Putin’s control threatens Russian dissident voices

2023 has been a year with more news than days. Every corner of the world is a cacophony of broadcasts describing horror, injustice, sorrow and pain. There are times when you just want to cover your ears, close your eyes and hope for peace in all senses of the word. But in this barrage of bulletins dictators thrive.

Whilst the United Nations scrutinises the Israel-Hamas war, the United States Congress holds crunch talks over the future of funding for Ukraine in its defence and Beijing gears up for the trial of Jimmy Lai, Putin lurks in the shadows. His nefarious and nihilistic plots continue their march to his single goal of power at all costs. This week Vladimir Putin announced that he will be seeking yet another term as President of the Russian Federation. He boasts that he will hold polls in the occupied territories he illegally invaded in Ukraine and brushes over the matter he is riding roughshod over the Russian constitution once again.

However, Putin’s determination to cling to power can only happen when he oppresses and silences dissidents. The latest victim of the Russian President’s tyranny is Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen. The trumped-up charges from the Kremlin are “spreading false information about the Russian army”. This is the latest crackdown on dissent being undertaken by the Russian state.

This week we also heard that lawyers for Alexei Navalny have been unable to contact the Russian opposition leader. His legal team have made two attempts to reach the two penal colonies where they believe Navalny is being held. Neither of the colonies have responded to the requests for information. Only last week the jailed Russian opposition leader fell ill within prison and was due to appear in court again this week.

Another thorn in the side of Putin, the former member of a Moscow municipal council Alexei Gorinov, has grown ill whilst incarcerated for seven years in prison. Gorinov no longer has the strength to sit up or even speak.

Gessen, Navalny and Gorinov all reflect the autocratic approach by Putin to his critics: imprisonment, abuse, and hunting down those who are able to escape. Whether you are a journalist, politician or member of the public in Putin’s Russia you are at risk of the whims of a man who yearns only for more control.

Whilst war rages in Ukraine it is easy to lose sight of the dissidents saying loudly that the Russian state doesn’t act in their name. During turbulent times it’s all too easy for us to be deafened by events and for dissidents’ voices to be muffled. We cannot allow that to happen and as long as Index on Censorship exists we will give a megaphone to those fighting for freedom of expression to ensure you can hear what they are saying.

To finish – as we reach the end of 2023 – the only thing I can really promise you is that the team at Index will be required to keep fighting for dissidents in 2024 – and that will do our job with the dedication and commitment that you expect from us.

So from the team at Index – we wish you well over the holidays and hope for a much better 2024.

How to celebrate Putin’s 71st birthday? At the Ukrainian festival telling him to ‘fuck off’

The war grinds on, the cemeteries grow bigger by the day and comedy as a critical engine of power has ceased to exist in Russia. Not so in Ukraine where Vladimir Putin’s 71st birthday will be celebrated – that isn’t the right word – on 7 October by the second VPDFO festival. The letters stand for Vladimir Putin Do Fuck Off, a phrase that Index readers won’t tremble to read but the digi-lords at Meta/Facebook don’t favour. In Cult Motive, an old grain warehouse in Podil, the Shoreditch of Kyiv, people will be treated over the weekend to the very latest in Ukrainian bands, fashion, cuisines, stories about the war – and jokes.

Our two-day festival will do its best to reflect Ukraine’s unique sense of humour, anthracite-black as it is. Bleakness is all. For example, two soldiers, Dima and Vova, are discussing who is sending the best kit to Ukraine: the Americans, the Swedes, the Germans, the British?

Dima: “The British stuff is best.”

Vova: “But the steering wheel is on the wrong side.”

Dima: “Yes. The steering wheel is on the wrong side. So the Russian snipers shoot the passenger. What’s not to like?”

The festival will feature stand-up spots from four top Ukrainian comedians, Bohdan Vakhnyc, Ramil Yangulov, Max Vyshinskyi and Andrii Berezhko.

With soldiers dying at the front, the lion’s share of the humour will be directed at the Russian killing machine, at the tyrant who sent it to Ukraine and the Kremlin’s useful jellyfish in the West. Donald Trump will get it in the neck, the buttocks and the front bottom too but it’s bad form to write out comedians’ jokes in print.

Ukraine’s democracy is being forged in war and a robust honesty about the failings of civil society, from President Volodymyr Zelensky and the people around him down, comes as standard. Zelensky was a comedian, or, better, a comic actor before the big war. It is, to put it mildly, unlikely that whoever takes over from Vladimir Putin in Russia will have the same CV.

It’s hard to define Ukraine’s sense of humour but it’s a combination of Jewish and Yiddish themes of self-deprecation under terror, a Soviet or post-Soviet love of irony written in cement and a wonderful, anarchistic fuck-you-ness. Even in the darkest days of Russia’s war against Ukraine, when the Kremlin’s heavy metal was just 12 miles from the centre of Kyiv, jokes blossomed, memes about Ukrainian tractors stealing Russian tanks flooded the internet. A year ago, when fears of a Russian nuclear strike against Kyiv were at their height – Putin won’t send nukes to Ukraine because the Chinese have told him not to – the word was that the moment the nuke birds were in the air, there would be a massive orgy on an unpronounceable hill in Kyiv. The beauty of the hill’s unpronounceability is that it would defeat Russian spies from gate crashing the orgy. And, it has to be said, British journalists too.

If you wish to support the festival, go to VPDFO.ORG  

Shortlists announced for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards

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.

Nominees for the 2023 Freedom of Expression Awards – Arts

Visual Rebellion (Myanmar)

Visual Rebellion was established in December 2021 as a platform to showcase and support the edited work of journalists, filmmakers and artists across post-coup Myanmar.

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.

Toomaj Salehi (Iran)

Toomaj Salehi is an Iranian rapper who has been singing about injustice and abuses by the Iranian authorities against civil society. In 2022, during the ongoing protests, he was arrested and charged for his work.

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 and Pavlo Makov (Ukraine)

In the midst of Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, the artist and curator worked to secure and transport Ukrainian art out of the warzone to ensure it could be protected and presented as part of the Venice Biennale. 

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".