When is a landslide not a landslide?

By international comparison, Putin’s ‘win’ in the recent elections in Russia was practically marginal.

Forget the ruthless despots of yesteryear; Putin’s victory could put him in the running for the title of “Worst Dictator Ever” securing as he did, just 87% of the vote and struggling to convince a whole 13% of Russia’s population that he deserves their vote.

Putin’s efforts to reach the dizzying heights of previous autocratic excellence is not without precedent.

Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian maestro of self-delusion, once claimed a staggering 98.8% approval rating from voters who seemingly found his continued leadership irresistible.

And, of course, the multiple successes of Saddam Hussein, who, not content with anything less than perfection, treated himself to not one, but two elections where he waltzed away with a cool 99% of the vote, leaving the remaining 1% presumably too busy planning their escape routes to bother casting a ballot.

Even by recent standards, Putin’s election efforts fall into the ‘must try harder’ category. Take Paul Kagame – head of state in the unquestionably safe state of Rwanda – secured an impressive 98.8% of the vote in 2017. By coincidence, his two challengers were deemed not to have met the nomination threshold by the Rwandan Electoral Commission.

And even by Russian standards, Putin is an under-achiever. The absolutely above board and beyond reproach referendum in 2014 that took place in Crimea saw the Ukranian peninsula experience a collective outbreak of Russiophilia, with a jaw-dropping 96.77% of voters deciding that annexation was their number one wish.

But of course, when it comes to precarious polls, poor Putin is but an enthusiastic amateur of electoral absurdity when compared to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un whose 2019 flawless victory saw him win 100% of the vote. Imagine that, Putin. A leader so popular that no-one felt the need to vote against you.

So, at Index on Censorship, we offer our commiserations to Putin on an election which will inevitably cause him to struggle to look his fellow dictators in the eye. But he should take heart, for in the grand tapestry of dictatorial hubris,  he may have fallen short of the coveted triple-digit approval rating, but he’s certainly earned his place in the hall of shame. Bravo!

But in all seriousness, dictators yearn for legitimacy but equally cannot resist inflating their egos with absurd election results. Putin’s 87% victory is merely the latest in a long line of autocrats entangled in their own delusions. For them, the allure of unchecked power is intoxicating, and the illusion of overwhelming support is irresistible. So they manipulate, coerce, and fabricate, all in the name of bolstering their image and maintaining their iron grip on power.

Yet, in their desperate pursuit of approval, they only reveal the hollow emptiness of their rule and the farcical nature of their so-called “elections.”

In the grand theatre of autocracy, where dictators vie for the title of “Most Absurd Electoral Farce,” Vladimir Putin may have inadvertently claimed the crown as the reigning champion of underachievement.

His inability to secure a unanimous victory serves as a glaring reminder of the limitations of his power and the resilience of those who dare to defy his iron grip.

While we chuckle at his inflated ego and his desperate grasp for legitimacy, let us not forget the sobering reality faced by millions of Russians who lack the freedom to express dissent without fear of reprisal.

We can poke fun at Putin’s absurdity but we must also reaffirm our commitment to democracy and freedom of expression, values that remain elusive for too many in Putin’s Russia.

And we stand with the 13%.

Pakistan election surprise highlights ways to fight censorship

The media in Pakistan, a 240-million strong nation, has seldom been free ever since it removed its colonial shackles from the British Raj in 1947. Spates of draconian laws to curb the press were imposed in the three martial law periods, as well as during the democratic governments, spanning the 77-year life of this South Asian nation. These attacks reached new heights in recent weeks, as Pakistan voted in a tense general election. Critical voices from press and civil society were strangled. The military establishment tried to control the media narrative, while internet blackouts became commonplace. And yet despite this, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) backed independent candidates bagged the largest number of seats in the national and provincial assemblies, in an upset for the military establishment.

“This is peoples’ reaction against the actions,” Mazhar Abbas, a senior award-winning journalist and anchor, told Index. “This is an eye-opener for those who think the suppression could serve their purpose.”

