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When times get tough, freedom of expression can quickly fall down the list of priorities. But it is exactly in these circumstances when the ability to communicate and express yourself is most important. For this reason, we continue to draw inspiration from last year’s Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards fellows and their struggles to keep freedom of expression alive and well.
As we look forward to the 2016 Index awards, here is our latest reminder of just how important a job our past winners do in the fight for free speech.
Tamas Bodoky, Atlatszo.hu / Digital Activism
The report also outlines the site’s main investigations over the course of 2015, which include exposing state corruption, public budget spending, irregularity within EU funding and land lease and privatisation controversies.
The website’s project for tracking down hate crime gained traction in 2014, and last year expanded to include “violent football hooligan groups and clergymen, who are close to the far-right,” the site’s executive director Tamas Bodoky told Index on Censorship.
“Unfortunately, some people became very hostile to our refugee crisis reporting last year, saying things like ‘go to hell, Atlatszo, for helping them’,” he added.
Atlatszo made 90 freedom of information requests as an organisation — plus hundreds of requests submitted by staff in their own names. Around 50% of Atlatszo’s requests were at least partially granted. Of those that weren’t, the site has initiated court proceedings to obtain the information, with almost half so far being successful, with several others pending.
Going forward, Atlatszo has plans to expand by working with more bloggers and developing a new website allowing Hungarian citizens to “question representatives of Hungary in EU, members of the Hungarian Parliament and — in the long run — representatives of the local governments”. The kepviselom.hu (my representative) project is currently seeking donors through crowdfunding.
“The Index award certainly helped get more international recognition over the last year,” Bodoky said. “As a very small news organisation, we constantly struggle for visibility, and Index on Censorship was instrumental in raising the visibility of our cause.”
Safa Al Ahmad / Journalism
With the political crisis in Yemen steadily getting worse since last year, any plans Safa Al Ahmed had to switch focus were sidelined as she returned to the battle-scarred country.
“I filmed events in Aden and then Taiz, which is currently besieged,” the award-winning journalist told Index on Censorship. “I’m going to be producing two separate films for both cities because north and south have very different dynamics.”
Actually getting into Yemen is a real task in itself. Al Ahmed and her crew took a boat from Djibouti to Aden, which took 34 hours, and then travelled for another day off-road and across mountainous terrain, passing snipers along the way.
With the execution of the prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Al Ahmad’s own country Saudi Arabia was briefly catapulted back into international focus at the start of 2016, but it didn’t last. “There is very little investigative journalism being done on the ground, which makes reporting difficult as there isn’t very much to build on,” Al Ahmed says.
Citing the flogging of blogger Raif Badawi as an example of how brutal the Saudi regime is of critical voices, Al Ahmad describes the state of free speech in Saudi Arabia as “frightening”. “The government have passed really wide rulings and laws so they can stop or arrest anyone for the simplest of reasons, including talking about the war in Yemen, which has been banned,” she explains.
The big difference between now and 2014 is that people are currently receiving death sentences, which is “a whole different level of intimidation”.
Mouad Belghouat aka El Haqed / Arts
Last time we caught up with Moroccan rapper Mouad Belghouat, aka El Haqed, in October, he was in his home country keeping a low profile, while looking forward to performances in Florence, Italy, and at the 25th anniversary of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights in Brussels. Since November 2015, he has been living in Belgium, having applied for refugee status.
“In Morocco I felt threatened and under constant control,” he told Index this month. “It’s been hard, because already I miss the place where I grew up; I miss my family and my friends.” The situation in Morocco “deteriorates more and more every day, at all levels”, he explains, but vows one day to return.
He has now been cleared to work in Belgium, and has also turned his attention to creating more music. “I’m trying to finish the album I’ve been writing based on my experiences in prison in Morocco, and — as the last set of concerts have gone so well — I will be performing in Belgium in March and am looking to tour Norway come April.”
