In awe of those fighting Russian tyranny

One year ago we all watched in horror as Putin’s Russia initiated an all out invasion of Ukraine. The people of Ukraine did nothing to initiate this war, they did not choose violence, but every family is now paying the price for this Putin’s aggression. Ukrainian families are divided, spread throughout Europe. People are traumatised, they have lost loved ones and too many live under perpetual fear of the next Russian onslaught.

The UN believes that over 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed in the last year, with thousands more hurt as the Russians bombard urban areas. And as they defend themselves against Russian aggression every person able to fight has joined the military – everyone is on the frontline.

I make no apologies for standing with the people of Ukraine, for supporting Nato’s efforts to support the Ukrainian military as they seek to defend their people and their homes. As US president Joe Biden made clear this week this war is now the frontline in the battle of autocrats versus democrats. And I, like you, am a democrat.

Twelve months on there are so many stories, of death, of heartbreak but also of inspirational acts from people who never expected to be on the frontline. As ever it is their stories which we should tell, it’s their pain we should mark and their losses which we share. It is their stories which should feature this week and every week – until Ukraine is free.

In the midst of war, however, it is easy to forget the dissidents, the people who are adamant that Putin doesn’t act in their name, the people whose actions will hopefully one day lead to peace. In the heat of war, whilst living under an authoritarian regime, it requires a significant level of bravery to speak out – to challenge your government, to oppose military action.  Today’s stats tally 19,586 people who have been arrested across the Russian Federation for protesting the war.

Index was founded to provide a platform for Soviet dissidents over 50 years ago at the height of the Cold War. Our raison d’etre is to provide a voice for the persecuted, a place where the brave and the disillusioned can tell their stories, to help dissidents who live in authoritarian regimes. The last year has taken my team and I full circle, reminding us of our roots and ensuring that we keep striving to promote and protect the right of freedom of expression in totalitarian regimes.

Today we remember those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice to defend their country, the civilians who have been caught in the crossfire and those brave dissidents who in the direst of circumstances keep trying to speak truth to power.

Slava Ukraini

Boris Johnson’s Partygate is a distraction from the important issues

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks down at the podium during a media briefing in Downing Street. Photo: Justin Tallis/PA Wire/PA Images

It should surprise no-one that I am a political geek. I love politics. I love the cut and thrust of debate. I love the moments of high drama and the intrigue. Most of all I love the fact that genuine good can be done. That people’s lives can be made just a little easier by the power of our collective democracy.

So you’d assume that I would have relished the events of the UK Parliament this week. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being completely obsessed with the minutiae of the debate around Partygate and the drama of the precarious position of the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP as he seeks to survive the biggest political crisis of his premiership.

But I’m also angry. The British Government has been distracted for weeks, caught in a political crisis of their own making about whether or not the Prime Minister knowingly broke his own Covid-19 regulations. While the political establishment awaits a report from a senior civil servant to clarify what was, or wasn’t, happening behind the doors of Number 10, important issues are being sidelined or ignored and people are suffering.

This week the British Parliament held vital debates on the genocide of the Uighurs and the use of the British legal system to silence activists and journalists. Both debates passed broadly without comment or wider notice.

The Russian Federation is threatening the sovereign status of a democratic ally, Ukraine, on an hourly basis.

Biden has marked his first year in office.

52,581 people have died of Covid.

Protestors in Kazakhstan are being threatened with death if they continue to protest against the government, with 10,000 already arrested and 225 killed by the authorities.

23 million people in Afghanistan are experiencing extreme hunger as the Taliban starts attacking women activists.

These are some of the heartbreaking and terrifying realities which are happening around the world. These are the issues that should have dominated our news agenda this week, along with a cost of living crisis, a plan to deliver net zero and attacks on free expression around the world.

Index will continue to fight for these issues to be heard. For the voices of the persecuted to be recognised. While some of our leaders focus on domestic intrigue we’ll keep fighting for those that don’t have a voice.

Biden’s first week in office and what it means for free speech


Biden signs EO/White House/WikiCommons

Biden signs EO/White House/WikiCommons

President Joe Biden has signed a number of executive orders in the early days of his presidency that will impact upon free speech.

How the 46th president of the United States of America will be remembered in terms of protecting free speech will become apparent in the coming years. But, after four years of President Trump’s attacks on the media and introducing legislation that restricted a range of freedoms, the early days of the Biden’s administration have come as a welcome relief.

Of the more than two dozen orders signed, at least six will have ramifications for Americans in terms of their freedom of expression.

Index takes a look at how each will do just that.

Preventing and combating discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation

Perhaps the most notable executive order signed in the last week is the order to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Discriminatory bans on LGBT+ people can often stop them from speaking out.

