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Each year, the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards gala honours courageous champions who fight for free speech around the world.
Drawn from more than 400 crowdsourced nominations, this year’s nominees include artists, journalists, campaigners and digital activists tackling censorship and fighting for freedom of expression. Many of the 16 shortlisted are regularly targeted by authorities or by criminal and extremist groups for their work: some face regular death threats, others criminal prosecution.
The gala takes place Wednesday 19 April at the Unicorn Theatre in London and will be hosted by comedian, actor and writer Katy Brand. If you aren’t lucky enough to be attending, you can catch the night’s events by tuning into coverage and a live Periscope stream @IndexCensorship beginning at 7:30PM BST.
We will be live tweeting throughout the evening on @IndexCensorship. Get involved in the conversation using the hashtag #IndexAwards2017.
Luaty Beirão, Angola
Rapper Luaty Beirão, also known as Ikonoklasta, has been instrumental in showing the world the hidden face of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos’s rule. For his activism Beirão has been beaten up, had drugs planted on him and, in June 2015, was arrested alongside 14 other people planning to attend a meeting to discuss a book on non-violent resistance. Since being released in 2016, Beirão has been undeterred attempting to stage concerts that the authorities have refused to license and publishing a book about his captivity entitled “I Was Freer Then”, claiming “I would rather be in jail than in a state of fake freedom where I have to self-censor”.
Rebel Pepper, China
Wang Liming, better known under the pseudonym Rebel Pepper, is one of China’s most notorious political cartoonists. For satirising Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and lampooning the ruling Communist Party, Rebel Pepper has been repeatedly persecuted. In 2014, he was forced to remain in Japan, where he was on holiday, after serious threats against him were posted on government-sanctioned forums. The Chinese state has since disconnected him from his fan base by repeatedly deleting his social media accounts, he alleges his conversations with friends and family are under state surveillance, and self-imposed exile has made him isolated, bringing significant financial struggles. Nonetheless, Rebel Pepper keeps drawing, ferociously criticising the Chinese regime.
Fahmi Reza, Malaysia
On 30 January 2016, Malaysian graphic designer Fahmi Reza posted an image online of Prime Minister Najib Razak in evil clown make-up. From T-shirts to protest placards, and graffiti on streets to a sizeable public sticker campaign, the image and its accompanying anti-sedition law slogan #KitaSemuaPenghasut (“we are all seditious”) rapidly evolved into a powerful symbol of resistance against a government seen as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian. Despite the authorities’ attempts to silence Reza, who was banned from travel and has since been detained and charged on two separate counts under Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act, he has refused to back down.
Two-tailed Dog Party, Hungary
A group of satirists and pranksters who parody political discourse in Hungary with artistic stunts and creative campaigns, the Two-tailed Dog Party have become a vital alternative voice following the rise of the national conservative government led by Viktor Orban. When Orban introduced a national consultation on immigration and terrorism in 2015, and plastered cities with anti-immigrant billboards, the party launched their own mock questionnaires and a popular satirical billboard campaign denouncing the government’s fear-mongering tactics. Relentlessly attempting to reinvigorate public debate and draw attention to under-covered or taboo topics, the party’s efforts include recently painting broken pavement to draw attention to a lack of public funding.
Established in 2003, LGBT organisation Arcoiris, meaning ‘rainbow’, works on all levels of Honduran society to advance LGBT rights. Honduras has seen an explosion in levels of homophobic violence since a military coup in 2009. Working against this tide, Arcoiris provide support to LGBT victims of violence, run awareness initiatives, promote HIV prevention programmes and directly lobby the Honduran government and police force. From public marches to alternative awards ceremonies, their tactics are diverse and often inventive. Between June 2015 and March 2016, six members of Arcoiris were killed for this work. Many others have faced intimidation, harassment and physical attacks. Some have had to leave the country because of threats they were receiving.
Breaking the Silence, Israel
Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organisation consisting of ex-Israeli military conscripts, aims to collect and share testimonies about the realities of military operations in the Occupied Territories. Since 2004, the group has collected over 1,000 (mainly anonymous) statements from Israelis who have served their military duty in the West Bank and Gaza. For publishing these frank accounts the organisation has repeatedly come under fire from the Israeli government. In 2016 the pressure on the organisation became particularly pointed and personal, with state-sponsored legal challenges, denunciations from the Israeli cabinet, physical attacks on staff members and damages to property. Led by Israeli politicians including the prime minister, and defence minister, there have been persistent attempts to force the organisation to identify a soldier whose anonymous testimony was part of a publication raising suspicions of war crimes in Gaza. Losing the case would set a precedent that would make it almost impossible for Breaking the Silence to operate in the future. The government has also recently enacted a law that would bar the organisation’s widely acclaimed high school education programme.
