Index relies entirely on the support of donors and readers to do its work.
Help us keep amplifying censored voices today.
A few months ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics, in October 2021, activists gathered at multiple locations in Athens to protest China’s hosting of the Games. In an alarming turn of events, Greek police arrested several of the activists. Some were arrested for unfurling banners, others for simply handing out fliers or, even just attending the “No Beijing 2022” events. Some were released without charge, others were acquitted after trial. For three activists, their trials were postponed until later in 2023.
Before travelling to Greece, the activists – who were mostly Hong Kongers and Tibetans from Switzerland, the USA and Canada – tried to engage with International Olympics Committee (IOC) officials. They explained that hosting the Olympics in an authoritarian country that commits genocide was a violation of the Olympic Charter, which ensures that the games promote “a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. However, their arguments fell on deaf ears. Frances Hui, the director of “We The HongKongers”, told Index that IOC officials dismissed them, saying “you’re young, this is a complicated issue.”
Another activist, Zumretay Arkin, director of the World Uyghur Congress Women’s Committee, told Index that protesting at the Olympic flame lighting ceremony “was an opportunity for us to counter Beijing in Greece.”
While the activists knew there are always risks involved in protesting, they were not particularly worried. The most common tactic used to silence dissidents abroad – threatening the safety of loved ones – could not work as most activists involved had no direct family left in their homelands. Tsela Zoksang, a Students for Free Tibet member, told Index: “I have the privilege to raise my voice up against the CCP, unlike many communities who remain under the brutal rule of the CCP, and so I think I have a duty to amplify their voices and their stories.” Greece’s position as a member of the EU also reassured the protesters. According to Pema Doma, one of the activists and Executive Director at Students for a Free Tibet, they believed it “very unlikely that a country of the EU would act on orders of the Chinese government”. These beliefs were unfortunately misplaced.
On 18 October, activists congregated outside the flame lighting ceremony. The activists planned to stand outside the security cordon and hand out flyers to journalists as they entered the Temple of Hera.
The activists were first approached by a Greek police officer curious about their activity but were left undisturbed. This soon changed. According to four activists that Index spoke to, the Greek officer spoke to an individual who identified themself as and was dressed in the uniform of, a member from the Chinese Embassy. The Greek officer insisted that “They’re just sitting there, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to sit there”. According to the activists’ retelling, this was met with the firm instruction to “make them leave. Tell them they can’t stay here”. They were moved from the entrance car park to a public pavement.
The activists had spotted other plain-clothed Asian men earlier taking photos of them. These same men approached the Greek police, and after a short discussion the activists were detained by Greek police officers. They were arrested without being informed of their rights and taken in unmarked cars to Pyrgos Police Station.
The Greek police possess broad powers to arrest activists for unsanctioned actions. Avgoustinos Zenakos, an investigative journalist from the Manifold Files, told Index: “The Greek police interpret these laws in their favour…This means whether it is abused or used in an honest way depends on the culture of the police rather than the letter of the individual law.” During an official visit to Greece, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reported that they received “credible information involving non-nationals in pre-trial detention who were detained exclusively on the basis of police testimony, including when there was other evidence that did not support the guilt of the persons involved.”
The protesters believe that the decision to arrest them was not made by the police alone. Doma told Index: “We knew right from the beginning it was the Chinese Embassy staff directing the Greek police quite directly, quite closely, you know, telling them exactly what to tell us”.
The next day, another group of activists were detained after holding a press conference to discuss the CCP’s human rights abuses to members of the media. The event was monitored by unknown individuals, some of whom attempted to stare down and harass the activists. When some of the activists confronted the individuals and asked them where they were from they laughed before replying, “We’re from China”. Tsering Gonpa, a Tibetan Youth Association of Europe activist, and Tenzin Yangzom, Grassroots Director at Students for a Free Tibet, climbed into a taxi together after the event and immediately heard sirens. Their passports were confiscated and they were escorted to the Athens police station.
“We were extremely shocked by the CCP’s influence and leverage in democratic Greece. We knew the situation was bad, but we certainly didn’t expect this level of transnational repression,” Yangzom told Index.
