The death penalty is the new normal in Iran

Yes! Yes Sir! Life is normal
A labourer’s annual wage is worth a dinner abroad
Yes! Of course, Sir! Life is normal
We don’t dare say otherwise, in case we get in trouble

These are the opening lines of Toomaj Salehi’s song Normal. Salehi did dare to say otherwise though and for that he did get in trouble. On Wednesday an Iranian revolutionary court sentenced him to death. The charge was “corruption on earth”. The only thing corrupt is Iran’s regime. 

For those unfamiliar with Salehi, he is a well-known Iranian hip-hop artist whose lyrics are infused with references to the human rights situation in Iran. He was an outspoken supporter of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. Last year, Index awarded Salehi a Freedom of Expression award in the Arts category. Salehi donated his cash prize to victims of recent floods in Iran. 

Because of his advocacy Salehi has faced continuous judicial harassment, including arrest and imprisonment. He has been in and out of prison since 2021. A moment of respite came in November 2023 when Iran’s Supreme Court struck down Salehi’s six-year prison sentence. The respite was short-lived. Just days after he was released from prison Salehi was rearrested upon uploading a video to YouTube documenting his treatment while in detention. 

On 18 April 2024, Branch 1 of Isfahan’s Revolutionary Court held a new trial for Salehi where the court ultimately convicted Salehi and sentenced him to death. His lawyer alleged that the ruling had significant legal errors, including contradicting the Supreme Court verdict. He said that they will appeal the verdict. They only have 20 days. 

Index has been in close contact with his family, as well as lawyers and other organisations who work in our field. We are shocked by the barbarity of this decision (please read our CEO Ruth Anderson’s article on what he means to us more personally here), as well as heartened by how the international community has pulled together. If you are on social media and have not yet engaged with his case, we have a small favour to ask – do please post about Salehi and use the hashtag #FreeToomaj. Making noise might not change the outcome of the case but we know that solidarity can have a huge impact on the emotional wellbeing of dissidents and their families. 

Salehi’s case is top of the Index priority list. Still, we have been keeping a close eye on the USA, where academic freedom, free assembly and broader First Amendment rights are being put to the test. While we have seen instances of hate speech directed towards Jewish students – vile and unjustifiable – the overall picture being painted is one of police overreach and brutality. There are too many disturbing scenes by now but let me highlight one – a CNN video of Professor Caroline Fohlin from Emory University in Atlanta being hurled to the ground and handcuffed. She had simply asked the police “What are you doing?” after she came across the violent arrest of a protester on campus.

There are immediate concerns for free speech here. Beyond these are two longer term ones. Firstly that this is part of a broader pattern of less tolerance towards protest across the world. We’ve seen it in the UK in the form of legislation restricting where and how people can protest, which has also led to an overzealous police force who arrest campaigners before their protests even start. Secondly that this will provide perfect justification for Trump, should he be re-elected, to further crack down on rights. “Look”, he’ll say, “Biden’s administration did it too”.

We’ve read a lot of good, thoughtful articles this week about the protests, such as this from Slate talking to Columbia students about the situation on the ground, this from Robert Reich on the free speech implications (he argues universities should actively encourage debate and disagreement) and this from Sam Kahn on what it feels like to be Jewish in the USA right now (he takes issue with what he terms a “nothing-to-see-here je ne sais quoi” approach to the protests). We also had an NYU professor, Susie Linfield, commenting late last year here. Do take a read. It feels slightly like wading through treacle right now – it’s easy to get stuck on one argument and then stuck on a totally different one. So we should take a step back and that step back for me came from the Gazan-American Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib when he commented on what was happening at the University of Texas Austin:

“Regardless of what you think of pro-Palestine protesters, attacking students (and a cameraman) during a peaceful assembly is shameful and wrong. This will inspire even more protests and further inflame a really difficult and an impossible situation. Absent acts of violence, harassment, or destruction of property, students have a right to freedom of expression. We cannot lose sight of that.”

Whether in the USA or Iran we stand by peaceful protesters and we will always call out those who seek to silence them.

Solidarity, Assange-style

I first met Julian Assange before he was Julian Assange. Or rather, when he was just becoming Julian Assange. For a few short months our fates were intertwined. And it all started with Index on Censorship.

In 2008, when I was political editor of the New Statesman, I was asked to collect an Index on Censorship New Media award on behalf of WikiLeaks, the organisation Assange founded two years earlier. I duly turned up for the event and was told the man himself had appeared at the caterers’ entrance at the last-minute and my services would not be required. Secretive and not a little melodramatic, I soon discovered this was the way Assange liked to do business. The speech was impressive, expressing how much Assange valued solidarity and his admiration for “syndicalism”, the belief that direct action can drive political change.