There are also plans for a biography based on his experiences from 2011, when his music became an anthem for many Moroccans involved in the Arab Spring, right up to his persecution at the hands of the authorities, right up to his eventual self-imposed exile.
As for the Index award, he said: “Through Index, I met many great people from all over the world who share the same principles as me, and word of my case has spanned the breadth of the world.”
Amran Abdundi / Campaigning
During our last conversation with Amran Abdundi, we discussed the attack in her native Kenya by Al-Shabaab linked terrorists on Garissa University College, in which 148 people were murdered. Abdundi, who knows many students from the college, immediately joined with other women leaders to organise strong community protests against Al-Shabaab.
Last month, Abdundi attended the re-opening ceremony for Garissa University College. “I was happy to meet victims who I offered counselling to after the attack, and see them now back on their feet, ready to study and achieve their dreams,” she told Index.
She has also been busy recently with the upcoming launch of the new Frontier Indigenous Network website and implementing a new social media strategy to foster better connections between Kenyan women and the rest of the world.
As part of this new development plan, 2016 is packed with new projects, including an education programme on non-violence to counter violent extremism and radicalisation. The project will bring together Christians and Muslims together in “preaching peace and reconciliation”.
“All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the Index award and the support I have received from Index on Censorship, which led me to meet key individuals, such as Kenya’s woman minister, Anne Waigiru.”
Rafael Marques de Morais / Journalism
President José Eduardo dos Santos has been in power in Angola for over 35 years and his regime faces criticism on many fronts for, among other things, land grabbing, human rights abuses in Angolan prisons and the divvying up of the country’s resources to his family “like it was their inheritance”. These are just some of the issues Index award winner Rafael Marques de Morais is focusing on his activism and writing.
“This kind of work generates all sorts of troubles, because when you speak out against the president, you become suspect,” de Morais told Index on Censorship.
Being a high-profile activist within the country, there is a misconception that de Morais doesn’t feel the full force of the regime. “I might be ‘free’ but I can’t go anywhere; when I went for a drink recently the person I was with noticed we were being watched,” he explains. When he tried to enter a courtroom in December to observe the case involving the 15 Angolan bloggers now under house arrest, he was denied access. “Immediately the news on television was that I tried to enter the court illegally, because being high profile, the main thing they can attack is your reputation.”
Coupled with the ongoing economic crisis in Angola preventing citizens from taking money out of the bank, times are tough. “How is one supposed to survive and keep going?” he asks.
But go on he does. The attention from home and abroad, including that generated by the Index award, have provided some solace. “It’s always refreshing to know that people are interested,” he explains. “The award provides great encouragement for one to keep going.”
“But that’s it. The next day, you are back to struggling for survival.”
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.
Hungarians are polarised on the refugees making the journey to Europe. Hardliners support the government’s tough approach to curbing immigration, as do a large number of ordinary people. But many others are ashamed by what is happening, explains Tamas Bodoky.
The founder of Atlatszo, Index on Censorship’s award winner for digital activism in 2015, Bodoky blames the situation on the government’s campaign of painting migrants as dangerous enemies. “The mainstream and pro-government press is full of scaremongering, claiming refugees are terrorists, that they carry diseases and are taking work away from Hungarian people,” he says.
In a departure for the data-driven investigative journalism and freedom of information organisation, Atlatszo has been covering the human side of the situation by reporting on the experiences and views of asylum seekers since the government began trying to halt the flow of refugees in July. Bodoky and his team have covered conditions at the border and some travelled to Turkey to look at how refugees are crossing the Mediterranean.
“We have interviewed a lot of people at train stations and other ports,” Bodoky explains.
Early last month, Bodoky put together a short documentary capturing the chaotic events of 4 September 2015, when approximately 2,000 refugees attempted to walk from Budapest to Austria. They had been stuck in the Hungarian capital for days, many of them stranded in train stations without help. Late that night, after walking about 30 km, they were finally put on buses and taken to the Austrian border.
