Safa Al Ahmad: Facts are a precious commodity in Saudi Arabia

Safa Al Ahmad has spent the last three years covertly filming a mass uprising in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province that had, until her film, gone largely unreported. She did this in a country where those accused of dissent can face execution and travelling solo as a female is restricted. Al Ahmad’s 30-minute documentary, Saudi’s Secret Uprising, gave a rare glimpse of civil unrest from the region when it was broadcast by the BBC in May 2014. Since her important documentary aired Al Ahmad has faced extensive and violent online threats, and has been advised for her own safety not to return to her country. She is the joint recipient of the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Journalism.

Saudi Arabia is a mystery, even to its own people.

Parts of our history deliberately concealed, the present muddled with rumours and half-truths.

The government-owned and controlled media play a major role in the dissemination of those false realities of ourselves and others.

This makes facts a precious commodity in Saudi Arabia.

The uprising in the east of Saudi Arabia is a perfect example of how well the government has succeeded in controlling the story and the narrative around an unprecedented event in modern Saudi history. And it also exposes the failure of media in not cutting through the government’s narrative.

Since the protests started in Qatif in early 2011 along with the rest of the Arab world, youth were arrested and given death sentences for posting on Facebook, like Mohmed Alnmir. Poets like Adel Al Labad, and human rights activist Fathil Al Manasif were given 15 year sentences for threatening “social stability”. So called anti-terrorism laws were introduced to criminalise most forms of dissent.

For the film I made that tells this story, and shares my opinions, I have been accused of lying and spying, advocating terrorism, aiding and abetting terrorists, and of course I have been called a heretic.

As a journalist in the Middle East people think they have the right to constantly ask what religion or sect you belong to and judge your work accordingly. It has become nearly impossible to do a story without talking about Sunnis and Shia. But sectarianism is used as a tool, as a weapon, to further confuse and tangle an already complicated political landscape. It has become acceptable reductive language in the media, both Arab and western, to explain our world.

In Saudi Arabia, it was used to isolate and crush a fledgling uprising. A clever way to stop the rest of the country from joining those who have the same demands – to stop political oppression, free political prisoners, have transparent and just courts, stop corruption, and have equal rights for all citizens.

But in the end, the uprising became reduced into a story of “Shia” minority protesting the majority Sunni rulers. A true statement at face value, but not the whole complicated, messy truth.

Documentary maker and journalist Safa Al Ahmad (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)

Documentary maker and journalist Safa Al Ahmad (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)

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This article was posted on 18 March 2015 at

Index Awards 2015: Meet the 17 nominees who fight for free expression

From top left: Xavier ‘Bonil’ Bonilla, Safa Al Ahmad, Mouad

From top left: Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla, Safa Al Ahmad, Mouad “El Haqed” Belghouat and Lirio Abbate are among the Index Freedom of Expression Awards nominees for 2015.

A journalist under 24-hour protection because of his reports into the Italian mafia, an Ecuadorian cartoonist facing prosecution for mocking a congressmen’s pay packet, and lawyers who challenged Turkey – and won – over its social media ban, are among those shortlisted for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards this year.

Drawn from more than 2,000 nominations, the shortlist celebrates those at the forefront of tackling censorship and threats to freedom of expression. Many of the 17 shortlisted nominees are regularly targeted by authorities or by criminal and extremist groups for their work: some face regular death threats, others criminal prosecution.

“The Index Freedom of Expression Awards recognise some of the world’s most courageous journalists, artists and campaigners,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index. “These individuals and groups often work in isolation, with little funding or support, but they are all driven by the vision of a world in which everyone can express themselves freely – no matter who they are or what they believe.”


Awards are offered in four categories: journalism, arts, campaigning and digital activism.

Those on the shortlist include Lirio Abbate, an Italian journalist whose investigations into the mafia mean he requires constant protection; Safa Al Ahmad, whose documentary exposed details of an unreported mass uprising in Saudi Arabia; radio station Echo of Moscow, one of Russia’s last remaining independent media outlets; and Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan reporter repeatedly prosecuted for his work exposing government and industry corruption.

Arts nominees include Ecuador’s censored cartoonist Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla – who has for more than 30 years critiqued and lampooned the country’s authorities; Moroccan rapper Mouad “El Haqed” Belghouat, whose music challenges poverty and government corruption; Rory “Panti Bliss” O’Neill, a Dublin-based drag artist who speaks out against homophobia; and Malian musicians Songhoy Blues, who fled their country after music was banned. Guitarist Garba Touré was threatened with having his hand cut off.

