As the annual Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards gala approaches, we’ve highlighted five of those who have won or been nominated for free expression awards, including the Freemuse Awards. From a Moroccan rapper to an Iranian folk singer, these artists refuse to be censored and continue to fight to have their voices heard.
El Haqed, Morocco
Winner of the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for arts
Mouad Belghouat, aka El Haqed, faced repression from the Moroccan government, including multiple arrests since the Arab Spring. His music focuses on poverty, oppression and political corruption in his country. He is currently living in Belgium, where he continues to write music.
Mayam Mahmoud, Egypt
Winner of the 2014 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for arts
Mayam Mahmoud, one of Egypt’s first and bravest female hip-hop artists, uses music to address some of the grievances in her country, from a lack of women’s rights to sexual harassment. After competing on the TV show Arabs Got Talent, she used her prominence to speak out against the misogyny she has witnessed and experienced.
Ferhat Tunç, Turkey
2010 Freemuse Award winner
Despite years of attempted censorship by the Turkish government, Ferhat Tunç has continued to release music and promote human rights in his homeland. He has released more than 20 albums, undeterred by numerous court summons and a prison sentence.
Songhoy Blues, Mali
Nominees for the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for arts
A group of musicians that fled northern Mali after the occupation by militant Islamist groups in spring 2012, Songhoy Blues are a rowdy blend of blues and rock. After Islamists banned music in their region, they went into exile and have since gone on to tour with Julian Casablancas and Damon Albarn. The band released their debut album, Music in Exile, in February 2015.
Pussy Riot, Russia
Nominees for the 2013 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for arts In February 2012, members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot staged a brief demonstration through music at Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, condemning the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties to Vladimir Putin. In August of that year, three members were sentenced to two years in jail for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. The verdict was a bitter blow for freedom of expression in Russia, which continues to be under attack today.
Index on Censorship has teamed up with the producers of an award-winning documentary about Mali’s musicians, They Will Have To Kill Us First, to create the Music in Exile Fund to support musicians facing censorship globally. You can donate here, or give £10 by texting “BAND61 £10” to 70070.
Index is joining forces with the producers of a new feature-length documentary featuring Mali’s persecuted musicians to launch a fund that will offer support to musicians facing threats, violence, exile and criminal prosecution around the world.
In 2012, Muslim extremist groups captured northern Mali, implemented sharia law and banned all music. Radio stations were destroyed, instruments burned and Mali’s musicians faced torture, even death. They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music In Exile tells the stories of the Malian musicians who fought back and refused to have their music taken away.
Songhoy Blues, who feature in They Will Have To Kill Us First, were nominated for the Index Arts award in 2015. The current Arts award fellow is Mouad Belghouat, a Moroccan rapper who releases music as ‘El Haqed’. His music publicises widespread poverty and rails against endemic government corruption in Morocco, where he is banned from performing publicly.
“For the two years that followed the ban on music in Mali, I filmed with musicians on the ground, witnessing their struggles and learning what they needed in order to survive as artists,” said Johanna Schwartz, director of They Will Have To Kill Us First. “The idea for this fund has grown directly out of those experiences. When faced with censorship, musicians across the world need our support. We are thrilled to be partnering with our long-time collaborators Index on Censorship to launch this fund.”
The fund will be launched at the film’s UK premiere at the British Film Institute on October 13.
“When we initiated the Awards Fellowship earlier this year, we wanted to help maximise the impact that our awards could have,” said Jodie Ginsberg, Index on Censorship chief executive. “We hope that this fund will allow us to do even more to assist those facing censorship so that can focus on what they do best: create.”
The funds will be used to support at least one musician or group nominated in the Arts award category. This will include attendance at the Awards Fellowship week in April 2016 – an intensive week-long programme to support career development for the artists. This includes training on advocacy, fundraising, networking and digital security – all crucial for sustaining a career in the arts under the pressure of censorship. The fellow will also receive continued support during their fellowship year.
Our ambition is to widen support as the fund grows to support more musicians in need.
Rafael Marques de Morais, Safa Al Ahmad, Amran Abdundi, Mouad “El Haqed” Belghouat and Tamas Bodokuy (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)
A Kenyan woman standing up for women’s rights in one of the world’s most dangerous regions. A Hungarian journalist and his investigative news site. A documentary filmmaker who exposed an unreported uprising in Saudi Arabia. An Angolan journalist who has been repeatedly prosecuted for his work uncovering government and industry corruption. A Moroccan rapper whose music tackles widespread poverty and endemic government corruption.
These were the five individuals named Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award winners on 18 March 2015. Three months later, here are updates on their ongoing work.
Rafael Marques de Morais / Journalism
Rafael Marques de Morais (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)
International signatories, from Tiffany & Co and Leber Jewellers to Oscar-winning film director Steve McQueen, and from Blood Diamond film stars David Harewood and Michael Sheen to journalist Sir Harold Evans, recently called on Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos to abandon the prosecution of investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais.