Ildar Dadin, Russia
A Russian opposition and LGBT rights activist, Ildar Dadin was the first, and remains the only, person to be convicted under a notorious 2014 public assembly law. Aimed at punishing anyone who breaks strict rules on protest, the law was enacted to silence dissent after a wave of demonstrations following Putin’s last election victory. Dadin’s crime was to stage a series of one-man pickets, often standing silently with a billboard, attempting to duck the cynical law and push for free expression. For his solo enterprise, Dadin was arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment in December 2015. In November 2016, website Meduza published a letter smuggled from Dadin to his wife, exposing torture he claimed he was suffering alongside fellow prisoners. The letter, a brave move for a serving prisoner, was widely reported. A government investigation was prompted, and Dadin was transferred – against his will – to an undisclosed new location. A wave of public protest led to Dadin’s new location in a Siberian prison colony being revealed in January 2017. In February 2017, Russia’s constitutional and Supreme Courts suddenly quashed Dadin’s conviction, ruling he should be released and afforded opportunity for rehabilitation.
Maati Monjib, Morocco
A well-known academic who teaches African studies and political history at the University of Rabat since returning from exile, Maati Monjib co-founded Freedom Now, a coalition of Moroccan human rights defenders who seek to promote the rights of Moroccan activists and journalists in a country ranked 131 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. His work campaigning for press freedom – including teaching investigative journalism workshops and using of a smartphone app called Story Maker designed to support citizen journalism – has made him a target for the authorities who insist that this work is the exclusive domain of state police. For his persistent efforts, Monjib is currently on trial for “undermining state security” and “receiving foreign funds.”
Despite growing public knowledge of global digital surveillance capabilities and practices, it has often proved hard to attract mainstream public interest in the issue. This continues to be the case in Iran where even with widespread VPN usage, there is little real awareness of digital security threats. With public sexual health awareness equally low, the three people behind Jensiat, an online graphic novel, saw an an opportunity to marry these challenges. Dealing with issues linked to sexuality and cyber security in a way that any Iranian can easily relate to, the webcomic also offers direct access to verified digital security resources. Launched in March 2016, Jensiat has had around 1.2 million unique readers and was rapidly censored by the Iranian government.
Bill Marczak, United States
A schoolboy resident of Bahrain and PhD candidate in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, Bill Marczak co-founded Bahrain Watch in 2013. Seeking to promote effective, accountable and transparent governance, Bahrain Watch works by launching investigations and running campaigns in direct response to social media posts coming from activists on the front line. In this context, Marczak’s personal research has proved highly effective, often identifying new surveillance technologies and targeting new types of information controls that governments are employing to exert control online, both in Bahrain and across the region. In 2016 Marczak investigated several government attempts to track dissidents and journalists, notably identifying a previously unknown weakness in iPhones that had global ramifications.
#ThisFlag and Evan Mawarire, Zimbabwe
In May 2016, Baptist pastor Evan Mawarire unwittingly began the most important protest movement in Zimbabwe’s recent history when he posted a video of himself draped in the Zimbabwean flag, expressing his frustration at the state of the nation. A subsequent series of YouTube videos and the hashtag Mawarire used, #ThisFlag, went viral, sparking protests and a boycott called by Mawarire, which he estimates was attended by over eight million people. A scale of public protest previously inconceivable, the impact was so strong that private possession of Zimbabwe’s national flag has since been banned. The pastor temporarily left the country following death threats and was arrested in early February as he returned to his homeland.
Turkey Blocks, Turkey
In a country marked by increasing authoritarianism, a strident crackdown on press and social media as well as numerous human rights violations, Turkish-British technologist Alp Toker brought together a small team to investigate internet restrictions. Using Raspberry Pi technology they built an open source tool able to reliably monitor and report both internet shut downs and power blackouts in real time. Using their tool, Turkey Blocks have since broken news of 14 mass-censorship incidents during several politically significant events in 2016. The tool has proved so successful that it has begun to be implemented elsewhere globally.
