I think we can all agree, regardless of where we live, that 2022 was a tumultuous year. There was seemingly a new crisis every day. Totalitarian regimes moving against their populations became increasingly normal, from Iran to China. The ongoing rise (and occasional fall) of populist politics. The Russian invasion of Ukraine. The rise of energy and food costs and the impact on some of the world’s poorest. The attempted murder of Sir Salman Rushdie. And to be parochial just for a moment, complete political insanity in the UK.
I really hoped that 2023 would mark the end, or at least a pause, of that wonderful Chinese saying – we live in interesting times. Even for just a few months I had dreamed of a period of calm, of quiet, of dullness. Or at least a few weeks so we could all catch up on life and enjoy the world we live in, rather than being anxious at turning on the news.
It is only the sixth day of the year and my wish for calm has already been broken. This week we have seen political dysfunction in the USA; Belarus has commenced trials against many of their high-profile detainees who were arrested during the demonstrations against Lukashenka; there have been deadly riots in Mexico and the news is filled with the gloom of Covid (and China’s censoring of news on it), flu and inflation. It’s day six…
We knew that this year would see significant world events, as the impact of the war in Ukraine continues to be felt. But China is also likely to seek to exploit this global diplomatic distraction for their own nefarious wants. And of course the protests in Iran, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Mexico continue apace – even as they evolve.
Index will remain busy in the months ahead as we seek to shine a spotlight on the actions of totalitarian regimes and make sure that you hear from the people behind the headlines. From the women now banned from attending university in Afghanistan, from the democracy activists imprisoned in Belarus, from the Rohingya mothers held in camps as they flee Myanmar, from the journalists who fight to be heard and stay alive in Mexico. Index will keep providing a platform for the persecuted, so they can tell their stories and you can hear them.
Ramita Navai in Iran in 2005, at a time when women journalists were temporarily allowed in to report on football matches
Up to 20,000 people have now been detained as a result of the protests that have wracked Iran in the past three months. Those who have been detained have been subject to physical and psychological torture, rape and been made to make forced confessions. Some, including 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini whose death sparked the current protests, have died in custody.
The British-Iranian investigative journalist and documentary maker Ramita Navai knows only too well what those who have been detained are facing. She has been detained by the Iranian authorities several times over the years.
Her first arrest came just after she had started working as Tehran correspondent for The Times and was covering the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
“I was at a rally with a lot of other journalists and I was interviewing some Iranians. Before I knew it, two undercover intelligence agents had taken me away; none of my colleagues saw me being taken. It was a terrifying experience. They took me to an abandoned warehouse with broken windows and flexes hanging from the ceiling and there was an armed man standing outside the room. They took all my possessions and carried a table and chairs into the room before starting with a good cop/bad cop routine. It was very manipulative psychologically and was designed to break me. They started telling me that I had been asking anti-revolutionary questions and said I had been telling people how to answer. It was all lies but I was utterly unprepared for this.”
Her interrogators asked her whether she had heard of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who had been killed in police custody shortly before Navai had arrived in Iran.
“Every journalist knew what had happened to her and they were hinting that I would suffer the same fate. I was so petrified I started sobbing.”
Navai was one of the lucky ones. A few hours after being taken, one of her journalist colleagues, Jim Muir of the BBC, noticed she was missing and started talking to the Iraniansat the rally. One whispered to him that they had seen her being taken away.
“He phoned up the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance and said we know you have got her, you had better release her otherwise I am going to cause a fuss about this.”
Navai was released shortly afterwards.
Since then Navai has won numerous awards for her documentary work, including an Emmy for her PBS Frontline documentary Syria Undercover in 2012 and a Royal Television Society Journalism Award for her documentary on tracking down refugee kidnap gangs for Channel 4.
But it is Iran, the country of her birth, where her heart lies.
Her 2014 book City of Lies, which won her the Royal Society of Literature’s Jerwood Award for non-fiction, tells the stories of ordinary Iranians forced to live extraordinary lives: the porn star, the ageing socialite, the assassin and enemy of the state who ends up working for the Republic, the dutiful housewife who files for divorce, and the old-time thug running a gambling den.
Tehran, the City of Lies of the title, is described with romantic nostalgia but rails against the hypocrisy of the regime.
Navai feels there is “no turning back” from the current protests.
“This time feels very different. I think the protests are unlike anything we have ever seen. Significantly, they span all social classes, ethnicities and the protests have happened in every one of Iran’s provinces. The protests have been a unifying force, uniting Iranians of all colours against the regime. I don’t think the regime will fall imminently although I do think something has shifted and there is no going back from that. I think a very different future for Iran has now become a reality in a way that it wasn’t a year ago.”
