#IndexAwards2017: Here’s what you need to know

Freedom of Expression Awards

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.

We will be live tweeting throughout the evening on @IndexCensorship. Get involved in the conversation using the hashtag #IndexAwards2017.

Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards nominees 2017


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.


Arcoiris, Honduras

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.”

Digital Activism

Jensiat, Iran

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.

KRIK, Serbia

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.

Smockey: “Not everyone is lucky enough to have a microphone in front of them”

Searching for “dissident artists” online, you’d be forgiven for thinking they are a purely Chinese or Russian phenomenon. But for every Ai Weiwei or Pussy Riot, there are scores of artists and musicians around the world whose persecution does not make the Six O’Clock News.

Serge Bambara — aka Smockey, meaning “se moquer”, or “to mock” — is a hip-hop artist and activist little known outside his home country of Burkina Faso, but who has had a marked impact on political and social developments there.

He combines rap with traditional Burkinabé music and often humour to “spread truth”. “Knowledge is important, and I write as a way of presenting it to the people,” he told Index on Censorship.

Index on Censorship is proud to name Smockey as the recipient of the Music in Exile Fund Fellowship. As the beneficiary, he will perform live in London, as well as receive training and opportunities to connect with other free speech heroes around the world.

“Serge Bambara’s overtly political music has made him a target for entrenched interests in Burkina Faso,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship. “Throughout his career, he has used his talents to fight for racial equality and battle corruption. We are delighted to have him as the inaugural Music in Exile fellow.”

In September 2015, after two years of serious activism and over 15 years of writing music about the problems in his country, forces loyal to the recently ousted president Blaise Compaoré — obviously unhappy with the truths he was spreading — bombed Smockey’s recording studio, the acclaimed Studio Abazon. The attack was an apparent attempt on his life as revenge for the role his music and activism played in the deposition of Compaoré, according to Smockey.

Attacks on artistic freedom — particularly musicians — almost doubled in 2015. But to understand why Smockey was targeted in such a violent and specific manner, we need to go back to his roots.

Smockey first became interested in hip-hop music through listening to American artists like Public Enemy, Afrika Bambaataa and LL Cool J. He began rapping in Burkina Faso in 1988, before moving to France in 1991 to study. While there, he signed to the record label EMI, but it wasn’t until he returned to his country of birth on a holiday in 1999 that his music took on the political dimension it is famed for today.

“It was around the time of the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo, who was assassinated following investigations into the activist by president Blaise Compaoré,” he said. “Student demonstrators were being beaten by police. It was very disturbing to me.”

Smockey soon packed up his computer and keyboard in France and moved back home to Burkina Faso in 2001. “Seeing the things going on in my country, I had to do something,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t know exactly what, but I knew it would involve music.”

He understands fully the responsibility that often comes with being in the spotlight in a country burdened by so many difficulties. “Not everyone is lucky enough to have a microphone in front of them, so if you have the chance to talk, you have to say something important,” Smockey said. This is the thinking behind subversive songs like Votez Pour Moi (about democracy), Tomber la Lame (FGM) and A Qui Profite le Crime (government corruption).

In the summer of 2013, Smockey co-founded Le Balai Citoyen, or The Citizen’s Broom, with reggae artist Sams’K Le Jah. The grassroots movement was set up in opposition to Compaoré, aiming to bring positive change to Burkina Faso. “As our problems were political, our solutions had to be political also,” Smockey explained.

As for the name and ethos of the movement, he said: “With just one twig, you won’t get much done, but when you bind them together and make a broom you can clean a lot of shit. This is why we always say ‘our number is our strength’ because it is impossible to be defeated if we are united.”

Le Balai Citoyen played a big part in the ousting of Compaoré. It urged the people of Burkina Faso to organise and take to the streets. Following mass demonstrations in late 2014, Compaoré resigned on 31 October after 27 years in power. A transition government, led by the military, was established, which Smockey was broadly supportive of. However, a military coup saw General Gilbert Diendéré — leader of the Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP), Compaoré’s former secret service — seize power in September 2015.

Le Balai Citoyen staged a march to the presidential palace in protest of the coup. Smockey, along with fellow demonstrators, were shot at and then chased through the streets of Ouagadougou by RSP. Although Smockey managed to escape, many others were beaten and arrested.

“We knew we were lucky, but we weren’t able to go home,” he said. On 17 September he went into hiding. Asked whether he is an artist or an activist first, Smockey told Index on Censorship that depends on what he is doing at any one time. His fans tend not to draw a distinction, he explained. Nor did Diendéré, it would seem, whose forces rocket-bombed Smockey’s studio on the same day he went underground.

Studio Abazon was a hub for young and aspiring musicians. “They attacked it because they knew it was an important landmark to the resistance,” Smockey explained. “Their thinking was that you have to kill the leaders, everyone else will go away.”

Prior to the attack, the rapper had received death threats, and although he had the opportunity to flee to Holland, he stayed put. “You can’t talk about strength in numbers if on the first sign of difficulty you are going to run away,” he said.

Diendéré’s rule didn’t last long as he failed to consolidate his authority and came under pressure from international leaders and the army to step down. Smockey came out of hiding and fresh elections were held in Burkina Faso.

“The current government, although it’s not perfect, was chosen by the people so it’s legitimate,” explains Smockey. “Our job is now to be the watchers and guards of democracy.”

The rapper is optimistic about the future of his country and proud of the role his music and activism have played in developments so far. With the progress made, he now plans to put more focus on his music. “I’ve started rebuilding the studio, and have already begun recording artists again, but much more work needs to be done,” he said.