Since Index last spoke to Bodoky in June, the Hungarian government has — for the second time since 2010 — changed the law regarding freedom of information requests, which Atlatszo relies heavily on for its investigative work.
“They are charging fees so people won’t file so many requests,” says Bodoky, adding that while Atlatszo isn’t very happy with the situation, it won’t be deterred. “We will pay the small fee and continue to make requests, but citizens and activists who have started to use freedom of information quite a lot may not want or be able to,” he says.
Atlatszo’s readership has been steadily rising and the publication is now over 50% crowdfunded. Around 3,000 donors contribute monthly and the amount of money raised from the 1% of income tax Hungarian citizens can donate to NGOs they sympathise with has tripled for Atlatszo since last year.
Winning the Index Digital Activism Award has helped Atlatszo gain international attention. “We get a lot of press requests for quotes on important issues in Hungary,” says Bodoky. Staffers at Atlatszo have been acting as a source on the refugee crisis for international media outlets such The Guardian and have appeared on Al Jazeera’s Listening Post, a weekly programme examining the world’s media.
In the coming months, Bodoky says Atlatszo will “continue to work on anti-corruption, with articles on state subsidies and budget spending, which is our core business, and of course on the migrant crisis”.
Generally speaking, Arabic hip hop comes in two categories. There are rappers in the Gulf who like to brag about how great it is to be really, really rich. Then there are artists in places like Palestine and Algeria who use their work to talk about the endemic problems they face in their communities: disenfranchisement, discrimination, destitution and violence.
Index on Censorship Arts award winner Mouad “El Haqed” Belghouat falls under the latter category. Hailing from Morocco, where the youth have been keen consumers of hip hop for many years, El Haqed has had a lot of attention since the Arab Spring. Rapping about poverty, police corruption and oppression in the country, the 24-year old has been felt the full force of the law. Arrested for the first time in 2011, he spent two years in prison before being arrested twice more because of his music.
Index spoke with El Haqed in June when he had just returned to Morocco in high spirits following a tour of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and was looking forward to performing for the first time in his hometown of Casablanca. Unfortunately, the Moroccan state went to extraordinary lengths — blocking off roads and ordering an electricity company to shut off power — to ensure the concert didn’t go ahead. He is effectively banned from performing live or appearing on TV or radio.
Asked why the Moroccan government wants to silence him so badly, El Haqed said: “Because I continue to speak out against them and fight for freedom of expression.” On several occasions, the authorities have asked El Haqed to renounce his views. “They want me to say that we live in a democracy and that everything is OK, but I have always refused.”
An all too frequent but often unavoidable fact of life as an artist under siege is that there will be times when keeping a low profile seems necessary. While El Haqed is still writing and recording music, he isn’t currently posting to YouTube as he was before. “Publishing music at the minute would only cause more problems,” he explains. He adds, however, that this is only a temporary setback, and publishing on YouTube and to his tens of thousands of social media followers is very much a part of his future plans.
One area of extreme difficulty has been finding the right people — including a producer — to work with. El Haqed used to write music with other artists in Morocco, but this has become an inconvenience. “Musicians were told by the authorities to stop working with me, or they would be made to,” he says.
Although in the past El Haqed pushed the authorities to give him permission to perform in Morocco, he is resigned to the fact this may never happen. But there is hope. Visa applications pending, he has been invited to spend a week in Florence, Italy, in October for an exchange with Italian musicians, a debate on the music of the new generation and to perform in concert. A major focus of this visit will be to facilitate artistic collaboration.
He has also been invited to perform in Belgium in October by at the 25th anniversary of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights due to his being a “committed musician and human rights defender”.
Like one in five people his age in Morocco, El Haqed doesn’t currently have a job and relies heavily on family and friends for support. While it may be easier if he left Morocco to pursue a career in music, he has no intention of relocating.
“I love my country, and while I want to perform abroad, I will always come back to Morocco,” he says.
Index on Censorship demands Moroccan authorities end their harassment of El Haqed and allow him, and others like him, to perform in the country.