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For the last 22 years Index on Censorship has been proud to host the annual Freedom of Expression Awards. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the brave artists, journalists and campaigners from around the world who fight for freedom of expression in the most challenging of circumstances. There are some truly incredible nominees for the awards this year, who more than ever, are challenging the repressive regimes they live under to fight for the rights of ordinary people.
2023 has seen the continuation of Russia’s war on Ukraine with its horrific consequences for the people of Ukraine and the severe repression for those speaking out against the war in Russia. The CCP in China continues to repress journalists, particularly those who attempt to uncover the crimes against the Uyghur people, and activists and protesters for women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan face vicious attacks from the authorities.
The shortlisted candidates for the Arts award are Visual Rebellion, a platform for sharing the work of photographers, filmmakers, and artists documenting the protests in Myanmar; Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, who sings about injustice and the abuse of civil society by the authorities, for which he has been imprisoned; and Ukrainians, curator Maria Lanko and artist Pavlo Makov, who have worked to protect Ukrainian art in the face of Russian war crimes.
The shortlisted candidates for the Campaigning award are Matiullah Wesa from Afghanistan who has worked to ensure all children, but especially girls, have access to education and educational materials; Russian student Olesya Krivtsova who has publicly opposed Russia’s war on Ukraine and has fled the country to avoid up to 10 years’ imprisonment; the Xinjiang Victim’s Database, which records the incarceration and persecution of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province; and the Africa Human Rights Network which works to support and protect human rights defenders across the Great Lakes region of Africa.
And the shortlisted candidates for the Journalism award are Bilan Media, Somalia’s first women-only media organisation and newsroom; Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the Indian fact-checking platform Alt News which has led to threats after challenging misinformation; and Afghan Mortaza Behboudi, in exile in France, who continues to travel to Afghanistan every month to work with different media outlets to ensure the voices of Afghans are heard.
The Freedom of Expression Awards are a time to remind ourselves of the importance of freedom of expression and to commit ourselves to protecting our own freedom of expression. It is easily lost but hard fought for. We must not forget that.
Matiullah Wesa established Pen Path in 2009 to campaign for greater access to education for boys and girls in Afghanistan. In this role, Wesa visited 34 provinces of the country and almost all districts. Pen Path’s first step was to re-open closed schools, after The Taliban had previously shut them down in the remote villages of Afghanistan. Prior to The Taliban’s takeover, Pen Path acted as mediator between the government and the Taliban, while also encouraging local elders to collaborate with them to re-open those schools. It is estimated by Pen Path that their team, to date, has re-opened more than a hundred schools and established a number of new schools across the country.
To date, Pen Path has also provided stationery and children’s books to approximately 300,000 children. Pen Path also established 39 libraries in rural areas to provide access to books for the general public (especially women who could not go to school due to restrictions).
To further extend the reach of education across Afghanistan, Pen Path launched a programme of mobile classes delivered via a specially designed motorbike fitted with a computer screen and speakers, as well as a bookcase, teaching materials and a mobile library.
On 27 March 2023, Matiullah Wesa was arbitrarily arrested by the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), while returning from evening prayer. The day after his arrest, the GDI raided his house and confiscated his personal mobile and laptop. On 29 March, the Taliban spokesperson confirmed his arrest, accusing him of illegal activities. His family have not been allowed to visit him and there has been no avenue to challenge the legality of his detention.
Over the first year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Olesya organised partisan anti-war actions in her small town of Arkhangelsk. This included posting anti-war leaflets and posting anti-war messages on her blog and the chat rooms set up for students based at her university. Olesya took the risks to do this to “counter Russian propaganda and promote alternative information about the war in Ukraine among students and other residents of my city.”
As a result of these acts, Krivtsova was placed under house arrest in January, and banned from using the internet on the charges of discrediting the Russian army and justifying terrorism. It has been reported that her classmates reported her to the authorities after taking screenshots of her anti-war messages. She was also added to the country’s official list of terrorists and extremists. Due to the severity of the charges, she faced up to 10 years in prison. In March 2023, Olesya uploaded a video of her cutting off her monitoring tag and she fled Russia for Lithuania.