The order says: “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.  Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted, or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes.”

The order will end the ban on transgender students competing in sports teams for their identified gender.

Commenting on the order, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said: “The ACLU urges the Biden administration to not only roll back Trump administration policies discriminating against transgender and non-binary people, but take action to more fully recognize transgender and non-binary people. The ACLU’s priority for the Biden administration is an executive order related to accurate ID documents.”

Rescinds the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, directs agencies to review their actions to ensure racial equity

Trump planned so-called ‘patriotic education’ in America’s schools, which raised alarm over First Amendment issues concerning forcing schools to teach children in a certain way.

The 1776 commission, set up in September 2020 and signed by executive order in November, essentially explored which parts of American should be taught and how they should be interpreted.

Announcing the commission Trump said: “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

Biden rescinded the commission – which was ridiculed by historians – on his first day in office in an executive order on advancing racial equity.

Inclusion of non-citizens in the Census and apportionment of congressional representatives

When President Trump signed an executive order to not include people in censuses based on their immigration status, some viewed this as an infringement of their 14th amendment rights.

This section of the American constitution grants citizenship to all “born or naturalised within the United States” and gives them “equal protection under the laws”.

To not recognise illegal immigrants via a census may imply such people are no longer afforded such protections, key to ensuring their right to liberty and free speech. Biden’s order reverses this.

Fortifies DACA after Trump’s efforts to undo protections for undocumented people brought into the country as children

A new order reinstates the policy known as DACA or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which had been implemented during the Obama presidency.

DACA ensures those undocumented immigrants who arrived in the USA under the age of 16 could apply for a permit allowing them to work legally in the country, providing they have a high school diploma and (next to) no criminal record.

Trump rescinded the policy and subsequently his Department of Justice claimed information given by those applying for the permits could later be used against them to deport them, despite the act of declaring information on the form being part of a process of establishing their legal entitlements. This was a clear violation of the protection of their free speech.

Reverses the Trump administration’s restrictions on US entry for passport holders from seven Muslim-majority countries

The First Amendment protects the sharing of information and speech. Trump’s ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries was an obvious barrier to this.

The policy also raised questions over the respect of religious freedom and reached the Supreme Court in 2018, where it was upheld.

Dissenting voices at the time were expressed by Justice Sonia Sotomayer who – joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg – said: “The United States of America is a Nation built upon the promise of religious liberty. Our founders honoured that core promise by embedding the principle of religious neutrality in the First Amendment. The Court’s decision today fails to safeguard that fundamental principle.”

When Biden reversed the policy on 20 January, the White House released a statement saying: “The United States was built on a foundation of religious freedom and tolerance, a principle enshrined in the United States Constitution.”

Biden overturns ban on transgender troops

One of the most controversial policies brought in under the administration of President Donald Trump was the ban on transgender members of the military.

Transitioning troops were previously required to be stable in their gender for a minimum of 18 months before being allowed to serve. Biden’s latest executive order eliminates this.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”5641″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The Biden presidency: what can we expect for free speech?


Biden and Obama/The White House/WikiCommons

Biden and Obama/The White House/WikiCommons

On top of being the only US president impeached twice, Donald Trump leaves a legacy of attacks on the very foundations of free speech and specifically on journalists and the media.

President-elect Joe Biden has offered people hope of returning to normal politics, rather than another term of a president with a severe distaste for free speech. But are notions of a saviour cometh and confirmed on Inauguration Day on 20 January misguided?

Biden has an extensive record in politics from which he can be judged, as well as eight years in high office as vice president under Barack Obama that could give an indication of how he plans to proceed. But the picture that emerges is not one that identifies Biden clearly as a champion of free spech or otherwise.

Going back to the start of Biden’s career as a senator, the signals were already mixed on issues of free speech. In 1989, Index reported on then Senate Judiciary Committee chair Biden introducing a bill to make it illegal to desecrate a flag. Nan Levinson reported at the time: “Biden’s bill and a similar one introduced in the House are intended to sidestep free speech issues by outlawing actions without mentioning motivation, the part of flag desecration that the Court determined is protected by the First Amendment.” But in his favour, some 13 years later Biden helped propose the creation of a “Radio Free Afghanistan”

In more recent years, there is the way in which the Obama Administration handled whistleblowers. Biden can set an early example with the case of Julian Assange by pardoning him. The question is, will he?

Such an action may have been considered by the Obama administration, but was not pursued. The whistleblower involved in the case, Chelsea Manning, eventually had her sentence commuted by Obama in January 2017.