Independent candidates backed by the PTI, the party of Imran Khan, won 93 seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly or lower house of 264 seats, but will not be allowed to form a government as they were forced to run as individuals. Parties of thrice-prime minister Nawaz Sharif secured 75 seats followed by the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) with 54 seats. Given these votes the most likely outcome is a coalition government.

“This is a people’s rebellion against the establishment that keeps curbing the media to promote parties of their own choices,” Aziz Sanghur, a senior journalist and author, said. “This is the 21st century and the age of IT, we must not forget.”

Facing fierce clampdowns on their social media accounts, as well as attempts to impede their election campaigns, the contesting candidates had to be on their toes. They managed to outmanoeuvre the censorship through a variety of means including using all of the social media platforms to their advantage.

“Our social media and IT team kept struggling against the closure of data services and our social media accounts, [by] creating VPN connections and using other means,” Yasir Baloch, a PTI candidate for the Sindh provincial assembly told Index.

Members of his constituency extended their help to Baloch.

“On the election day when data service and mobile phone service was switched off, the people in our constituency volunteered to give our team access to their home wi-fi connections. That was a huge favour for us,” he said.

Conventional canvassing methods also had to be re-assessed.

“We managed to hold our meetings [within] the compound wall instead of open places as we had to face the police crackdowns on our rallies,” he said. “We carried our campaign door to door and women played a leading role.”

But it will be hard for Pakistan to establish media freedoms.

“There have been many draconian laws that governed the media and press, but this time ‘invisible’ hands unleashed gagging censorship, which is unprecedented,” said Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a professor and author of several books on Pakistani media and a media practitioner.

Khan was referring to the constant interventions from the powerful military establishment. Many journalists working for the national television channels spoke to Index on the condition of anonymity. They confirmed the practice of daily intervention by the media wing of the military, known as Inter Services Public Relations or ISPR.

“When they [dictated to] us the news packages in the beginning, I predicted that the days were not far off and that they would dictate the whole rundown,” said a senior journalist, who works with Geo TV, the country’s top private television channel.

“My fears came true as now we get dictation from ISPR on a daily basis, with the advice that the news must be broadcast without attribution,” he said.

Empirical surveys with senior journalists at many independent news channels confirmed this, including ARY, Neo News, Abb Takk, Aaj TV, Hum TV, 92 News, KTN, Express TV, 24 News and Dawn News. These are all top-ranking television channels, watched widely across Pakistan.

“We are obliged to run that news to protect our job,” one journalist said.

The party that won the last general election and was in power from 2018 until 2022 remained a pivotal target of the censorship. Imran Khan, the former cricketer turned politician, led his PTI party. Coming into power for the first time in 2018, Khan had a strong backing from the military establishment, a channel that inherently matters more than popular votes in the country. Catalysing the military support, Khan made full use of censorship and media clampdowns to suppress independent journalists as well as political opponents. Legal cases were registered against media houses, journalists and social media commentators for raising voices against his policies and political discourse.

“Khan in fact torpedoed the financial structure of the media industry, [which] was a fatal blow to the free press,” Tauseef Ahmed Khan said.

Geo News, the most influential TV channel in the country which was critical of Imran Khan and supportive of Nawaz Sharif, was cast out of government sponsored advertisements in 2020, the biggest source of revenue to the industry. It was taken off air in different cities and parts of the country, including the cantonment areas, administered by the military.

But the tables turned when Khan was ousted in 2022 in a no-confidence vote after a fallout with the military. He was jailed for corruption, and later for leaking state secrets.

Tit-for-tat censorship ensued under the new under-the-radar sanctions. Khan’s party was declared proscribed and naming it or Khan on television channels was banned by the military-backed coalition government of the Pakistan Democratic Movement.

No let-up was seen in censorship by the care-taker government appointed in August 2023, which only had a mandate to hold general elections in Pakistan. The caretaker government under Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar took more stringent measures to black out Khan and his party from the mainstream media.

The undeclared news boycott of Khan’s party continued until the election day on 8 February 2024, while its supporters ran a robust campaign on social media. His party was denied the opportunity to contest the election under the pretext of the party’s failure to hold intra-party elections, a constitutional prerequisite for a political party to become eligible for general election participation.

