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Each year, the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards gala honours courageous champions who fight for free speech around the world.
Drawn from more than 400 crowdsourced nominations, this year’s nominees include artists, journalists, campaigners and digital activists tackling censorship and fighting for freedom of expression. Many of the 16 shortlisted are regularly targeted by authorities or by criminal and extremist groups for their work: some face regular death threats, others criminal prosecution.
The gala takes place Wednesday 19 April at the Unicorn Theatre in London and will be hosted by comedian, actor and writer Katy Brand. If you aren’t lucky enough to be attending, you can catch the night’s events by tuning into coverage and a live Periscope stream @IndexCensorship beginning at 7:30PM BST.
Luaty Beirão, Angola
Rapper Luaty Beirão, also known as Ikonoklasta, has been instrumental in showing the world the hidden face of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos’s rule. For his activism Beirão has been beaten up, had drugs planted on him and, in June 2015, was arrested alongside 14 other people planning to attend a meeting to discuss a book on non-violent resistance. Since being released in 2016, Beirão has been undeterred attempting to stage concerts that the authorities have refused to license and publishing a book about his captivity entitled “I Was Freer Then”, claiming “I would rather be in jail than in a state of fake freedom where I have to self-censor”.
Rebel Pepper, China
Wang Liming, better known under the pseudonym Rebel Pepper, is one of China’s most notorious political cartoonists. For satirising Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and lampooning the ruling Communist Party, Rebel Pepper has been repeatedly persecuted. In 2014, he was forced to remain in Japan, where he was on holiday, after serious threats against him were posted on government-sanctioned forums. The Chinese state has since disconnected him from his fan base by repeatedly deleting his social media accounts, he alleges his conversations with friends and family are under state surveillance, and self-imposed exile has made him isolated, bringing significant financial struggles. Nonetheless, Rebel Pepper keeps drawing, ferociously criticising the Chinese regime.
Fahmi Reza, Malaysia
On 30 January 2016, Malaysian graphic designer Fahmi Reza posted an image online of Prime Minister Najib Razak in evil clown make-up. From T-shirts to protest placards, and graffiti on streets to a sizeable public sticker campaign, the image and its accompanying anti-sedition law slogan #KitaSemuaPenghasut (“we are all seditious”) rapidly evolved into a powerful symbol of resistance against a government seen as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian. Despite the authorities’ attempts to silence Reza, who was banned from travel and has since been detained and charged on two separate counts under Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act, he has refused to back down.
Two-tailed Dog Party, Hungary
A group of satirists and pranksters who parody political discourse in Hungary with artistic stunts and creative campaigns, the Two-tailed Dog Party have become a vital alternative voice following the rise of the national conservative government led by Viktor Orban. When Orban introduced a national consultation on immigration and terrorism in 2015, and plastered cities with anti-immigrant billboards, the party launched their own mock questionnaires and a popular satirical billboard campaign denouncing the government’s fear-mongering tactics. Relentlessly attempting to reinvigorate public debate and draw attention to under-covered or taboo topics, the party’s efforts include recently painting broken pavement to draw attention to a lack of public funding.
Established in 2003, LGBT organisation Arcoiris, meaning ‘rainbow’, works on all levels of Honduran society to advance LGBT rights. Honduras has seen an explosion in levels of homophobic violence since a military coup in 2009. Working against this tide, Arcoiris provide support to LGBT victims of violence, run awareness initiatives, promote HIV prevention programmes and directly lobby the Honduran government and police force. From public marches to alternative awards ceremonies, their tactics are diverse and often inventive. Between June 2015 and March 2016, six members of Arcoiris were killed for this work. Many others have faced intimidation, harassment and physical attacks. Some have had to leave the country because of threats they were receiving.
Breaking the Silence, Israel
Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organisation consisting of ex-Israeli military conscripts, aims to collect and share testimonies about the realities of military operations in the Occupied Territories. Since 2004, the group has collected over 1,000 (mainly anonymous) statements from Israelis who have served their military duty in the West Bank and Gaza. For publishing these frank accounts the organisation has repeatedly come under fire from the Israeli government. In 2016 the pressure on the organisation became particularly pointed and personal, with state-sponsored legal challenges, denunciations from the Israeli cabinet, physical attacks on staff members and damages to property. Led by Israeli politicians including the prime minister, and defence minister, there have been persistent attempts to force the organisation to identify a soldier whose anonymous testimony was part of a publication raising suspicions of war crimes in Gaza. Losing the case would set a precedent that would make it almost impossible for Breaking the Silence to operate in the future. The government has also recently enacted a law that would bar the organisation’s widely acclaimed high school education programme.