Assange faces charges under the US Espionage Act, a first for a journalist or publisher. The onus is therefore on Biden to ensure there is no legal precedent stopping a journalist from publishing sensitive information again. Pardoning the WikiLeaks founder would go some way to achieving this.

Rumours of an immediate pardon once Biden takes office have arisen and many believe the election of Biden to be a positive thing for Assange. His lawyer Edward Fitzgerald went as far as telling Associated Press “Much of what we say about the fate which awaits Mr. Assange remains good because it’s about systemic faults in the prisons and his underlying conditions,” he said.

But as yet there has not been any indication either Trump or the president-elect will move to do this and any speculation has shaky foundations. There is a contradiction in that – though Obama may have commuted Manning’s sentence – in 2010, Biden described Assange’s work with former US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning as “closer to a high-tech terrorist than to the [actions of revealing the] Pentagon Papers.”

“The Obama administration went after other whistleblowers whose cases remain active. Edward Snowden for example. These track records and trends started before President Trump,” said Rebecca Vincent from RSF in an earlier interview with Index.

In fact, eight of the 13 people charged under the Espionage Act since its inception in 1917 were during the eight years of the Obama presidency.

Jeffrey Sterling was convicted and sentenced to three and a half years in prison in 2015 for violations of the Espionage Act. Through correspondence with US journalist James Risen, Sterling brought to light covert plans to frame Iran by providing a flawed design for a component of a nuclear weapon, also known as Operation Merlin.

In an interview with Index, Sterling spoke of the importance of whistleblowers and said: “A vital part of free speech is the ability of citizens to hold those in power accountable by speaking out about wrongdoing and misuse of power.

“Whistleblowers are essential to free speech because their courage exposes what the unfettered power of government would prefer not to be known.

“Without whistleblowers, the wrongdoing and abuses of government will remain hidden to the detriment of the people. Without whistleblowers, free speech can be rendered ineffectual and of no concern to those in power.”

In short, misuse of the Espionage Act stops those working for US intelligence agencies and government offices from speaking out against wrongdoing.

“Targeting whistleblowers with the severe penalties and implications of being prosecuted under the Espionage Act has a chilling effect on anyone who might choose to exercise their free speech by being critical of or exposing the wrongful acts and abuses of government,” Sterling noted. “In my opinion, the Obama presidency did all it could to characterise whistleblowers as anti-patriotic and criminals and offered absolutely no protection.”

“When those who are the subject of a whistleblower’s complaint control the dialogue, there are no whistleblowers, just leakers. The Obama administration set the tone by essentially eliminating the very idea of a whistleblower and instead characterised them as leakers, or criminals.”

The contrast between Obama and Trump’s outward attitudes towards the press, however, is significant. While Trump chose to claim most of the criticism against him as “fake news”, Obama often spoke of the importance of journalism, a free media and free speech, such as after the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

At the same time though the 44th president came under repeated fire for his actions towards media freedom and freedom of information in particular. Access to public information during his presidency was limited. The USA’s Freedom of Information Act allows US citizens, like many across the world, to question local and federal authorities. The Obama administration apparently spent a record $36.2 million in legal costs in the final year alone to preserve its right to turn over redacted information.

A lack of transparency and targeting of those revealing information in the public interest does not cast a positive light on Obama’s then right-hand man.

It is perhaps unfair to negatively predict the future of the Biden presidency and its role of free speech solely on the president he served under as second in command. The role of vice president offers no true indication of support of a particular policy; many doubt the power the role has. John Adams once described the role as “the most insignificant Office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”. It could reasonably be said that whether or not Biden was supportive of Obama’s free speech policy, there would have been little he could have done about it either way.

Yet it is no secret that Obama is a man Biden greatly admires and – while the former Delaware senator did not exercise as much power as some vice presidents – the relationship between the two was famously good. Perhaps a certain level of emulation can be expected.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has put forward a white paper to set out how Biden can go about restoring freedom of speech in the USA. Among their suggestions were calls to “set an example for the world” by ensuring the independence of US government-funded media, appointing a special presidential envoy for press freedom and ensuring previous administrations’ attacks on publishers and whistleblowers were not repeated.

“President Biden should commit to an open and transparent administration that supports Freedom of Information requests, back Justice Department guidelines that protect confidential sources, and pledges never to use the Espionage Act to prosecute journalists or whistleblowers,” they said. “These long-standing concerns of CPJ and the press freedom community were also raised during the Obama administration. “

They said: “President Biden has the opportunity to restore American influence in a critical area.”

“However, this can only be achieved if defence of press freedom is a matter of principle, and not expediency. America must confront its adversaries, but also challenge its friends.”

Adopting such policies would go a long way to allay fears of a Biden presidency that departs from recent ones.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”579″][/vc_column][/vc_row]