Behrouz Boochani, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea/Australia
Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani fled the city of Ilam in Iran in May 2013 after the police raided the Kurdish cultural heritage magazine he had co-founded, arresting 11 of his colleagues. He travelled to Australia by boat, intending to claim asylum, but less than a month after arriving he was forcibly relocated to a “refugee processing centre” in Papua New Guinea that had been newly opened. Imprisoned alongside nearly 1000 men who have been ordered to claim asylum in Papua New Guinea or return home, Boochani has been passionately documenting their life in detention ever since. Publicly advertised by the Australian Government as a refugee deterrent, life in the detention centre is harsh. For the first 2 years, Boochani wrote under a pseudonym. Until 2016 he circumvented a ban on mobile phones by trading personal items including his shoes with local residents. And while outside journalists are barred, Boochani has refused to be silent, writing numerous stories via Whatsapp and even shooting a feature film with his phone.
Daptar, Dagestan, Russia
In a Russian republic marked by a clash between the rule of law, the weight of traditions, and the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism, Daptar, a website run by journalists Zakir Magomedov and Svetlana Anokhina, writes about issues affecting women, which are little reported on by other local media. Meaning “diary”, Daptar seeks to promote debate and in 2016 they ran a landmark story about female genital mutilation in Dagestan, which broke the silence surrounding that practice and began a regional and national conversation about FGM. The small team of journalists, working alongside a volunteer lawyer and psychologist, also tries to provide help to the women they are in touch with.
Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) is a new independent investigative website which was founded by a team of young Serbian journalists intent on exposing organised crime and extortion in their country which is ranked as having widespread corruption by Transparency International. In their first year they have published several high-impact investigations, including forcing Serbia’s prime minister to admit that senior officials had been behind nocturnal demolitions in a Belgrade neighbourhood and revealing meetings between drug barons, the ministry of police and the minister of foreign affairs. KRIK have repeatedly come under attack online and offline for their work –threatened and allegedly under surveillance by state officials, defamed in the pages of local tabloids, and suffering abuse including numerous death threats on social media.
Maldives Independent, Maldives
Website Maldives Independent, which provides news in English, is one of the few remaining independent media outlets in a country that ranks 112 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. In August 2016 the Maldives passed a law criminalising defamation and empowering the state to impose heavy fines and shut down media outlets for “defamatory” content. In September, Maldives Independent’s office was violently attacked and later raided by the police, after the release of an Al Jazeera documentary exposing government corruption that contained interviews with editor Zaheena Rasheed, who had to flee for her safety. Despite the pressure, the outlet continues to hold the government to account.
Indonesian comedian Sakdiyah Ma’ruf, a nominee for the 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for arts, was born to conservative Muslim family in Java and went on to become one of very few female stand-up comedians in the country to appear on national TV.
British comedian Shazia Mirza, the host of this year’s awards, talks to her about tackling no-go subjects, trying to win family approval, and how the stand-up scene is growing for women in Indonesia.
SHAZIA: Have your parents come to watch you do stand-up?
SAKDIYAH: My parents came to one of my shows once. It was in 2012 in one of the biggest theatres in Jakarta. I invited them to the show because it was held in a “dignified” building. I wanted to help my parents, and especially my dad, see that I was doing a “dignified” job.
I was very nervous. It was a full house. But I didn’t care whether the audience liked me or not, as long as I could get at least silent approval from my dad.
Since the show, my dad has supported me in my career as a comedian – not fully perhaps – but from this moment on, he knew that stand-up was something I did and would continue to do – in addition to the other “real jobs” I have.
I remember my parents saying they were pretty nervous about how the audience would respond to me. Perhaps my dad thought he could accept what I was doing if I gained approval from at least half of the audience.
The truth is that it isn’t always easy to get out of the house to perform. In June 2015 I was invited to open for a good friend of mine who is one of the biggest stand-up comics in Indonesia. He called me in April for the gig and it took me almost a month just to craft the right sentence to ask for my dad’s permission to perform.
SHAZIA: Do you say exactly what you want to? Or do you think: “No I can’t say that, people might get upset”
SAKDIYAH: The truth is that I rarely say exactly what I want to. I mean, can you imagine expressing all those voices in your head to the audience?
I say what I believe in; what I have experienced; what I am concerned about; what I like; what I don’t like; what I’m angry about… For me, comedy is always about telling the truth. You can’t be genuinely funny without being completely honest with yourself and your audience.
But I do self-censor, I self-censor all the time! I’m not afraid to talk about taboo topics like religion, race relation, a bit of sex etc – but only if it helps me to be honest with myself and my audience to be honest with themselves. I make sure I craft my jokes on these topics in a way that is truly funny; otherwise I’ll just sound like another girl complaining about how unfair life is.
I also make sure I’m being fair. I fact-check before I talk about something, so that I don’t just make things worse.
SHAZIA: Are you the only woman in Indonesia doing stand-up?