The Database aims to make Xinjiang and the mass-incarceration policies taking place there as transparent and accessible for the world at large as possible. This is done primarily by documenting the individual victims and their situations in as much detail as available data allow. In addition to this, they maintain a number of side databases, such as monitoring the facilities where victims are held, the villages/neighbourhoods they come from, the individuals in the government/police linked to their detentions, and the collection/translation of various primary-source materials, such as eyewitness accounts or government/police/court records.
The Database serves as a free-to-use tool for researchers, journalists, and advocates. Additionally, it provides several specific tools to the public: an ID search that allows 10,000s of internal and public documents held by the database to be searched for information about specific people, a name translator to convert Chinese pinyin versions to more appropriate Turkic versions (e.g. Memet instead of Maimaiti), and a translation bank that combines the Database’s 10 in-house dictionaries to assist with translation of Xinjiang-related texts.
The main goal of AHRN is to promote and protect the work of Human Rights Defenders, including activists, bloggers, journalists, feminists, environmental defenders and many others. This work includes advocating for and protecting HRD at risk. It does this through its protection programme and shelter city scheme, which started in 2017 with the launch of the Dar es Salaam Shelter City which is a regional temporary relocation program for at-risk HRDs operation in the African Great Lakes Region. In 2019, this scheme was expanded after the launch of the shelter city Benin to provide temporary relocation to at-risk human rights defenders from Central and west African countries especially those from Francophone countries. As well as direct support, AHRN also facilitates engagement between HRDs in Africa to share capacity building expertise, exchange experience and foster stronger relationships of support and solidarity.
The organisation also provides a platform to more than 175 grassroots civil society organisations that have proven capacity to implement human rights projects in Africa. As a result, AHRN has been able to establish a platform of local HRDs who have decided to organise themselves to improve their working environment and security. This networked approach has defined AHRN’s work. In 2021, they created the YADA Network (Young African Defenders in Action) following a workshop attended by young people from 18 African countries. While it is present in 18 countries, the AHRN’s goal is to extend the Network to 30 countries by the end of 2023. They also created Africanactivists.com, which is a specialised social media platform for HRDs to connect with others and share information in real time.
Launched on International Human Rights day on 1 December 2021 by a team led by Nadja Houben (Human Rights in the Picture foundation) and Laure Siegel (Mediapart), Visual Rebellion is a platform to showcase and support the edited work of journalists, filmmakers and artists across post-coup Myanmar. The activities of Visual Rebellion consist mainly of a free public information service on what is happening in Myanmar and in Thailand, continuing education for their members in English, Thai and Burmese language on a range of topics including cybersecurity, investigations, photojournalism, as well as coordinating the production of photo exhibitions, documentary screenings and book publications to finance their studies or visas.
Salehi is a well-known Iranian hip-hop artist who has released protest songs including Mousehole, Turkmenchay and Pomegranate. Many of his songs explicitly reference the human rights situation in Iran, as well as threats to civil society. This has led him to being targeted by the authorities, long before his recent detention.
Following the release of Mousehole, Toomaj was arrested in the middle of the night on 12 September 2021. He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the state," but after more than a week he was released on bail. In January 2022, he was sentenced to six months in prison but was released on a suspended sentence in February. He later appeared in front of the prison where he had been imprisoned as part of a music video for a song written in memory of the victims of Aban.
Due to Toomaj’s support of the the protests that erupted after the killing of Mahsa Amini while in custody, he was violently taken into custody on 30 October 2022. In November, Iran's judiciary charged Salehi with a number of crimes, including spreading "corruption on Earth," a charge that could see him sentenced to death, as well as charges that each carry 1-10 years of imprisonment: “propaganda against the state,” “formation and management of illegal groups with the aim of undermining national security,” “collaboration with hostile governments,” and “spreading lies and inciting violence through cyberspace and encouraging individuals to commit violent acts.” While in detention, state media published a video purporting to show Salehi blindfolded, with bruising on his face, apologising for his words. Family members and human rights organisations have accused the authorities of torturing Salehi in prison to force him to make a false confession.