Frustrating the party’s social media ‘warriors’, the authorities clamped down by switching off internet networks countrywide repeatedly over recent years, usually targeting social media or messaging services.

“Curbing internet access during elections strikes at democracy’s heart, betraying human rights,” Surfshark, a media watchdog said in a statement.

On the very day of elections on 8 February, a complete shutdown of mobile services crippled journalists in the field who were covering the elections. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the state-regulator, said it had decided to do so in view of the worsening law and order situation.

“The decision to suspend telecommunications and mobile internet services on election day is a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Amnesty International reacted.

The failures of the mainstream media alarms media pundits, who see an ominous trend in the coming weeks.

“This is very unfortunate that the mainstream media seem to have lost its credibility against the social media in the country,” said Sohail Sangi, a veteran journalist, who has served imprisonment in dictatorial regimes for raising his voice for press freedom.

It is feared that propaganda will replace factual news.

“We know that on social media, largely unauthentic info goes viral and its impact is huge,” Tauseef Ahmed Khan said.

“This might transform the media landscape in the country if things are not fixed.”

2024, the year that four billion go the polls

Happy New Year – I hope…

Entering a new year typically encourages us to reflect on the past 12 months and consider the impact of what is likely to happen in the next 12. Depressingly, 2023 was yet another year marked by authoritarians clamping down on freedom of expression and harnessing the power of digital technology to persecute, harass and undermine those who challenge them.

Not only did the tyrants, despots and their allies attempt to again crack down on any seemingly independent thought within their own territories, several also sought to weaponise the legal system at home and abroad through the use of SLAPPs. Several EU member states, especially the Republic of Ireland, as well as the United Kingdom have found themselves at the centre of these legal attacks on freedom of expression.

SLAPPs weren’t the only threat to freedom of expression in 2023 though – from the crackdown on protesters in Iran, to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the continuing repressive actions of Putin and Lukashenka, the end of freedom of expression in Hong Kong, the increasingly restrictions imposed by Modi, the latest war in the Middle East and the ongoing attacks on journalists in South America.

My depressing list could go on and on. However, we desperately need to find some hope in the world, so Index on Censorship ended 2023 with our campaign entitled “Moments of Freedom”, highlighting the good in the world so let’s carry on with that optimism. A new year brings new beginnings after all. So let’s focus on the new moments of light which will hopefully touch our lives this year.

Half the world’s population will go to the polls this year. That’s an extraordinary four billion people. Each with their own aspirations for their families, hopes for their country and dreams of a more secure world.

As a politician it should come as no surprise to anyone that I love elections. The best campaigns are politics at their purest, when the needs and aspirations of the electorate should be centre stage. Elections provide a moment when values are on the line. How people want to be governed, what rights they wish to advance and how they hold the powerful to account. These are all actioned through the ballot box.

There are elections taking place in countries significant for Index because of their likely impact on freedom of expression and the impact the results may have on the current internationally agreed norms, including Taiwan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Russia, Brazil, the European Union, the USA and the United Kingdom. And given current events we can only hope for elections in Israel to be added to the list. The list goes on with each election posing different questions and the results having a different impact on the current world order.

Many other human rights organisations will talk about the importance of these elections for international stability, and rightly so. At Index we will focus on what these elections mean for the dissidents, journalists, artists and academics. Our unique network of reporters and commentators around the world will allow us to bring you the hidden stories taking place and will highlight the threats and opportunities each result poses to freedom of expression. As with 2023, 2024 will be a year where Index hands a megaphone to dissidents so their voice is amplified.

The rallying cry for 2024 must be: “Your freedom needs you!” If you are one of the four billion remember that your ballot is the shield against would-be despots and tyrants. It is the ultimate democratic duty and responsibility and the consequences go far beyond your immediate neighbourhood – so use it and use it wisely.

English voter ID laws: No surprise if “deliberate effort to erect barriers for minority voters”

“This government has implicitly and explicitly targeted minorities in other areas, like the Windrush scandal,” academic Michael Bankole told Index. “So, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a deliberate effort to erect barriers for minority voters when it comes to elections.”