SAKDIYAH: No, of course not. I was the first, but the number is now growing. Every year there are new female stand-up comics performing on TV or participating in competitions.
SHAZIA: Do you feel pressure to talk about “heavy” subjects, like Islamophobia and terrorism, in your comedy? Or do you prefer to talk about lighter things sometimes – like shopping, dating, going on holidays.
SAKDIYAH: I want to talk about the issues that matter to me, things I can relate to, things that are part of who I am and what I have experienced.
I love talking about Muslims and the way they practice and interpret their religion. I talk about Islamophobia, violence towards women, the idea and construction of femininity and masculinity, my ethnicity.
Yeah, sometimes I feel such pressure to talk about “heavy” topics, but for what it’s worth, I think there is no such thing as a “light” topic in comedy. With a great comedian, even jokes about a refrigerator can bring new insights on humanity.
And I guess this is what is so beautiful about comedy: it helps us get to know who we are who others are as well. Every individual has multiple identities. I have been perceived as this Muslim girl fighting against fundamentalism through her comedy. While this is true, I do not want to just be seen as some kind of a “comedy jihadist” fighting against fundamentalists. I have layers to my identity, just like everybody else.
SHAZIA: Do you receive letters and emails from people who have seen your performances? What kind of things do they say? What do women say?
SAKDIYAH: Yes, I do. A woman once asked me whether I am a “true” Muslim. Perhaps she considered my jokes too daring or inappropriate for a Muslim woman to tell. She asked me all these questions about whether I really wear the hijab every day and whether I pray five times a day.
I like getting these kinds of responses. I feel like these people genuinely care about me or at least about Muslim women in general.
From a conservative Muslim community where expectations stretched only to marriage and children, Sakdiyah Ma’ruf has carved a name for herself in comedy, with powerful routines that challenge Islamic fundamentalism and advocate for women’s rights. Index on Censorship spoke to her about jumping over fences, Robin Williams and the censorship she has faced as the first female stand-up comedian in Indonesia.
Ma’ruf places a high expectation on her work and the role of comedy and comedians to call out social injustice. “Comedians, more than other people, should know the danger of comedy, and its potential for harassing people. But they should also fully understand its power to speak for the weak and fight against the powerful and the complacent,” she told Index.
“Comedy allows us to participate in celebration of laughter and celebration of humanity,” she says. “We laugh with you and invite you to participate in resistance, in examining injustices, in looking at ourselves and our society.”
But carving a career as a female comedian in a Muslim country has not always been easy. “Women in general, in many different cultures and traditions across the world, are born with a set of expectations attached to them,” she says. “In Indonesian popular culture, we do not have Muslim comedian wearing hijab taking the centre stage of entertainment industry…most female comedians are placed as the punch line of the act both for their attractiveness and unattractiveness, instead of being given a place to stand up.”
But the difficulties she faced becoming a comedian have in a way contributed to her success, she says. Born to a conservative Muslim family, a strict curfew meant she spent most of her childhood absorbing American TV, taking influences from musicians Lisa Loeb, Sarah Mc Lachlan, Jewel and Sheryl Crow. “They taught me to stand taller,” she says. “I guess this is one of the best things about being prevented to go out of the house after school.”
“I learned that there are hopes and that people out there are living different path of life and most importantly that women can resist!”
At college Ma’ruf became politically active. Rallying against New Order government during the earliest year of democracy in Indonesia in 1999, and participating in voicing a more moderate and tolerant Islam through student organisations – her efforts to keep her activities a secret from her family and father became more difficult.
This political activism informed her comedy, she says, but just not in the way you would expect. Keeping her involvement secret often involved jumping over the fences into her boarding house (because she almost always violated her curfew), and doing impersonations to convince her father she was actually at home with her friends – real life skits that found their way into her routine.
She entered a comedy competition when she was young, but had never seen comedy as having a place in her life, she says. “Contrary to my male colleagues in the industry, I do not ambitiously plan my career in comedy. In fact, dream and passion are a luxury to me.”
“I grew up in a quite conservative Yemeni-Arab descent community in small town on the northern coast of Java, Indonesia where there are basically two stories about the women, the bad story where you drop out of school and marry a rich man from the community or the occasional good one where you finish school and marry a rich man from the community.”
“And then the great Robin Williams entered my life.”
“Watching Robin Williams Live on Broadway stand up special in 2009, I felt like my whole life was flashing before my eyes; the US sitcoms, the comedy competition, the hardship, the impersonation, the struggle at the front row of democracy during college, I knew that I have been in love with this art from way back before I even learned the name of the art. Everything started to make more sense to me.”