In July 2023, Toomaj was sentenced to over 6 years in prison for “corruption on earth”, as well as being banned from leaving Iran for 2 years. He is also banned from preparing, singing and producing music for 2 years. It has also been reported that he has been acquitted of two other charges - “insulting the supreme leader” & “communicating with hostile governments”.
Maria Lanko (right) was a co-curator of Kyiv-based gallery, The Naked Room, who was selected to co-curate the Ukrainian national pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale. The piece selected to represent Ukraine was entitled ”Fountain of Exhaustion” by artist Pavlo Makov (left), which is a kinetic sculpture consisting of 78 bronze funnels, arranged in the form of a pyramid. The water poured into the top funnel divides into two streams, feeding the funnels below. “Only a few drops reach the bottom, symbolizing exhaustion on a personal and global level,” the curators said in a press release.
On the evening of 24 February 2022, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Lanko packed the installation into her car and she drove, heading for Venice. The journey took three weeks, after taking a week just to make it to the border between Ukraine and Romania. Due to Maria’s decision, the piece was able to be presented at the Biennale to enable Ukrainian art to be seen in this unique and important showcase of international art. The importance of this was highlighted by Lanko in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “When the sheer right to existence for our culture is being challenged by Russia, it is crucial to demonstrate our achievements to the world".
Sofia Chelyiak spoke to Index after a long day of work. As curator of the Lviv BookForum, which runs from 5-8 October, the last few weeks of preparation are a very busy time. The final touches to festival logistics and programming would alone occupy the thoughts of anybody, but Chelyiak lives in Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine. The war with Russia presents challenges for her own personal safety and are a constant consideration.
“In general it’s fine, but we’re a few kilometres from the battlefields, and Russian missiles can reach most places in Ukraine,” she told Index.
“A few months ago, some missiles fell close to the city centre. Some days it can be more dangerous, others are fine.”
First held in 1994, the Lviv BookForum was originally a way to promote Ukrainian literature three years after the country gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it is the biggest literature event in Ukraine, with a mix of speakers including acclaimed Ukrainian writers and world-renowned literary figures. Since last year it has been in collaboration with Hay Festival. International Booker prize nominee Andrey Kurkov (who has written for Index since the early 90s) and US bestselling writer Jonathan Franzen will both speak this year.
Apart from a handful of online speakers, the event will be in-person (though can be live-streamed) after being fully online in 2022. With the conflict ever-present in the background, how does Chelyiak deal with the challenges?
“We must think of things like “do we have enough generators if we lose electricity,” or “if we’re being shelled, will we have internet access?” We’ll actually hand out maps of bomb shelters if people need a safe place,” she said.
“People are scared to come, but we want writers, journalists and artists to visit. Life here is interesting to say the least. We want people to see what we’re going through, it’s a miracle country.”
As per its origins as a way to promote Ukraine culture and literature, Chelyiak says this year there will be "a fascinating event entitled Freedom of Thoughts Vs Indoctrination, where the discussion will focus on Russia’s attempt to destroy our identity and voice en-masse, and how they will try and do that.”
Other events will also focus on the role Ukraine can have in helping people re-read Russian literature through a lens that takes the current conflict into account, and Ukraine’s role as a post-colonial ruled country at war.
One difference to the festival this year will be the absence of Victoria Amelina, about whom John Sweeney, a speaker at this year’s forum, wrote here for Index. A long-time supporter and attendee of the Forum, Amelina was a writer and poet who became a war crimes researcher during the conflict. She was wounded in a Russian missile attack in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine on 27 June and died of her injuries four days later, aged 37. She was working with Truth Hounds, an organisation that documents violations of international humanitarian law, when she died.
"We aim to commemorate her throughout the event as she was known for fighting for justice for Ukrainian women,” Chelyiak said.
"We won’t read her poems, but we decided to spotlight women Victoria was close to, to highlight her work. She will be missed.”
Information and links to the events at the 2023 Lviv BookForum can be found here.