I wrote about that evening in my New Statesman blog and Assange noticed another item, where I discussed the newly aggressive approach the law firm Carter Ruck was taking with one of its clients, Nadhmi Auchi, an Iraqi billionaire convicted of fraud in France as part of the giant Elf-Aquitaine scandal. Mr Auchi continues to deny the charges. Newspapers who had written about Auchi’s business dealings were being threatened with legal action if they didn’t remove articles from their websites. Most of them eventually complied rather than face steep legal bills. Assange acted quickly to hoover up everything he could about Auchi and published it on WikiLeaks. It was a bold move because Carter Ruck were playing hardball. When I published a link to the Auchi files on my blog, the law firm threatened to sue the New Statesman.

I recently came across an email from Assange which he sent in November 2008, when he found out the New Statesman was planning to cave. He condemned the magazine for removing the original blogpost and objected to plans to issue a statement saying the articles collected by WikiLeaks (and published by respected journalists in national newspapers) contained significant inaccuracies. He pointed out that this action would in itself be defamatory.

This was solidarity and syndicalism, Assange-style. The New Statesman decided to settle with the billionaire, and I soon parted company with the magazine.

A few months later, a WikiLeaks emissary walked into the offices of a charity I had set up to help young people break into the creative industries on London’s Southbank. He showed me footage of the 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike in which two Reuters journalists and several civilians were killed by a missile from a US helicopter. After a few further discussions, I advised him to talk to major news outlets about this extraordinary story. Shortly after this, WikiLeaks (in collaboration with The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El Pais) began publishing the US diplomatic cables that made Assange’s reputation. It was a new, collaborative way of doing journalism that challenged the way the United States conducted foreign policy. Solidarity and syndicalism in action, perhaps.

We live in different times and Julian Assange finds himself in Belmarsh high-security prison awaiting the result of his final appeal against extradition to the United States, where he faces trial under the Espionage Act. In the interim, he has become a highly divisive figure and much of the solidarity from his former journalistic collaborators has evaporated. He has made serious errors of judgment and attracted some unfortunate allies. His radar for what constitutes genuine dissent has always been questionable. As former Index journalist Padraig Reidy pointed out in an important piece on Assange in BuzzFeed News in 2019: “Assange’s definition of ‘power’ and ‘elite’ often stretched only as far as Western governments and their allies.” Over the years, it has sometimes seemed that the principles of solidarity only worked in one direction. With each new twist in the story, a new layer of support dropped away. When Assange jumped bail and found refuge in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, when he published hacked emails from Hilary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign, when he suggested he was the victim of a conspiracy of Jewish journalists and was found to have employed a Holocaust denier, this all contributed to the picture of Assange as a narcissistic, paranoid self-publicist whose path was littered with the collateral damage of his overblown ego.

The question is whether it is possible to set all this aside and look at the bigger picture or if Assange’s flaws and failings are an integral part of the bigger picture. Meanwhile, those journalists who have worked with him over the years need to ask themselves if his present predicament as a prisoner in the UK’s highest security prison is just desserts or a travesty of justice.

The French free expression organisation, Reporters Without Borders, which has been consistent in its support for Assange, published a useful list of common misconceptions in the Assange case: that he is a traitor to the United States (he is Australian), that he leaked classified information (he published it), that he knowingly put people at risk (the prosecution has struggled to prove harm). But most powerful is the misconception that if he is convicted this will have no wider effect. There is already ample evidence that governments are determined to deter journalists from ever working with the likes of Assange again. The new UK National Security Act has specific measures to increase sentences for journalists working on data leak stories involving official secrets. Add to this the use of the US Espionage Act. Assange would be the first publisher tried under this act and if convicted he might not be the last.

Julian Assange is so wrong about so much. He has made many terrible mistakes. He is, in some ways, the agent of his own misfortune. But he taught journalists that some stories are so important that they need international collaboration to put them into the public domain. He was not wrong about the importance of solidarity.

Why academic freedom and freedom of speech are not the same thing

It seems every week there is a news story of another academic, a group of students or a vice chancellor detailing threats to academic freedom. Heartbreakingly this has become an even more common occurrence since the Hamas pogrom in Israel on 7 October and the subsequent war in Gaza.

Only this week the UKRI, a UK government body which distributes research funding, has suspended its diversity advisory panel, after a leading member of the British Government publicly criticised members of the panel for their social media comments regarding Hamas and Israel. This led to the resignation of several academics from posts at the UKRI.

And at Cornell University in the US, a student is currently facing charges for threatening to kill Jewish students via a range of graphic social media posts, resulting in his persecution and enhanced security measures now in place for Jewish staff and members on campus.

These are two of the more extreme examples of the impact of the current crisis on academic institutions.

And as angry as they make me, as heartbroken as I am about current events, I have to consider them through the prism of my job – defending freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is a very broad concept and there are as many definitions as there are forms of expression. But taking the two examples above at hand, academic freedom and freedom of speech are different things. What people debate and discuss in the lecture hall, in a seminar room or on the pages of an academic tome must always be protected. But academics are not afforded special protections outside of the confines of their intellectual endeavours. That’s not a matter of academic freedom, it’s one of freedom of expression and should be considered separately.