He has plans for a tour of the country and wants to set up a hip-hop festival. “It will create a kind of bridge between rappers, old school and new,” he said. “We’re going to do one big concert every month as a way of keeping people connected.”

When Index on Censorship launched the Music in Exile Fund in October 2015 along with the producers of the award-winning documentary They Will Have To Kill Us First, Johanna Schwartz, director of the film, said: “When faced with censorship, musicians across the world need our support.”

In whatever small way, the Music in Exile Fund will help see Smockey’s plans become reality.

The Music In Exile Fund was launched to help support musicians facing censorship around the world. The fund contributes to Index on Censorship’s year-long Freedom of Expression Awards Fellowship programme, helping musicians to build their international profile and to create, perform and share their work in a safe environment. You can donate here.

“Malian concert planned to go ahead despite attacks”


Malian musician Disco

Malian musician Fadimata “Disco” Walet Oumar, with her husband, as featured in They Will Have To Kill Us First

UPDATE: The concert in Timbuktu did not go ahead as the Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita declared a 10-day state of emergency following the deadly hotel attack.


Johanna Schwartz, director of They Will Have to Kill Us First, a documentary about exiled musicians in Mali, has spoken out on the attack and deaths at a hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako, today. The director has been trying to get in touch with the musicians covered in the documentary. She believes that a big concert in Timbuktu, planned for tomorrow, is still going to go ahead. Islamists have tried to stop music being played in Mali over the past few years, after they took control of parts of the country and declared it against sharia law. Many musicians fled the country.

Schwartz said: “My inbox has been flooded this morning with people wanting to know if Songhoy Blues, Disco or Khaira Arby are caught up in the hotel attack in Bamako. Songhoy Blues are right now in Paris, where they were supposed to perform this week. I wish I could say they were ‘safe in Paris’ but we all know that’s not true. Bataclan, the music venue that was attacked, is exactly the kind of venue Songhoy Blues are getting booked into these days. Khaira Arby is not in Bamako either, but in Timbuktu where a concert is planned for tomorrow evening. This will be the biggest concert in the city of Timbuktu since the music ban. (And much bigger than the street party gig that Khaira organised last year, which I filmed.) I just heard that the concert will indeed go ahead.”

She added: “An act of enormous courage from all involved. I think more than ever we need to take our cues from these great musicians, who resist these horrific attacks with every molecule in their body. They are wilfully defiant, but peacefully so. We don’t have to accept what these terror groups are trying to force upon the planet. But crucially, we need to understand why those who are accepting it are doing so. I just got off the phone with our local producer in Mali, he is calling Disco [musician Fadimata Walet Oumar] now to see where she is. A couple of his friends work at the hotel that is under attack as I type. He can’t get through to them on their phones.”

Index on Censorship has established a fund for musicians in exile in conjunction with the team behind They Will Have to Kill Us First.

Nominations open for Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards 2016


  • Awards honour journalists, campaigners and artists fighting censorship globally
  • Judges will include poet and playwright Wole Soyinka, pianist James Rhodes and human rights lawyer Kirsty Brimelow 
  • Nominate at indexoncensorship.org/nominations
  • Nominations are open from 15 September to 19 October 2015

Beginning today, nominations for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards 2016 are open. Now in their 16th year, the awards have honoured some of the world’s most remarkable free expression heroes – from Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim to Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat to education activist Malala Yousafzai.

The awards shine a spotlight on individuals fighting to speak out in the most dangerous and difficult of conditions.

Index invites the public, NGOs and media organisations to nominate anyone they believe deserves to be part of this impressive peer group: a hall of fame of some of those at the forefront of tackling censorship worldwide.

There are four categories in Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards:

• Arts for artists and arts producers whose work challenges repression and injustice and celebrates artistic free expression.

• Campaigning for activists and campaigners who have had a marked impact in fighting censorship and promoting freedom of expression.

• Digital Activism for innovative uses of technology to circumvent censorship and enable free and independent exchange of information.

• Journalism for courageous, high impact and determined journalism that exposes censorship and threats to free expression.

Winners will be flown to London for the gala ceremony, which will take place at The Unicorn Theatre in London on 13 April 2016. In 2015, the ceremony was hosted by comedian Shappi Khorsandi, with awards presented by judges and special guests including Martha Lane Fox, Mariane Pearl, Elif Shafak and Keir Starmer.

Winners also become awards fellows and receive support to amplify their work for free expression. As fellows, winners become part of a world-class network of campaigners, activists and artists sharing best practice on tackling censorship threats internationally.

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index, said: “The Freedom of Expression Awards turn up the volume on the censored and silenced. I encourage everyone, no matter where they are in the world, to nominate a free expression hero so their voices can be heard.”

The 2016 awards shortlist will be announced in late January 2016.

Judges in 2016 will include Nobel prize-winning Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka; Kirsty Brimelow QC, a human rights barrister and chair of The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales; and classical pianist James Rhodes, whose memoir Instrumental was published earlier this year after the UK Supreme Court overturned a publication ban.

Rhodes said: “The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once wrote: ‘When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie’ – and to honour those who fight to speak out and break that silence is a privilege. Having experienced first hand the terrifying impact of censorship, I’m thrilled to be able to play a small part in acknowledging the bravery of those who continue to express themselves in the face of unimaginable oppression.”

For more information on the awards, please contact [email protected] or call +44 (0)207 260 2660.