In the campaigning category, nominees range from lawyers Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altiparmak, who played a key part in overturning Turkey’s social media ban last year; to innovative German anti-Nazi group ZDK; to Amran Abdundi, working on the treacherous Somali-Kenya border to help women and girls who are frequently victims of violence, rape and murder. They also include Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar who is working to develop a free media in Afghanistan, and The Union of the Committee of Soliders’ Mothers of Russia – a group dedicated to exposing stories of Russian soldiers, killed in the Ukraine conflict, which the Russian government denies.

The digital activism category, which is decided by public vote, includes investigative news outlet, which is using freedom of information requests to hold the Hungarian government to account; Nico Sell, a US-based entrepreneur and online privacy activist; online map Syria Tracker, which is providing reliable data on human rights abuses in Syria; and Valor por Tamalipas, a crowd-sourced news platform set up to fill a void created by the region’s drug cartel-induced media blackout.

The shortlisted nominees:

Panti Bliss (Ireland)
Songhoy Blues (Mali)
“Bonil” (Ecuador)
“El Haqed” (Morocco)
More details

Amran Abdundi (Kenya/Somalia)
Zentrum Demokratische Kultur (Germany)
Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar (Afghanistan)
Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altiparmak (Turkey)
Soldiers’ Mothers (Russia)
More details

Digital Activism
Syria Tracker (Syria)
Nico Sell (USA) and Tamás Bodoky (Hungary)
Valor por Tamaulipas (Mexico)
More details

Rafael Marques de Morais (Angola)
Safa Al Ahmad (Saudi Arabia)
Lirio Abbate (Italy)
Echo of Moscow (Russia)
More details

This article was posted on 27 January 2015 at

Whistleblower Grigory Pasko: “Russian public will feel a need for the truth”

Former naval officer and journalist Grigory Pasko risked everything to uncover environmental degradation committed by the Russian Navy. (Photo:

Former naval officer and journalist Grigory Pasko risked everything to uncover environmental degradation committed by the Russian Navy. (Photo:

In the 1990s, Grigory Pasko, a former naval officer and journalist, reported that Russia’s navy was dumping nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan (East Sea). After a series of articles exposing the environmental crimes, Russian federal security service agents arrested him in 1997, on charges of espionage and abuse of his official power. He was tried several times and eventually sentenced in December 2001 to four years of imprisonment for espionage. He was finally released in January 2003.

Pasko is one of many journalists who has been targeted by the Russian government. He says that freedom of speech and media in the country today, is not that different from when he was named International Whistleblower of the Year at the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards 13 years ago.

“It is just the same blatant rule by the security services, the same totalitarianism and lack of democratic institutions,” Pasko told Index in an email exchange.

Investigative journalists, in particular, are scarce in the current Russian environment, though the 1990 Law on the Mass Media [1991] states that journalists are allowed to carry on investigations. Article 29 of the Russian Constitution bans censorship altogether. However, under Vladimir Putin’s administration, Pasko said that press freedom and new, economically independent media have disappeared in favor of blatant propaganda.

Nominations for the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards close on 20 Nov.

Who will you nominate? A journalist? A digital activist? A campaigning organisation? An artist? Or all four?

“Investigative journalism barely exists as a genre in Russia,” Pasko said. “Journalists in our country are killed and put in prison.”

In March 2011, Pasko and his colleagues, Galina Sidorova and Igor Korolkov, established the Foundation for Investigative Journalism as a way to help professional and citizen journalists alike, as well as to create open discussion and respect for the law. It maintains “zero tolerance towards corruption in all forms”.

“Our goal is to help those who pursue this form of journalism,” Pasko said. “So far we have held schools in investigative journalism for journalists and bloggers in many towns throughout Russia. Unfortunately, funds from our sponsors limit us to holding only three such schools a year.”

Pasko said the foundation aims to teach journalists “to be free. To obey the law. To help the democratic development of journalism in Russia. To know how to use the rights they have been given by the constitution and the law. Not to be afraid.”

In a bleak time for journalists and a free media, Pasko said there is always hope for a brighter, freer future.

“The Russian public will feel a need for the truth, just as it has a need to drink fresh not stagnant water,” Pasko said. “Then society will have a need for independent free journalists. Our task and our goal meanwhile are not to let them disappear and keep the genre of investigative journalism alive.”

This article was posted on 17 Nov 2014 at