Afghan journalist speaks out on the UK’s “shameful silence”

A rallying shout for people to write to their MPs and raise awareness of the plight of women and journalists in Afghanistan, and to pressure the government to improve the current conditions of Afghan refugees in the UK, were part of a panel discussion held by Index on Censorship last Thursday.

A Night For Afghanistan was hosted by Index’s Editor-at-large Martin Bright at Somerville College, University of Oxford. Alongside him were Zahra Joya, an exiled Afghan journalist and founder of Rukhshana Media, and Zehra Zaidi, a lawyer and advocate for Action for Afghanistan.

Joya spoke passionately about the plight of Afghan journalists that remain in her homeland. She said: “Their situation is just terrible. There is no independent journalism left after the Taliban takeover, and journalists that do remain face imprisonment and torture.” Referencing her colleagues left in Afghanistan, including those at Rukshana Media who focus on women’s issues in the country, she added: “I see a very big desire and trust from my colleagues in telling the story of marginalised women both from and in my country.”

Discussing the conditions of Afghan refugees in the UK, Zaidi raised the point of those held in hotels with the audience. She said: “All of them, which is about 11,000 people, have been given three months eviction notices. Without alternative accommodation, they are homeless.

“This isn’t just about the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is now about us, our values. Do we still care about human rights and democracy? We must put pressure on the government to support the process of people coming out of the hotels.”

Joya urged people to raise their voices with politicians; to keep the conversation alive and put pressure on the Taliban from outside the country. Speaking of a “shameful silence” about the Taliban’s actions in her country, she asked the audience to imagine such a scenario closer to home. “It is simply a gender apartheid. Imagine one day half of London being told “Sorry, you have to stay at home from now on””, she said. Joya also told a disturbing story about the father of a friend in Afghanistan who sold his kidney to raise funds for his daughter to escape the regime.

Discussing the role of Index, Bright talked about the UK’s government recent scheme to relocate women and journalists from Afghanistan to the UK, suggesting only a very small handful of people were successful in doing so. He added: “We won’t give up on putting pressure on the British government to fulfil the promises made to the Afghan people, but it makes sense for us to work with other countries’ schemes in helping to get people out.” Zaidi was more forthright to the audience in her views of the British government aims regarding Afghanistan:

“They want to forget. It was a failure for them. The UK got beat, and simply took all of the soldiers and systems with them, and fled”, she said.

“They hope we will simply just go away, but we’re not going anywhere.”

‘Thank Gary Lineker for being a true advocate for refugees’

Index is in contact with a number of Afghan journalists forced to flee their country after the Taliban takeover. In danger because they exercised their freedom of speech through their work, they are now all refugees. Below is a message we received from one of them, Afghan sports journalist Saeedullah Safi, following the recent Gary Lineker row:

As a sports journalist from Afghanistan, I have been following Gary Lineker’s work with great admiration, and I am writing this message to publicly express my gratitude for his efforts to support refugees.

Gary Lineker’s dedication towards providing facilities and support for refugees is truly commendable. His passion for advocating for their rights is an inspiration to all of us who share the same goal of creating a better world for everyone.

I personally know how difficult migration can be, as I have been stuck in Pakistan for a year after leaving Afghanistan to pursue my dreams in the hope to reach a final destination. Lineker’s work gives me hope that more people like him will continue to work toward creating a better future for refugees.

On a personal note, I am also a fan of Manchester United and I hope to one day cover them closely. On and off the field Lineker has made a tremendous impact on the world, and I am honoured to have the opportunity to publicly thank him.

Once again thank Gary Lineker for his incredible contributions and for being a true advocate for refugees.

Index raises concerns over exclusion of journalists from UK Home Secretary’s Rwanda visit

Index has filed a Council of Europe alert raising concerns about the decision to exclude certain journalists from accompanying UK Home Secretary Priti Patel on an official visit to Rwanda where she announced a proposed new arrangement for sending British migrants to the central African country to have their asylum claims decided.

Journalists from The Guardian, Financial Times and The Mirror were among those excluded by the Home Office on the mid-April press trip, restricting their ability to scrutinise a significant development in British foreign policy.