The campaigning journalist returned from collecting his award in London to face trial linked to his book Blood Diamonds. He filed a criminal complaint against a group of generals who he held morally responsible for human rights abuses he uncovered within the country’s diamond trade. For this, they filed a series of libel suits against him in Angola and Portugal.
The media attention that Marques won off the back of his award “helped a great deal” he said. “It raised my profile in the days before my trial and maybe helped to make it an international cause.” In a rare sight for Angola, a number of anti-corruption protesters publicly gathered outside of the Luanda courthouse as his trial opened and covert protests have continued under the cover of darkness since.
Marques’ trial played out in a Kafkaesque way over the subsequent weeks, with behind-the-scenes negotiations leading to criminal defamation charges first being dropped, only for him to suddenly discover that he would instead be sentenced for the alternative crime of malicious prosecution.
The American Bar Association, who monitored the trial throughout, published a report stating that the court had failed to meet international fair trial standards on at least three counts. The ABA Center for Human Rights report found that “throughout the proceedings, the defendant was denied the right to present a defense, induced to make a statement on the basis of false pretenses and compelled to bear the burden of proving his innocence, all in violation of international law.”
Marques’ sentence finally came down on 25 May: six-months imprisonment, suspended for a term of two years. Marques is now appealing against this punishment that effectively seeks to silence him until 2017; coincidentally the same year as Angola’s next elections.
The court also attempted to censor Marques’ book from republication and further distribution but these efforts have blatantly failed with copies of the book widely circulated online and an English language version becoming available for the first time less than a week after his sentence.
Despite the international attention, the situation for Marques and his peers in Angola’s human rights and journalism communities remains grim. Recounting the experience of taking his car to the local garage for repairs recently, the fear is palpable in his voice. “There were two members of the ruling party there, by coincidence. They walked across to the mechanic and warned him not to fix my car unless he wanted to risk becoming collateral damage.”
Marques’ email has also recently been repeatedly hacked and his website www.makaangola.org is presently subject to over 250 attacks per day, forcing him to desist from updating it for the time being.
Marques continues to work closely with Index on Censorship and a number of other international organisations. His recent report on the massacre of a sect at Mount Sumi was published by The Guardian, he continues to keep a close eye on both the persecution of journalists and corruption at the highest levels in Angola, and he is expecting to hear back from the Supreme Court about his appeal in the next few weeks.
Hugely grateful for the support of the international community, Marques remains determined “to continue the good fight for change”.
“I have only the interests of my people at heart,” he says, “and to experience all this persecution, it must mean you are doing something positive, something right.”
Safa Al Ahmad (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)
Joint winner of the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Journalism, Safa Al Ahmad has spent much of the past three months in the editing studio.
Applauded for her documentary Saudi’s Secret Uprising, Al Ahmad’s new film The Rise of the Houthis – first distributed at this year’s Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards Gala and since screened by both the BBC and PBS Frontline – has won wide critical acclaim.
Next month, on 6 July, BBC worldwide will also premiere a follow-up film that Al Ahmad has produced and directed, with Gaith Abdulahad exploring the present situation in the south of Yemen.
Now regularly invited to attend international public meetings, from Copenhagen to Geneva to Washington DC, Al Ahmad says she thinks that the award has brought more exposure – both for credible investigative journalism from Saudi Arabia, and for her work.
Is that a good thing for a journalist who has made her name through operating undercover? It is a challenge, she says, to find ways to do credible journalism about Saudi Arabia and the region without being on the ground. But there are complex stories, beyond TV, that Al Ahmad would increasingly like to focus on.
Abdundi, who knows many students from the college, immediately joined with other women leaders to organise strong community protests against Al-Shabaab.
“It was a barbaric attack done by a crazy group who have no respect for human life,” she said. “It was a sad day for the people of Kenya and the victims of the attack. But it will not scare [the] people of northern Kenya as we will continue and fight to overcome them”.
Abdundi hopes to help further through her ongoing work with her grassroots community organisation Frontier Indigenous Rights Network, tracking arms movements across the dangerous border with Sudan and travelling to meetings in Nairobi to report observations. “Security is improving now,” says Abdundi.
Winning the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Campaigning, and sharing the story of the people of northern Kenya with the wider world, “made me so happy” she says. “The award ceremony was aired by all community radios in northern Kenya and reached many people. I am happy because it will give women courage to stand up for their rights”.
Spending a week in Index on Censorship’s office in London was “an opportunity to see how you work” Abdundi said, and has inspired her to want to develop a new website for her work, helping her to “spread her message to all corner[s] of northern Kenya”.
“All of this recognition is very helpful,” said Bodoky. “We are always afraid of retaliation and this offers us a level of protection… Hungarian authorities are very aware of this international attention and it is less likely that they will attack as we continue with our investigative projects.”
Atlatszo continues to publish three to four articles and numerous blog posts each week, including an English newsletter, often drawing on FOI requests to try to bring more transparency to Hungarian public life.
As he looks ahead, Bodoky is especially concerned by the looming threat of a foreign NGO law – holding all NGO’s with foreign funding “accountable and transparent” by forcing them to register.
