symbolism, by Jimena Ledgard: Peruvian protesters are being met with violence, and not even flower carpets are safe.

Setting the story straight, by Danson Kahyana: Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law is having an unexpected effect, with literature being ripped apart.

A marriage made in transgression, by Alexandra Domenech: Despite being tortured by security forces and her fiancé thrown in jail, Russian dissident Alexandra Popova is staying put in Moscow.

Out of the oven, into the fire, by Mir Aiyaz: Rohingya Muslims hoping for open arms in India are getting a cold reception.

Special Report: In bad faith - how religion is being weaponised by the right

For the love of God?, by Rebecca L Root: As intolerance rises in many parts of the world, a misplaced profanity can spell out death.

Worshippers of power, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Under the eye of the religious right, Margaret Atwood discusses why a blasphemy accusation holds so much power.

King David he is not, by JP O'Malley: The USA's religious right is playing the Trump Card.

No sex please, we're Hindus, by Salil Tripathi: Oppenheimer isn't just breaking box office records, it's offending Hindu nationalists.

In the name of the father?, by Francis Clarke: A far from extensive list of the countries currently imposing sentences on those who "offend".

A call to harm, by Ayesha Khan: Pakistan has some of the world's harshest blasphemy laws, but punishments come from those outside the law too.

The blasphemy obstacle course, by Mai Al-Nakib: Kuwait's rocky relationship with blasphemy laws is breeding a generation of self-censored authors.

Self-worship is the new religion, by Tara Isabella Burton: A new faith is emerging and it's not necessarily open to different views.

Think of the children, by Katie Dancey-Downs: When Juno Dawson's stories are banned, is it really about the books?

Turkey's zealots still want blood, by Kaya Genç: A foundation related to the controversial and failed translation of The Satanic Verses continues to be attacked.

Sharia Law and disorder, by Kola Alapinni: When the state fails to step in, violent mobs control the punishments for blasphemy in Nigeria.

Loose hair in Tehran, by Farnaz Haeri: The writer describes her first time walking out in Iran without a headscarf.

Handmaid's tale in a holy land, by Jo-Ann Mort: In an Israel that is eroding women's rights, female-free billboards and segregated beaches are just some of the battlegrounds.

Practise what they preach, by Simon Coates: Religious values are an excuse to eradicate LGBTQ+ discussion in the UAE, while tolerance is forgotten.

Poland's papal problem, by Kseniya Tarasevich: One Pope's lack of integrity paints a picture of Poland's infiltrated politics.


Turkish and European courts failed me, by Nedim Türfent: How one journalist swapped a press card for a "terrorist" badge.

Truth in seduction, by Mark Hollingsworth: A historian struggles to lift the cloak of secrecy on a KGB-orchestrated sex scandal.

First they came for the female journalists, by Zahra Joya: The space for women in Afghanistan is ever-diminishing, and female journalists are crucial.

Speak, debate, challenge, by Ruth Anderson: Index's guiding framework remains the same in a 2023 context.


Will Paulina ever rest?, by Ariel Dorfman and Jemimah Steinfeld: The Death and the Maiden protagonist fights for justice once more. Plus an exclusive new short story.

Lines of inquiry, by Richard Norton-Taylor: The thorn in intelligence establishment's side explains the growing pressure on whistleblowers