Ildar Dadin, Russia
A Russian opposition and LGBT rights activist, Ildar Dadin was the first, and remains the only, person to be convicted under a notorious 2014 public assembly law. Aimed at punishing anyone who breaks strict rules on protest, the law was enacted to silence dissent after a wave of demonstrations following Putin’s last election victory. Dadin’s crime was to stage a series of one-man pickets, often standing silently with a billboard, attempting to duck the cynical law and push for free expression. For his solo enterprise, Dadin was arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment in December 2015. In November 2016, website Meduza published a letter smuggled from Dadin to his wife, exposing torture he claimed he was suffering alongside fellow prisoners. The letter, a brave move for a serving prisoner, was widely reported. A government investigation was prompted, and Dadin was transferred – against his will – to an undisclosed new location. A wave of public protest led to Dadin’s new location in a Siberian prison colony being revealed in January 2017. In February 2017, Russia’s constitutional and Supreme Courts suddenly quashed Dadin’s conviction, ruling he should be released and afforded opportunity for rehabilitation.
Maati Monjib, Morocco
A well-known academic who teaches African studies and political history at the University of Rabat since returning from exile, Maati Monjib co-founded Freedom Now, a coalition of Moroccan human rights defenders who seek to promote the rights of Moroccan activists and journalists in a country ranked 131 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. His work campaigning for press freedom – including teaching investigative journalism workshops and using of a smartphone app called Story Maker designed to support citizen journalism – has made him a target for the authorities who insist that this work is the exclusive domain of state police. For his persistent efforts, Monjib is currently on trial for “undermining state security” and “receiving foreign funds.”
Despite growing public knowledge of global digital surveillance capabilities and practices, it has often proved hard to attract mainstream public interest in the issue. This continues to be the case in Iran where even with widespread VPN usage, there is little real awareness of digital security threats. With public sexual health awareness equally low, the three people behind Jensiat, an online graphic novel, saw an an opportunity to marry these challenges. Dealing with issues linked to sexuality and cyber security in a way that any Iranian can easily relate to, the webcomic also offers direct access to verified digital security resources. Launched in March 2016, Jensiat has had around 1.2 million unique readers and was rapidly censored by the Iranian government.
Bill Marczak, United States
A schoolboy resident of Bahrain and PhD candidate in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, Bill Marczak co-founded Bahrain Watch in 2013. Seeking to promote effective, accountable and transparent governance, Bahrain Watch works by launching investigations and running campaigns in direct response to social media posts coming from activists on the front line. In this context, Marczak’s personal research has proved highly effective, often identifying new surveillance technologies and targeting new types of information controls that governments are employing to exert control online, both in Bahrain and across the region. In 2016 Marczak investigated several government attempts to track dissidents and journalists, notably identifying a previously unknown weakness in iPhones that had global ramifications.
#ThisFlag and Evan Mawarire, Zimbabwe
In May 2016, Baptist pastor Evan Mawarire unwittingly began the most important protest movement in Zimbabwe’s recent history when he posted a video of himself draped in the Zimbabwean flag, expressing his frustration at the state of the nation. A subsequent series of YouTube videos and the hashtag Mawarire used, #ThisFlag, went viral, sparking protests and a boycott called by Mawarire, which he estimates was attended by over eight million people. A scale of public protest previously inconceivable, the impact was so strong that private possession of Zimbabwe’s national flag has since been banned. The pastor temporarily left the country following death threats and was arrested in early February as he returned to his homeland.
Turkey Blocks, Turkey
In a country marked by increasing authoritarianism, a strident crackdown on press and social media as well as numerous human rights violations, Turkish-British technologist Alp Toker brought together a small team to investigate internet restrictions. Using Raspberry Pi technology they built an open source tool able to reliably monitor and report both internet shut downs and power blackouts in real time. Using their tool, Turkey Blocks have since broken news of 14 mass-censorship incidents during several politically significant events in 2016. The tool has proved so successful that it has begun to be implemented elsewhere globally.