Bankole, a Royal Holloway university lecturer specialising in race and British politics, was speaking to Index following the introduction of voter ID for England’s local elections in May 2023. Following this the Electoral Commission, the independent body which oversees elections in the UK, said that at least 3% of people didn’t vote because they lacked the necessary ID, and 14,000 people were turned away from polling stations for the same reason.

With low levels of proven electoral fraud in the UK, including no proven cases of in-person voter impersonation last year, questions have been raised about the introduction. This includes a potential impact on the ability of sections of society, including non-white voters, to cast their democratic vote, which is ultimately one of the most effective ways to have your voice heard.

Historically, non-white people have less access to some official forms of ID which are required for voting. For example, data from  the Department of Transport showed that in 2021, 58% of the black population and 64% of the Asian population held a driving licence, compared to 79% of the white population.

Instead of focusing on voter ID at elections though, Bankole believes the focus should have been on why non-white voters have historically voted less overall. He said: “If we care about democracy, we want all members to participate in it, so it’s important to investigate why these groups are less likely to participate and what can be done to address that. That should’ve been the fundamental issue for the government to investigate.”

Following on from Bankole’s comments, the Electoral Commission’s interim report in June 2023 showed that 82% of Black and minority ethnic respondents (BME) were unaware of the need for voter ID in the recent elections compared to 93% of white respondents.

Looking over the pond to the USA, where encroaching voter ID laws have been enacted in individual states since 2006, academic studies have had time to focus on the effects. A study from 2018 argued that minorities in the USA are less likely to have valid forms of ID, with being born outside the USA and lower levels of education, income and home ownership as negatively affecting the chances of having valid ID. These issues generally affect minority voters more than white voters in the USA, where, as of 2023, 36 states require some form of ID to vote.

While academic studies have had time to focus on the effects of voter ID laws across the USA over the years, it’s not the case for the recent English elections. However, Democracy Volunteers, a group campaigning to improve the quality of democratic elections in the UK, deployed observers to 118 of the 230 councils holding elections and found that out of the 1.2% of voters they recorded as turned away for having no valid ID, 53% of these were recorded as “non-white passing” (described as such by the observers). In the 2021 census 18.3% of the residents of England and Wales described their ethnic group as something other than white. One of the observations from Democracy Volunteers’ report was that on a number of occasions people with valid ID from Commonwealth countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, were turned away for having invalid ID. If the information from the report is correct, there is an issue. Index reached out to Democracy Volunteers to discuss the findings but received no response.

There was also controversy regarding what forms of ID were accepted during the elections. The older person’s bus pass, the Freedom Pass and the London 60+ Oyster card were accepted as valid ID (the first two eligible from the age of 66, the latter 60). There was no equivalent valid ID available for younger people. Bankole believes this had a political purpose: “For young people with transport ID, it wasn’t allowed, whereas for older voters, who disproportionally vote for the Conservatives, it was. I think they were erecting barriers for people who don’t vote for them and targeting their base who do.”

To put figures into context, 64% of voters aged 65+ voted for the Conservative Party in the last general election.

Along with the above, just 20% of non-white votes were cast for the Conservative Party at the 2019 UK general election, which it won by a landslide. Index contacted the Electoral Commission to ask if the introduction of the voter ID laws for the English elections was a form of gerrymandering (as a former British government cabinet member suggested). Also, because the majority of BME votes were for either the Labour or Liberal Democrats parties in the last general election, if the ID introductions were a deliberate effort to erect barriers for minority voters.

As well as announcing their interim report mentioned above, the response was as follows: “In September, we will publish our full report on the May 2023 elections. This report will feature further data, including the reasons people were turned away, as well as turnout, postal voting and rejected ballots. It will also provide analysis of other aspects of the elections, including accessibility support that was provided for voters in polling stations…As we’re still collecting data there isn’t more we can say at this stage.”

The next UK general elections will be held by January 2025, with the London Mayoral elections to be held by May 2024. With general elections traditionally attracting a far higher turnout than local government elections, and the electorate in London being the most ethnically diverse in the UK, voter ID issues could affect a greater number of non-white voters in the future. Voter ID information, along with any changes, is something that Index will keep an eye on in the future as we believe any barriers put in place to vote should be as low as possible, to make sure freedom of speech and expression is protected.