“We don’t know exactly when they will seek to expose and limit foreign funding, but the Russian recipe is definitely on the table,” says Bodoky. Fortunately his organisation has been totally open and transparent since 2013.
Rapper El Haqed (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)
Rapper Mouad Belghouat, better known as El Haqed (“the enraged” in Arabic) continues to rail against the endemic corruption and widespread poverty he says he sees in Morocco.
Imprisoned three times since 2011, El Haqed was not only prohibited from performing publicly in his homeland but had also been struggling to obtain visas to travel or perform internationally.
The good news is that his visit to the UK has helped him to overcome this obstacle, recently spending five weeks touring Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Highlights included performing live during Oslo’s 1 May celebrations and working with the organisation Freemuse to record a new Fela Kuti cover as part of a group of Arab and Iranian revolutionary artists (listen here). “It was much easier to be there because I went to England and came back,” said Belghouat.
Until recently limited to publishing and sharing his work via YouTube and Facebook, El Haqed has also begun something of an offline resurgence back home. Approached by promoters in his home town of Casablanca after winning the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Arts Award brought him widespread local media coverage, El Haqed now hopes to stage his first live concert on home soil in a long time this Friday 19 June. (Update 22 June 2015: Morocco: Police block concert by Index award-winning rapper El Haqed)
“Usually people find many excuses not to work with him,” according to Belghouat’s brother and manager Abderrahim Belghouat, “but so far this time no people have yet come and told the venue ‘don’t work with him’…”
Update 23 June 2015: El Haqed has now cancelled his planned tour of five of Morocco’s least affluent towns. The planned series of concerts would have teamed El Haqed with six other local musicians to “bring joy to poorer people in cities without theatres, cinemas and cultural areas, in the old Moroccan way, by making music for free outdoors”.
El Haqed is determinedly hopeful, “the Index award has shown Moroccan authorities that you can’t stop me,” he said, “the more of an effort they make to silence me, the more my voice arrives everywhere.”
Mouad Belghouat is a Moroccan rapper and human rights activist who releases music under the moniker El Haqed, roughly translated as The Enraged. His music has publicised widespread poverty and endemic government corruption in Morocco since 2011, when his song Stop the Silence galvanised Moroccans to protest against their government. He has been imprisoned on spurious charges three times in as many years, most recently for four months in 2014.
“I have not been able to find stable work since my first sentence, so I have concentrated on music – slam and rap. I brought out an album after my
second stretch in prison and this is what led to my second conviction”, El Haqed told Index on Censorship via email.
El Haqed’s 2014 album Walou — which is banned from being sold or played in public–translates as Nothing. Nothing, he clarifies in his songs, has changed in Morocco despite promises from King Mohammed VI and the government following mass protests, starting in February 2011. The 20 February Movement, which inspired tens of thousands of Moroccans across the country to march for constitutional change, protested against the country’s lack of civil liberties and rights, high illiteracy rates, huge rich-poor divide, insufficient healthcare and illegitimate election process.
“In 2011, I found myself at the heart of the 20 February youth movement, which caused me to question a lot of things – notably poverty, power, humiliation, inequality and freedom. I reflected these things in my writing and raps, and this quickly annoyed the regime,” El Haqed wrote.
After this demonstration of widespread dissent, Mohammed VI promised a comprehensive overhaul of Morocco’s undemocratic regime. He introduced a new constitution that pledged to better safeguard Moroccans’ human rights. But despite the fanfare, the plight of El Haqed and many others in the same situation suggest that the much-touted progress has been surface-deep.
After El Haqed’s most recent arrest outside a football stadium in Casablanca, he was charged with scalping tickets, public drunkenness and assault of a police officer. He denies the allegations, and believes instead that police had been looking for an opportunity to arrest him after the release of Walou — one officer at the scene was heard to say “I have scores to settle with you”. El Haqed and his brother were beaten by police as they were detained. El Haqed has said that police tortured him during later interrogation.
During his trial, witnesses of El Haqed being assaulted by police during his arrest were not allowed to give their testimony, and key pieces of evidence were rejected by the court without reason. His lawyers withdrew in protest. During his four-month imprisonment, he continued to write music and give impromtpu performances. When guards realised that his new songs were being published outside the prison, they confiscated his lyrics and put him in solitary confinement. He went on hunger strike to protest his treatment.
El Haqed continues to record and release music — just as he did after being arrested and imprisoned in 2011 and 2012, both times on dubious grounds. In the latter case, he was sentenced to a year in prison for “insulting the police”. His song Dogs of the State, which criticised the Moroccan police, was anonymously set to a YouTube video depicting a police officer with a donkey-head. El Haqed denied any involvement.
With three convictions in three years, El Haqed faces difficulties in pursuing his recording career because studios do not want to work with him because they fear government surveillance. He is banned from performing in public and lives with the knowledge that every action is being watched.
“I was profoundly touched by my nomination as a defender of free expression. Especially as now, and after three successive periods of incarceration, it is still hard to live”, El Haqed wrote.
El Haqed hopes to create a recording studio that will be open to all Moroccans and is currently working on a new album.