Behrouz Boochani, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea/Australia
Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani fled the city of Ilam in Iran in May 2013 after the police raided the Kurdish cultural heritage magazine he had co-founded, arresting 11 of his colleagues. He travelled to Australia by boat, intending to claim asylum, but less than a month after arriving he was forcibly relocated to a “refugee processing centre” in Papua New Guinea that had been newly opened. Imprisoned alongside nearly 1000 men who have been ordered to claim asylum in Papua New Guinea or return home, Boochani has been passionately documenting their life in detention ever since. Publicly advertised by the Australian Government as a refugee deterrent, life in the detention centre is harsh. For the first 2 years, Boochani wrote under a pseudonym. Until 2016 he circumvented a ban on mobile phones by trading personal items including his shoes with local residents. And while outside journalists are barred, Boochani has refused to be silent, writing numerous stories via Whatsapp and even shooting a feature film with his phone.
Daptar, Dagestan, Russia
In a Russian republic marked by a clash between the rule of law, the weight of traditions, and the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism, Daptar, a website run by journalists Zakir Magomedov and Svetlana Anokhina, writes about issues affecting women, which are little reported on by other local media. Meaning “diary”, Daptar seeks to promote debate and in 2016 they ran a landmark story about female genital mutilation in Dagestan, which broke the silence surrounding that practice and began a regional and national conversation about FGM. The small team of journalists, working alongside a volunteer lawyer and psychologist, also tries to provide help to the women they are in touch with.
Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) is a new independent investigative website which was founded by a team of young Serbian journalists intent on exposing organised crime and extortion in their country which is ranked as having widespread corruption by Transparency International. In their first year they have published several high-impact investigations, including forcing Serbia’s prime minister to admit that senior officials had been behind nocturnal demolitions in a Belgrade neighbourhood and revealing meetings between drug barons, the ministry of police and the minister of foreign affairs. KRIK have repeatedly come under attack online and offline for their work –threatened and allegedly under surveillance by state officials, defamed in the pages of local tabloids, and suffering abuse including numerous death threats on social media.
Maldives Independent, Maldives
Website Maldives Independent, which provides news in English, is one of the few remaining independent media outlets in a country that ranks 112 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. In August 2016 the Maldives passed a law criminalising defamation and empowering the state to impose heavy fines and shut down media outlets for “defamatory” content. In September, Maldives Independent’s office was violently attacked and later raided by the police, after the release of an Al Jazeera documentary exposing government corruption that contained interviews with editor Zaheena Rasheed, who had to flee for her safety. Despite the pressure, the outlet continues to hold the government to account.
Since becoming a journalist almost 30 years ago, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir has had to choose between his life and his career. Mir is now one of Pakistan’s best-known journalists, the host of Geo Television’s flagship political show Capital Talk. He also now lives under armed guard, recovering from yet another assassination attempt, with his family sent abroad for their safety.
“My family is not happy with me,” he told Index. “They think that my life is more important than the profession.” Mir does not agree.
“I think that if I leave Pakistan, it’s like I surrender, and I don’t want to surrender to the Taliban, I don’t want to surrender to the rogue elements in our intelligence agencies and the security agencies. I don’t want to surrender to the enemies of democracy.”
Mir became a journalist after his father, who himself taught journalism at the University of the Punjab, died in mysterious circumstances in 1987. Mir saw his career as a continuation of his father’s fight for democracy, human rights and minorities’ rights in Pakistan.
“When I decided to become a journalist, Pakistan was ruled by a military dictator,” Mir told Index. It was not long after he started at a small paper in Lahore that Mir first met the violent opposition to his reporting that would characterise his career and life.
“When I started facing trouble, I was not aware that I was touching some controversial subject,” he said. “I was only doing my job as a reporter.”
In 1990, Mir broke a story about the military establishment and the then-president trying to remove the democratically elected Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
“I was kidnapped by the intelligence agency and they tortured me and asked me to tell them who is my source.” Bhutto’s government was removed days later.
Fast forward 30 years and Mir is still reporting on issues many Pakistani journalists won’t touch.
His tireless and outspoken reporting has earned him enemies in Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani Taliban and local terrorist groups, and Pakistan’s political parties.
It has also earned him a lifetime of assassination attempts – the latest a near-fatal attack in 2014 which saw him shot six times as he drove to work – has left Mir living under constant protection. He is driven to and from work in a bulletproof vehicle, alternating between cell phones and residences, and away from his two children, who were sent abroad after a car they were riding in was attacked.
But, for Mir, reporting on these untouchable-topics is not a question. “Maybe it’s controversial for the others but it’s not controversial for me,” he says.
“If a military dictator is suspending the constitution of Pakistan which was approved by the elected parliament, and I, being a journalist and a TV anchor, am opposing that, for me it’s not controversial,” he says.