She adds, “The most organised groups seem to be the Iranian feminist and women’s rights networks because they have been used to mobilising for such a long time. They are used to being arrested and imprisoned. They issue secret missives and are coordinating with some of the activists in prison.”
Navai and her mother Laya at a demonstration in London in support of the Iranian protests
Navai believes it is the moment for Iranian women and those of Generation Z in particular.
“The women’s groups were crushed in 2009 – they were a thorn in the side of the regime. What we are seeing now is a strengthening and a rising up,” she says. “In 2009, it was people my age who were and are very fearful of the regime. The younger generation – Generation Z – are absolutely fearless. My generation always felt like they had something to lose. The regime is brilliant at playing this game of giving people just enough freedom to shut them up. This younger generation have grown up in a very different world, a completely connected Iran in which they have been influenced by global popular culture. They know what is out there in the world. They know all the opportunities that should be open and available to them and they are angry and they are fearless.”
She believes a sexual awakening is also happening in Iran.
“We are talking about this being a women-led uprising, partly this is because this sexual awakening has changed the socio-cultural dynamics for Generation Z. In real terms, virginity is not the thing it used to be. So many couples are living together outside marriage that the Supreme Leader’s office issued an edict saying how immoral it is. These are ordinary Iranians, not just the middle and upper class. There has been this massive socio-cultural shift. Generation Z are used to different social norms and strictures and they are not going to be told what to do. They want full autonomy not only over their bodies but over their lives.”
In the intervening years, Iranian people have become even more resourceful than in previous protests.
“This is what 43 years of a repressive and censorious regime have done,” says Navai. “Most Iranians have VPNs [virtual private networks]. There are occasional blackouts – not all VPNs keep working so they have to change them. Iranian exiles are paying for that service, sending login details to Iranians within the country to help them mobilise. They have also been mobilising in quite interesting ways using social media but actually also old-fashioned meet-ups.”
“They are emboldening the protesters to rise up against the regime,” she says. “I also think these high-profile protests and the world’s media and social media are a really important tool for this uprising. It is the oxygen that is keeping these protests going. Without the world watching I think the regime would be far more brutal. It has already been very brutal. It hasn’t unleashed its might yet and I am scared that it will.”
In many revolutions, it is when the military switches sides, abandoning their loyalty to the leaders under pressure from the people that real change happens. Indeed, some experts have speculated that change will only come to Iran when that happens. However, there are good reasons to think that may not happen.
Iran’s regular armed forces number around 420,000 plus another 300,000 or so who are reservists who can be called up.
What is perhaps stopping them from switching their loyalty is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, set up by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
“You have 100,000 to 150,000 soldiers who are the Revolutionary Guard,” says Navai. “It was set up to ensure loyalty to the Supreme Leader and the state and act as a counter-balance to monitor the ordinary forces. These Revolutionary Guardsmen are better trained, far better equipped and are far more loyal – they are ideologically motivated and answer directly to the Supreme Leader. It will be a big turning point if the army turns, however I think that could also result in a bloodbath.”
There are also the Iranian regime’s allies beyond the country’s borders – the Shia militia in Iraq and Hezbollah.
What is clear from Navai’s City of Lies is the widespread hypocrisy of the Iranian regime. It tells stories of clerics using prostitutes and the ubiquity of porn.
“This is one of many reasons that Iranians have had enough,” says Navai. “The regime is not only corrupt politically, it is corrupt morally. While the state enforces laws that govern its citizens’ most intimate affairs meanwhile people in power do as they please. You have people in power whose children are partying in Iran and across the world, doing drugs, wearing whatever they want and having normal sexual relations that are not allowed under the regime. It is this hypocrisy that people are finally fed up with.”
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image="120168" img_size="full" add_caption="yes"][vc_column_text]As we all start to think about the forthcoming holidays and the end of the year it’s a good opportunity to reflect on what happened in 2022.
For regular readers you’ll know I have at various points over the last year despaired at the sheer volume of news. Too many crises, too many heartbreaking stories, too many people and families destroyed by the actions of tyrants.
There has been so much news it is easy to forget the range of issues that have impacted human rights and freedom of expression around the world. So it would be remiss of me, in my last blog of the year, not to remind you of some the key events of 2022 (forgive me, there are many missing).