Among those excluded was Rajeev Syal, the Guardian’s home affairs editor, who had previously reported extensively on bullying allegations against Patel. Other home affairs specialists did accompany Patel on the trip. The Guardian said: “We are concerned that Home Office officials are deliberately excluding specific journalists from key briefings and engagements.”

The Financial Times told Press Gazette: “On this occasion our journalists were excluded from the press trip and received minimal briefing. It is clearly not good practice to exclude some media from government meetings simply because they are willing to ask difficult questions.”

Index understands it is not the first time journalists have been blacklisted by the Home Office in this way. Only a select group of reporters was invited on a trip Priti Patel made in November 2021 to Washington DC to discuss terrorism and the global migration crisis with Alejandro Mayorkas, US secretary of homeland security.

The government’s controversial scheme will see migrants who arrive in small boats after crossing the English Channel flown 4,000 miles to Rwanda to have their claims processed; in her speech in Rwanda, Patel said 28,000 migrants crossed the Channel this way in 2021.

Migrants will be encouraged to relocate to the African country. Patel said, “Those who are resettled will be given support, including up to five years of training to help with integration, accommodation, and healthcare, so that they can resettle and thrive.”

Opponents of the scheme have questioned Rwanda’s record on human rights and free expression. Journalists working in Rwanda operate under a strict accreditation system and criticism of President Paul Kagame is off limits.

In March, Human Rights Watch said Rwanda did not match up to international standards of free speech and warned of a wave of arrests of Rwandan journalists and commentators:  “Judicial authorities in Rwanda, lacking the independence to stand up and protect free speech in accordance with international law, have unjustly convicted and jailed people based on their protected speech and opinions,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The first legal challenge to the Rwanda scheme was launched last week on behalf of an Iranian asylum seeker. Lawyers argue the proposals breach international law, the UN refugee convention and British data protection legislation.

In her speech in Rwanda, Patel said, “This agreement fully complies with all international and national law, and as part of this ground-breaking agreement, the UK is making a substantial investment in the economic development of Rwanda.”

The Home Office has denied targeting certain journalists and says it adheres the UK’s Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance in dealing with the media.

The Council of Europe was founded after World War II to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of rule across the continent. It is committed to upholding the European Convention on Human Rights.

The British government will be asked to provide a formal response to the alert, although it has a poor record in this regard, responding to just 10 per cent of the alerts filed in 2021.

Turkish-Armenian academic faces deportation from Greece over controversial views

Sevan Nişanyan at home in Samos

A prominent Turkish-Armenian academic faces deportation from Greece after being labelled an “undesirable foreigner” in what he sees as punishment for creating a database of Greek placenames and how they have changed through history.

Sevan Nişanyan, born in Istanbul in 1956, is a linguist and compiler of the hugely comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Turkish Language.

In 2012, he wrote a blog post about free speech arguing for the right to criticise the Prophet Mohammed which incensed then prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Speaking to Index in an interview at the time, Nisanyan said: “I received a call from [Erdogan’s] office inquiring whether I stood by my, erm, ‘bold views’ and letting me know that there was much commotion ‘up here’ about the essay. The director of religious affairs, the top Islamic official of the land, emerged from a meeting with Erdogan to denounce me as a ‘madman’ and ‘mentally deranged’ for insulting ‘our dearly beloved prophet’”.

The following year he was sentenced to 13 months in jail for his “insults”.

While in prison, he was further charged with violations of building regulations in relation to the village of Şirince in Turkey’s Izmir Province and particularly the mathematical research institute established there in 2007 by Ali Nesin and in which Nasanyan was heavily involved.

Nişanyan was charged with 11 violations of the code leading to a total prison term of more than 16 years.

At the time, he and others were convinced that this was a political case, because jail time for building code infringements is almost unheard of in Turkey and he was merely being punished for his earlier views and blog post.

In 2017, Nişanyan escaped from the Turkish low security prison where he was being held and travelled by boat to Greece, where he claimed asylum and was granted a temporary residence permit.

He has since been living on the island of Samos and married a Greek citizen in 2019. While there he successfully applied for an Armenian passport and dropped his asylum application.