“And again, if some intelligence agency is trying to dictate me – you should report this and you should not report that – and if the religious extremists, the Taliban, they are issuing threats to women, they are bombing the girls’ schools, and I am criticising the Taliban. I don’t think that it’s controversial.”
Threats to his life intensified in late 2015, and under pressure from his family, Mir planned to take three months off-air.
“After one month, I realised that it’s too much, I have to come back.”
For Mir, if not for his family, his duty to Pakistan and to his colleagues, will always outweigh his own safety. The guilt he feels for those journalists who have died for their work is too great to ever allow him to stop, he says.
“There were some colleagues who used to come to me and take advice about what should we do because we are facing pressures. Should we continue our job as a journalist? I used to advise them, yes you must continue your job as a journalist, nothing bad will happen. But they were killed, they were kidnapped.”
“If I leave Pakistan today, on the pressure of my family, maybe I will leave a very safe life in London or in Berlin or in Paris or in any other country. But it will be very difficult for me to live a normal life, because the ghosts of my martyred friends, they will not allow me to have a comfortable sleep.”
Mir believes he is one of the lucky ones in Pakistan – he has survived. And life in Lahore is a lot easier for journalists than for those living outside the city, he says.
Although he sees media freedom in Pakistan getting worse, with pressures from the extremist forces and state agencies intensifying, his long-view is an uplifting one.
“The good thing is that the people, the majority of the people of Pakistan, the civil society, is the main source of our strength. If I am living in Pakistan, if I am surviving in Pakistan, it’s only because the common man is supporting me,” he said.
“The common man believes in democracy, they don’t like extremist ideology, they don’t like dictatorship, they want rule of law. There is a ray of hope for me in Pakistan.”
In March, Pakistani columnist Raza Rumi was injured in a gun attack that killed his driver. Weeks later, Hamid Mir, star journalist of Geo TV, Pakistan’s biggest TV station, was shot six times. Luckily, both survived, and managed to avoid becoming part of a bleak statistic: Since 1992, 30 journalists have been murdered in Pakistan; 28 with impunity.
Against this backdrop, a group of experts on Pakistan and its media came together, under the auspices of the Commonwealth Journalists Association and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London to discuss the threats facing the country’s journalists. In a discussion chaired by BBC presenter Owen Bennett Jones, former High Commissioner of Pakistan Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Kiran Hassan of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, BBC Urdu Service Editor Aamer Ahmed Khan, New York Times Pakistan Bureau Chief Declan Walsh and renowned journalist and author Babar Ayaz tried to answer the question, How safe is it to be a journalist in Pakistan?
Censorship in Pakistan used to be straightforward, explained Khan. Certain topics were simply off limits. Today, the situation is more complicated and more confusing. Threats to journalists and press freedom take many different shapes, and come from many different sources, including the government, extremists like the Taliban, the intelligence service ISI and powerful media owners.
There are currently 84 different cases against Geo TV, of which 53 are over blasphemy. You cannot defend yourself against that, said Khan. Ayaz raised a similar point when arguing that extremists are the biggest threat to the media. The government might put a person in jail, but these extremist groups will kill for their beliefs, Ayaz said.
While Geo TV and ISI have long been fighting behind closed doors, the case of Hamid Mir created an “open battlefield”, explained Walsh, who was expelled from Pakistan in May 2013. The station aired reports linking the security services to the attack.
Walsh also brought up the ownership issue within the Pakistani television landscape, which he says has gone from “zero to 100” in the past few years. The country today boasts some 90 TV stations. Editorial control remains with media owners, according to Hassan.
But even journalists themselves did not escape criticism. Sections of the media are responsible for the current situation through irresponsible reporting, said Hasan. Quite a few were “playing with fire” by earlier glorifying the Taliban as peacemakers, he explained. Khan also highlighted corruption within the media as a “novel form of censorship”. However, as Khan pointed out, it is difficult for the Pakistani media to be responsible, without enabling them to be responsible. Most of the information that effects people’s lives is under strict control by authorities, he said.
Hassan, however, argued that there has been some progress. Journalists, and by extension the threats they face, are more visible and garner more attention today. She also pointed out that despite part closures, all Pakistan’s TV stations are still running. There was some talk of the role of media regulation in improving the situation, and Hassan said she had hopes for Pembra, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority.
Yet, the overall conclusion was that Pakistan is not a safe place to be a journalist — illustrated well by Walsh explaining how, for the first time since he’s covered Pakistan, The New York Times recently had to use a pseudonym to protect their reporter on the ground.
Hasan summed it up: “The establishment doesn’t want the media to be as free as it can be.”