The year started with Abdalla Hamdok resigning as the Prime Minister of Sudan after three years of pro-democracy protests, where dozens were killed. A few days later, a week of government clampdown in Kazakhstan led to the deaths of over 220 people with over 9,000 people arrested.
In February we thought the biggest issue for Index would be the attempted sportswashing of the CCP as they hosted the Winter Olympics. Unfortunately that was not to be the most devastating act by a totalitarian regime in 2022. By the end of the month Putin’s government had launched an illegal invasion into Ukraine, causing the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the end of World War Two. Nearly 7,000 civilians have been killed during the war and over 13,000 Ukrainian troops and over 10,000 Russian troops have made the ultimate sacrifice. In response to the war, media freedoms and freedom of expression have been completely curtailed in both Russia and Belarus with thousands detained.
Events in Ukraine rightly continued to dominate the news agenda for the rest of the year. But this in turn provided cover for dictators and tyrants around the world to move against their people with limited global outcry.
March brought more extremism and death. In Afghanistan an IS suicide bomber killed 63 people at a mosque. April was dominated by events in Ukraine and the impact on food and fuel inflation leading to sporadic protests around the world.
In June a suspected IS attack on a church in Nigeria saw at least 40 people killed. In July anti-government protests in Sri Lanka led to the deaths of 10 protesters, with over 600 arrested.
In August our friend Sir Salman Rushdie was attacked by an extremist. We are incredibly grateful that he survived and remain in contact with him as his long recovery continues.
In September the United Nations published their report about the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang province - declaring that their treatment may constitute crimes against humanity. September also saw clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border resulting in nearly 300 deaths in a three-day period. This was followed within days by similar clashes on the Kyrgyzstan - Tajikistan border with dozens killed.
On 16 September Masha Amini was murdered by state forces in Iran for not having her hair covered appropriately. This horrendous act of state terror has led to country wide protests, at least 448 people have been killed in the protests and over 18,000 people have been arrested across 134 cities and towns in Iran. These demonstrations continue today as the Iranian government begins executing protestors. These events are truly some of the most egregious of 2022 and we stand with Amini and all those protesting in her name.
In October Xi Jinping was appointed for an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the CCP, consolidating his grip on power. And a couple of weeks later Elon Musk purchased Twitter for $44billion, we still don’t know what the final effect on global free speech will be…
At the end of October a terror attack in Mogadishu killed over 100 people.
November saw the start of one of the most determined efforts at sportswashing of an appalling human rights record with the beginning of the football World Cup in Qatar. Protests were banned and football players were forbidden from wearing LGBT+ symbols while playing.
And that gets me to December - in the last fortnight we have seen 1,700 people flee violence in South Sudan which has already killed 166 people. Chinese diplomats have left the UK after a protester was beaten by Chinese staff at a consulate in Manchester earlier this year. Twitter has banned journalists who have criticised Elon Musk and Jimmy Lai was sentenced to five years in jail in Hong Kong, as he awaits his trial for being a democracy campaigner.
And yet there is still a fortnight to go before we close the door on 2022 - I pray that it’s a quiet fortnight for those on the front line.
As we approach the end of 2022 my prayers will be with the people of Ukraine as they remain on the front line in the fight for freedom - especially as the temperature plummets. But the women of Iran won’t be too far from my thoughts too.
So to you and yours from the Index family, Happy Christmas, Chag Sameach and Happy Holidays and here’s to a better 2023![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title="You may also wish to read" category_id="41669"][/vc_column][/vc_row]
At the end of every year, Index on Censorship launches a campaign to focus attention on human rights defenders, dissidents, artists and journalists who have been in the news headlines because their freedom of expression has been suppressed during the past twelve months. As well as this we focus on the authoritarian leaders who have been silencing their opponents.
Last year, we asked for your help in identifying 2021's Tyrant of the Year and you responded in your thousands. The 2021 winner, way ahead of a crowded field, was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by China’s Xi Jinping and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad .
The polls are now open for the title of 2022 Tyrant of the Year and we are focusing on 12 leaders from around the globe who have done more during the past 12 months than other despots to win this dubious accolade.
Click on those in our rogues' gallery below to find out why the Index on Censorship team believe each one should be named Tyrant of the Year and then click on the form at the bottom of those pages to cast your vote. The closing date is Monday 9 January 2023.
VOTING HAS NOW CLOSED. SEE WHO YOU VOTED AS TYRANT OF THE YEAR 2022 HERE. OR READ MORE ABOUT THE SHORTLISTED CANDIDATES BELOW.
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