According to Zenakos, to find criticism of Greece’s relationship with China, including Chinese state ownership of key Greek assets and Greece’s involvement in key initiatives such as the 16+1 grouping of countries and China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy, “you would have to dig deep.” These all raise questions as to whether increasing economic entanglement is leading Greece to become overprotective of its relationship with China. For instance, in 2016 Athens pushed for an EU statement on the South China Sea to be amended to remove criticism of Beijing and a year later it vetoed an EU statement at the UN Human Rights Council condemning human rights abuses in China. According to media reporting, this was the first time the EU didn’t make a statement of this nature at the council.
Mistreatment in the police stations
On 17 October 2021, Tesla Zoksang and Joey Siu, and one other anonymous activist, planned to install a banner onto the outer-walls of the Acropolis. Within about two minutes of ascending, a security guard approached and cut down the banner. The activists remained perched on the scaffolding watching police cars arrive before they were escorted down. Greek barrister Alexis Anagnostakis, who represented the activists, told Index that “the activists’ removal from the protest site, their arrest, and their remand in police custody was a disproportionate interference with their rights for freedom of expression and assembly, as is their criminal prosecution.” Anagnostakis was also surprised by the escalation “since similar protests on the Acropolis reportedly have never before been prosecuted.”
According to Tsela Zoksang, at the police station during an interrogation, one activist who wished to remain anonymous, was told by Greek officials that a representative from the US embassy was there to see them. However, the representative later allegedly admitted to being from an unspecified Greek agency. With assistance from the non-profit Vouliwatch, Index submitted an FOI request to the Greek police, attempting to verify these claims but were denied the disclosure on the basis that Index does not have “specific legitimate interest”. Index has lodged an appeal.
Other detained activists were not informed of their rights or what crime they were alleged to have committed. When the activists detained outside of the press conference asked why they were being detained an officer told them “to be completely honest with you, I don’t know why we’re taking you with us but I got orders from the higher ups”.
They were asked to sign documents without an English translation. After refusing, Zoksang reported that the officers “began getting very angry and frustrated. They were saying, ‘You are disobeying me, you are disobeying the law.’ I said, ‘No, but I can’t sign something if I don’t know what it says’”. They were told they would be punished for not signing documents and giving their fingerprints but at the time of going to press, nothing has yet come of this. The activists were also asked a series of seemingly irrelevant questions such as their parents’ names. Given the potential involvement or presence of CCP-affiliated actors in their detention, they feared this information would be shared with the Chinese authorities, potentially imperilling their ability to travel and the safety of any family members in CCP-jurisdiction.
Every Tibetan is an activist
Chemi Lhamo, a Tibetan activist, explained to Index: “Every Tibetan that was born after 1959 is born an activist … because your existence is by default political in nature when you are born stateless.”
While the Games still went ahead, the campaign nonetheless left its mark. As Lhamo told Index, “There was a moment of time, in the world, in the busy world that we are in, when people stopped for a moment to ask, ‘what’s happening? What’s happening within Tibet?’”
The diplomatic boycotts were also found to have had a major impact on viewership. Yangzom told Index that the oppression of the activists was “vindication that the work that we’re doing is making an impact and we must be doing something right – so we mustn’t give up and keep raising our voices on behalf of Tibetans inside Tibet and all those oppressed.”
All charges against the Acropolis actors were dropped on 17 November 2022. Michael Polak, their British ‘Justice Abroad’ barrister, stated “It is hoped that the acquittals today will send a strong message that legitimate peaceful protest and assembly, of the type banned totally in China and Hong Kong, will be allowed even when it hurts the fragile sensibilities of the Beijing and Hong Kong regimes.”
Yet, the charges against others for attempting to “pollute, damage and distort” the historical monument of Olympia, punishable by up to five years in prison, still stand. The original trial against Lhamo, Jason Leith and Fern MacDougal was delayed before being again pushed back to November 2023. MacDougal told Index she worries “the delay in trial has the effect of both avoiding public discussion of the human rights violations that we took action based on and of obscuring the meaning of our action.”
Lhamo also noted that “it is another year of waiting, and having a pending court case has its own consequences which seem to unfold in various ways for us.” She elaborated to Index that she is “lucky” to have continued support from the lawyers and organisations, but the charge is a significant barrier for them to engage in more direct actions and affects their ability to travel. Yet she emphasised: “Don’t feel anxious for us [about the court case] … Let’s channel that energy of solidarity and support to the folks we are actually working for, those inside Tibet.”
A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression published today (Wednesday, 25 January) by Index on Censorship sees the UK ranked as only “partially open” in every key area measured.