In 2011 she became one of the finalists of Stand up Comedy Indonesia, run by Indonesian station Kompas TV, and later collaborated with The Moral Courage Project, telling the stories of people who are fighting corruption in their faith, culture or workplace.
But aside from facing stigmatism as a Muslim female comedian, Ma’ruf has faced censorship on the grounds of her jokes’ content.
“I was working with the Moral Courage team from New York University on a video profile. The editor asked me to send video clips from my performance. I immediately contacted Kompas TV for a clip on my joke about a radical group, taped when I opened for my friend’s stand-up comedy special, to be included in the video.”
“One of the staff there sent the video but not long after, the executive producer emailed me and strictly prohibited me to use it, because it is too sensitive for them and because they did not want to be associated with such a joke. They didn’t air it on TV.”
She cancelled the inclusion of all her televised performances in the Moral Courage video, sharing her off-air performances instead. This also marked her move towards live performances, seeing them as allowing her to share her voice with the audience.
Now an established comedian in Indonesia, Ma’ruf last year won the Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent and performed at the Asia’s Women Empowerment Forum – at the same time as earning a Masters degree with thesis on Comedy Jihad.
“My trip to Oslo to receive the Havel Prize last year was not an easy one,” she admits. “It took me more than three months just to craft the right sentences to ask permission from my dad.”
But the trip was worth it, she says. “As I stood there on stage receiving the honour, I was fully aware that I was not here speaking for myself, but for other Muslim women experiencing the same or even more difficult struggles than me, for my years of jumping over the fence of my boarding house, for everyone who is having difficulty of speaking the truth to power including the power of their ego.”
For now she plans to continue to use her voice to speak for those women, and for all others who can’t. “The world is growing increasingly divided, and the voice of women in comedy will provide the bridge between the divide, by presenting different perspectives sourced from genuine experiences of women.”
From a journalist who trains women to tell the story of Syria’s civil war and a comedian who uses her routines to campaign for women’s rights in Indonesia, to a women-led campaigning group taking on the fight against internet censorship in Pakistan, the shortlist for the 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards showcases women with leadership and bravery.
On International Women’s Day we celebrate the amazing women on our shortlist.
While many fled, Syrian-native journalist Zaina Erhaim returned to her war-ravaged country in 2013 to ensure those left behind were not forgotten. She is now one of the few female journalists braving the twin threat of violence from both IS and Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Arts nominee Sakdiyah Ma’ruf is a stand-up comedian from Indonesia whose routines challenge Islamic fundamentalism. Born to a conservative Muslim family in Java, Ma’ruf went against her father’s wishes and started using comedy to speak about religious-based violence and extremism, ethnic extremism and xenophobia, as well as fear, terror and violence against women.
Artist Tania Bruguera was arrested after an attempt to stage her performance piece #YoTambienExijo in Havana in late 2014. Mounted soon after the apparent thaw in US-Cuban relations, Bruguera’s piece offered members of the public the chance of one minute of “censor-free” expression in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución.
Campaigning nominee nineteen-year-old Vanessa Berhe continues to fight for the release of her uncle, journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, who has been imprisoned in Eritrea for the last 15 years. She also launched the campaign Free Eritrea to draw the world’s attention to a little-reported country with one of the worst track records for free speech.
Lina Attalah, chief editor, is just one of the women and men — friends and journalists — who in 2013 founded an independent news collective Mada Masr after newspaper Egypt Independent was censored into bankruptcy. Mada Masr was launched as a media co-operative that aims to hold those in power accountable.
Bolo Bhi are a digital campaigning group who have orchestrated an impressive ongoing fight against attempts to censor the internet in Pakistan. The all-women management team have launched internet freedom programmes, published research papers, tirelessly fought for government transparency and run numerous innovative digital security training programmes.
Belarus Free Theatre, co-founded by Natalia Kaliada, have been using their creative and subversive art to protest the dictatorial rule of Aleksandr Lukashenko for a decade. Despite pressure from authorities since their inception, the group thrived underground, with performances in apartments, basements and forests despite continued arrests and brutal interrogations. In 2011, while on tour, they were told they were unable to return home. Refusing to be silenced, the group set up headquarters in London and continued to direct projects in Belarus.
This year, the Index awards gala on 13 April will be hosted by stand-up comedian and writer Shazia Mirza, whose outspoken and taboo-busting comedy explores Islamic fundamentalism and women’s rights. Mirza is fresh from her sell-out London run and in the midst of her current UK tour.
This article was published on 8 March 2016 at indexoncensorship.org