Everything changed on 30 December 2021 when he was denounced by the Greek police as a national security threat. His supporters say his name was added to what is known as the EKANA list of undesirable foreigners, administered by Greece’s Ministry of Public Order. At a recent press conference, Nişanyan claimed the reasons for the inclusion of his name on the list is considered a state secret.

The fast-growing use of the EKANA list has been called a “particularly worrying development” by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs.

“The Ekana list has become a favoured tool of the Greek police, primarily used against refugees who are denied asylum,” says Nişanyan.

Nişanyan says he has no concrete idea why his own name is on the list but he can speculate.

“There have been all sorts of accusations of me working against Greek national ideas,” he says.

He suspects it may be related to his creation of the Index Anatolicus, “a website looking at the toponomy of placenames, the authoritative source on the name changes to 53,000 Turkish places”.

“I recently decided to expand into Greece, North Macedonia, and Armenia,” he says.

He recognises it is a sensitive issue. In 1923, Greece and Turkey agreed to a population exchange after the fall of the Ottoman Empire which saw 1.3 million people made refugees.

“A hundred years ago, none of the towns and hamlets in northern Greece had Greek names. I have been accused by lots of insignificant people that this was a grave betrayal of the Greek motherland. That is absurd.”

On 7 January, the court ordered Nişanyan’s release saying he presented no risk of fleeing but gave him 15 days to leave the country voluntarily. He appealed against the ruling but this was thrown out on Thursday 13 January, meaning he must now leave by 22 January or face forced deportation. His request to be removed from the EKANA list has also been turned down. Nişanyan has appealed both decisions with the Administrative Court of the First Instance in Syros.

Nişanyan claims he is not a threat and that deportation would be particularly harsh on his wife, who is seriously ill.

He believes he has also become persona non grata as a result of a less welcoming attitude towards foreigners in the eastern Aegean in recent years.

“There has been enormous panic and paranoia over the refugees. Three years ago, people in Samos were divided on the refugee issue. Now you can be literally lynched if you say anything positive about refugees. It is a huge emotional mobilisation against all refugees and not surprisingly, part of that hostility has been directed towards Westerners and the NGOs who have ‘invaded’ the islands over the past few years.”

Where can Nişanyan go?

“I am tired and getting old. My wife’s health is a huge disaster. My normal instinct would be to stay and fight as I have been a fighter all my life. Now I am a weary,” he says.

“My three grown children are in Turkey and I have property there. However, I cannot go back unless there is some sort of presidential pardon.”

“The reasonable thing would be to go to Armenia, sit out the storm and come back some time,” but says that his chances of getting back to Greece appear slim.

It is also unclear whether his wife will be well enough to accompany him.

Nişanyan hopes the government comes to it sense and reconsiders an “utterly stupid decision which was obviously taken at the instigation of a paranoid and ignorant police force”.

He says, “I don’t think ever in the history of this country has a person who has not committed any crime whatsoever been deported to Armenia, historically one of Greece’s closest friends. It doesn’t make any political sense.”

Nişanyan has also gained support from the Anglo-Turkish writer and Balkans expert Alev Scott.

Scott told Index, “It is ironic that Sevan is hated in Turkey as an Armenian and in Greece as a Turk – and in both countries, as an outspoken intellectual who challenges conservative beliefs and nationalist sensibilities.

“He fled from a Turkish prison to a Greek island and embraced it as his new home; sadly, in recent years the Greek islands have become more and more hostile to foreigners as the refugee crisis worsens, and Sevan is a victim of this development.

“He is a big local presence on Samos, and receives a steady stream of visitors from Turkey and elsewhere – clearly, this has not gone down with locals, or with police,” she said.

“Sevan’s scholarly work on the etymological roots of place names raised hackles in Turkey and his proposal of a similar project on Greek place names has had a similar effect. Anything that challenges the existing nationalist narrative in both countries is, of course, highly controversial. It is beyond absurd that this academic – outspoken though he may be – presents a national security threat to Greece.”

Nişanyan also claims support for his case at the highest levels in the country – “former prime ministers, people high up in the judiciary system and journalists”.

“They seem shocked,” he says. “They cannot imagine something like this happening in a presumably democratic country.