In the overall rankings, the UK fell below countries including Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Chile, Jamaica and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.
The Index Index, developed by Index on Censorship and experts in machine learning and journalism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, giving a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital and media/press freedoms.
Key findings include:
The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) on the overall Index are clustered around western Europe and Australasia – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.
The UK and USA join countries such as Botswana, Czechia, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.
The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates performed poorly in the Index Index but are embedded in key international mechanisms including G20 and the UN Security Council.
Ruth Anderson, Index on Censorship CEO, said:
“The launch of the new Index Index is a landmark moment in how we track freedom of expression in key areas across the world. Index on Censorship and the team at Liverpool John Moores University have developed a rankings system that provides a unique insight into the freedom of expression landscape in every country for which data is available.
“The findings of the pilot project are illuminating, surprising and concerning in equal measure. The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression.
“On a global scale, the Index Index shines a light once again on those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with considerable influence on international bodies and mechanisms – but with barely any protections for freedom of expression across the digital, academic and media spheres.”
Nik Williams, Index on Censorship policy and campaigns officer, said:
“With global threats to free expression growing, developing an accurate country-by-country view of threats to academic, digital and media freedom is the first necessary step towards identifying what needs to change. With gaps in current data sets, it is hoped that future ‘Index Index’ rankings will have further country-level data that can be verified and shared with partners and policy-makers.
“As the ‘Index Index’ grows and develops beyond this pilot year, it will not only map threats to free expression but also where we need to focus our efforts to ensure that academics, artists, writers, journalists, campaigners and civil society do not suffer in silence.”
Steve Harrison, LJMU senior lecturer in journalism, said:
“Journalists need credible and authoritative sources of information to counter the glut of dis-information and downright untruths which we’re being bombarded with these days. The Index Index is one such source, and LJMU is proud to have played our part in developing it.
“We hope it becomes a useful tool for journalists investigating censorship, as well as a learning resource for students. Journalism has been defined as providing information someone, somewhere wants suppressed – the Index Index goes some way to living up to that definition.”
It shouldn’t have taken a murder. Surely it didn’t need a car bomb in a quiet Maltese town. Daphne Caruana Galizia did not need to die for Europe and the rest of the world to take notice of media freedom’s precarious foundations. But to our shame, it did.
Five years ago today, Daphne was murdered by a car bomb that exploded when she was moments from her front door. But the car bomb was only the mechanism by which she was silenced. Daphne was murdered by the opaque but powerful forces that first encourage, before demanding and eventually forcing silence. But she was never rendered mute, even now.
In the years that have followed, Europe has wrestled both with her legacy – what her investigations revealed – as well as the legacy of her killing – what her murder revealed. In the aftermath of similar killings in Northern Ireland (Lyra McKee), Slovakia (Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová), Greece (Giorgos Karaivaz) and the Netherlands (Peter R. de Vries), as well as increased attention on the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), Europe has been forced to address an uncomfortable reality: journalists are at risk all across the continent. And so, by extension, is European democracy.
This is the dark light that bathes Europe, a light emanating from the brutal collapse of the rule of law but also a light that can illuminate what is broken. In the five years that have passed since her death, Daphne’s family have had to fight for every inch to demand both justice for Daphne and accountability for Malta. Whether this was to demand a public inquiry, pressing for progress in the criminal investigation, and putting SLAPPs on the European agenda, the rage, sadness and fury has fuelled a reckoning that has helped bring forward a proposed European Commission directive on SLAPPs, a Europe-wide coalition of organisations fighting to upend this form of lawfare, as well as similar movements at a national level.
In the UK, spurred on by Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, the UK Government announced in July 2022 an anti-SLAPP mechanism that could limit how UK courts are abused to silence critical speech. As we wait to see what happens – especially after the change in Prime Minister and her cabinet – we hope we are at the threshold of something significant. It is important to remember that a number of the libel threats against Daphne were deployed with the aid of London-based legal expertise – SLAPPs cannot be confined within national borders.