At the same time, the events in Cornell equate to hate speech and are not and should not be protected. Hate speech and incitement are against the law and should be dealt with accordingly. And every community, every student should have the right to feel safe on campus – not in fear of their lives. No one should be scared of walking onto their university campus whatever is happening in a war thousands of miles away.

This is all at a time when university campuses are increasingly considered to be the frontline in the ongoing battle to protect free speech.

Earlier this year, the UK saw the passage of The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act.

In the current context, this seems to have muddied the waters between academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus. The new law places an onus on universities, colleges and Students’ Unions to not only protect free speech but to actively promote it. But what does this mean when applied to the views of students and academics who are promoting views outside of their academic specialisms?

The very name of the Act it suggests that those on campus have complete freedom of speech without limitation. They do not; no one does. But as academics they must have complete freedom to teach and challenge without fear or favour (within the confines of the law).

Universities are meant to be seats of academic exploration, cathedrals of learning. They provide a forum for discussion and debate in which new ideas and minority opinions can be considered. The purpose is to expose students to the breadth of views and ideas that exist in their particular discipline and ideally challenge their worldview – allowing them to argue back. On campus, in the classroom – not on a social media platform.

It is always difficult to know what impact these debates and issues are having on campus. How safe academics feel to push the boundaries of their areas of specialism and how secure students feel to question and debate on campus – to ask the unpalatable question, to challenge the status quo. But in the midst of the current gloom and misery I am choosing to take a little bit of hope from a recently published survey.

The National Student Survey from the Office of Students would suggest that this endemic attack on free speech is not as pervasive as we sometimes believe it to be. They asked students from colleges and universities in England how free they felt to express their “ideas, opinions, and beliefs” and 86% said that they felt “free” or “very free”. Only 3% of the 300,000 respondents said that they felt they were ‘not free at all.”

On the face of it, this is good news. We should welcome the fact that an overwhelming number of students feel free to speak their mind and share their opinions. Self censorship is a real problem but not one, it seems, that plagues the majority of today’s students.

But we must ask the 3% why they don’t feel free at all to express themselves on campus. is it threats from external forces like the Chinese Communist Party, is it because of their identity or faith, or is it because they themselves hold minority opinions and are fearful of being challenged. Whatever the reason, 9,000 students who participated in this survey feel silenced. We need to know why and we need to find a way to support them.

In the interim I’m going to focus on the positive and celebrate the fact that we start from a position of academic freedom and that the overwhelming majority of students know that they can express themselves on campus without fear or favour.


Trump raises the stakes on media freedom

The threats to freedom of expression are multifaceted and seem to be coming from all directions. Every day we hear about a new international threat to freedom of expression, a new SLAPP or a new campaign to silence or cancel. These threats are compounded by those who are seeking to spread misinformation and propaganda campaigns to shape the national and international narrative to suit their purposes.

From the dark recesses of the internet and the spread of deep fake videos to trolls spreading disinformation and national governments, usually the tyrants, attempting to control information sources and restricted access to media.

However, we expect protections against these threats from our democratically elected leaders and the countries that they run. Take the United States, with all the protections afforded by the First Amendment. Donald Trump and his administration unfortunately never seem to have got the memo. As president he attacked the media every day and undermined the cross-party consensus that has afforded journalists protection for over 200 years. And he hasn’t changed his stance since he left office, attacking mainstream media outlets who dare to do their job and challenge his version of reality.

And this week he has taken these attacks a step further, threatening to withdraw the licences of those media outlets he perceives to be critical of him should he be reelected in the 2024 presidential election. He literally threatened to shut them down, naming NBC and MSNBC as his initial targets.

It’s not even clear that the President has the power to do this. But the threats alone are enough to undermine media freedom in the US.

In Trump’s eyes, critical media is dishonest, corrupt and lying. He’s even accused them of treason in his angry posts on TruthSocia, his own social media platform. This attitude towards the media has an incredibly damaging effect on democracy; we’ve seen it happen in country after country. Afterall it wasn’t too long ago that President Putin was referring to critical media in Russia as liars and traitors – and now there is no independent media left within Russia’s borders.

Can you imagine a situation in which NBC News and MSNBC have to operate outside the US’s borders? Sadly, Russia has shown us that the independent media can disappear in no time at all.

Independent journalism is a key element of every democracy. Journalists provide the ultimate check and balance to power. They can shine a spotlight on corruption and speak truth to power. And of course, with that power they have the responsibility to report the news objectively and impartially.

But in turn for their professionalism and impartiality we have a duty to support them against attacks from those with an agenda. Media freedom is the first defence of our democracy. We must all stand against Donald Trump’s ongoing threats and make it clear that media freedom is vital at home and abroad.