But we must return to Malta to remind ourselves of the pitfalls. Recently announced reforms aimed at protecting journalism, including much-vaunted anti-SLAPP protections, have had to be hurriedly frozen by the Prime Minister after being widely derided as inadequate, both in terms of content, falling far short of the proposed EC Directive, and process. The Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) had threatened to step away from the Committee of Experts unless “meaningful” consultation takes place. This was echoed by both the International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ and EFJ) who have joined the call for the legislation to be withdrawn, as reported in Maltese outlet, NewsBook: “no proposal on media legislative reform should be submitted to the parliament without a transparent public consultation. This is all the more crucial in a country where a state holds some form of responsibility for the killing of a journalist.” While appearing to be fuelled by a desire to be the first EU nation to bring forward national legislation responding to SLAPPs, a grimy sense of competitive haste has seemingly triumphed over a commitment to genuine and meaningful protections.
Today, vigils remembering Daphne’s legacy – her life, her writing, and her commitment to the public’s right to know – are taking place across Europe, in London, Valletta, Brussels and Edinburgh to name a few. But wherever we are, we must ensure that by remembering Daphne’s life, we are reminded of our commitment to protect journalists against vexatious legal threats, physical attacks and every act that isolates, demonises or targets them.
Progress is slow and halting and will not proceed from one point to the next without obstruction – Malta’s current reform process is testament to that – however, the greatest way we can honour Daphne is by moving with purpose to ensure what happened to her cannot happen to another journalist. The dark light has illuminated what needs to change and the urgency with which it must change. It should not have taken the murder of a journalist for this to happen and we must not forget the darkness that sparked this push for greater protections, a darkness that robbed a family of the private space in which to mourn, but we must follow where the light leads. For in Daphne’s words, “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.
The undersigned international media freedom and freedom of expression organisations today register their concern over the serious criminal charges levelled against two investigative journalists in Greece linked to their reporting on a major corruption scandal. Our organisations are following these two legal cases with utmost scrutiny given the obvious concerns they raise with regard to press freedom. Authorities must issue guarantees that the process is demonstrably independent and free of any political interference.
On 19 January, Kostas Vaxevanis, a veteran investigative journalist and publisher of the newspaper Documento, testified at the Special High Court on four criminal charges of conspiracy to abuse power through his newspaper’s reporting on the Novartis pharmaceutical scandal. Under the penal code, Vaxevanis faces five years of imprisonment if found guilty, with a maximum sentence of 20 years. His newspaper has condemned the criminal charges as a politically motivated attack aimed at silencing a media critic which unveiled the scandal.
Ioanna Papadakou, a former investigative journalist and television host, is set to appear before a court on 25 January on separate but similar charges of being part of a criminal organisation which conspired to fabricate news stories about the Novartis case and the so-called “Lagarde list”, including the alleged extortion of a businessman through critical coverage. Papadakou has rejected the case as “blatant violation of the rule of law”. A Greek MEP from the ruling party and the Board of Directors of the Panhellenic Federation of Journalists’ Union (POESY – PFJU) have both expressed concern about the prosecution of the journalists. Neither journalist has yet been formally indicted.
The summons of Vaxevanis and Papadakou to testify are part of a wider parliamentary investigation into allegations of political conspiracy and abuse of power involving Greek judge and politician Dimitris Papagelopoulos, a former deputy minister in the previous Syriza government. Papagelopoulos is accused of falsely incriminating political opponents through the Novartis pharmaceutical scandal. The probe, launched by the current New Democracy government, has in turn faced accusations of politicisation.
Our organisations are closely following this case. The criminal charges against Kostas Vaxevanis and Ioanna Papadakou are extremely serious and carry heavy prison sentences. The nature of the charges, their connection to investigative reporting on corruption, and the potential imprisonment of two journalists in an EU Member State, raise legitimate concerns regarding press freedom and demand utmost scrutiny. Until commenting further, we await more detailed information from the Special Investigator about the specificities of the charges against both journalists.
What is absolutely clear is that judicial authorities examining this matter must act with full regard for press freedom standards and the function of investigative journalism in democratic societies. Moreover, given the politicisation of the wider affair, it is essential that guarantees are in place to ensure that judicial authorities act with complete independence in this case. We will continue to closely monitor both cases and have submitted alerts to Mapping Media Freedom (MMF) and the Council of Europe’s platform for the safety and protection of journalists.
In the coming weeks, the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) is due to publish the findings of our recent online press freedom mission to Greece. Our organisations are already increasingly concerned about the challenging climate facing independent journalism in the country, including vexatious lawsuits against journalists. Greece is firmly in the spotlight in terms of threats to media freedom. We sincerely hope these cases will not become a matter of major international concern.
European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
International Press Institute (IPI)
Index on Censorship
OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation