Contents – The long reach: How authoritarian countries are silencing critics abroad


The Spring 2024 issue of Index looks at how authoritarian states are bypassing borders in order to clamp down on dissidents who have fled their home state. In this issue we investigate the forms that transnational repression can take, as well as highlighting examples of those who have been harassed, threatened or silenced by the long arm of the state.

The writers in this issue offer a range of perspectives from countries all over the world, with stories from Turkey to Eritrea to India providing a global view of how states operate when it comes to suppressing dissidents abroad. These experiences serve as a warning that borders no longer come with a guarantee of safety for those targeted by oppressive regimes.


Up Front

Border control, by Jemimah Steinfeld: There's no safe place for the world's dissidents. World leaders need to act.

The Index, by Mark Frary: A glimpse at the world of free expression, featuring Indian elections, Predator spyware and a Bahraini hunger strike.


Just passing through, by Eduardo Halfon: A guided tour through Guatemala's crime traps.

Exporting the American playbook, by Amy Fallon: The culture wars are finding new ground in Canada, where the freedom to read is the latest battle.

The couple and the king, by Clemence Manyukwe: Tanele Maseko saw her activist husband killed in front of her eyes, but it has not stopped her fight for democracy.

Obrador's parting gift, by Chris Havler-Barrett: Journalists are free to report in Mexico, as long as it's what the president wants to hear.

Silencing the faithful, by Simone Dias Marques: Brazil's religious minorities are under attack.

The anti-abortion roadshow, by Rebecca L Root: The USA's most controversial new export could be a campaign against reproductive rights.

The woman taking on the trolls, by Daisy Ruddock: Tackling disinformation has left Marianna Spring a victim of trolling, even by Elon Musk.

Broken news, by Mehran Firdous: The founder of The Kashmir Walla reels from his time in prison and the banning of his news outlet.

Who can we trust?, by Kimberley Brown: Organised crime and corruption have turned once peaceful Ecuador into a reporter's nightmare.

The cost of being green, by Thien Viet: Vietnam's environmental activists are mysteriously all being locked up on tax charges.

Who is the real enemy?, by Raphael Rashid: Where North Korea is concerned, poetry can go too far - according to South Korea.

The law, when it suits him, by JP O'Malley: Donald Trump could be making prison cells great again.

Special Report: The long reach - how authoritarian countries are silencing critics abroad

Nowhere is safe, by Alexander Dukalskis: Introducing the new and improved ways that autocracies silence their overseas critics.

Welcome to the dictator's playground, by Kaya Genç: When it comes to safeguarding immigrant dissidents, Turkey has a bad reputation.

The overseas repressors who are evading the spotlight, by Emily Couch: It's not all Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. Central Asian governments are reaching across borders too.

Everything everywhere all at once, by Daisy Ruddock: It's both quantity and quality when it comes to how states attack dissent abroad.

A fatal game of international hide and seek, by Danson Kahyana: After leaving Eritrea, one writer lives in constants fear of being kidnapped or killed.

Our principles are not for sale, by Jirapreeya Saeboo: The Thai student publisher who told China to keep their cash bribe.

Refused a passport, by Sally Gimson: A lesson from Belarus in how to obstruct your critics.

Be nice, or you're not coming in, by Salil Tripathi: Is the murder of a Sikh activist in Canada the latest in India's cross-border control.

An agency for those denied agency, by Amy Fallon: The Sikh Press Association's members are no strangers to receiving death threats.

Always looking behind, by Zhou Fengsuo and Nathan Law: If you're a Tiananmen protest leader or the face of Hong Kong's democracy movement, China is always watching.

Putting Interpol on notice, by Tommy Greene: For dissidents who find themselves on Red Notice, it's all about location, location, location

Living in Russia's shadow, by Irina Babloyan, Andrei Soldatov and Kirill Martynov: Three Russian journalists in exile outline why paranoia around their safety is justified.


Solidarity, Assange-style, by Martin Bright: Our editor-at-large on his own experience working with Assange.

Challenging words, by Emma Briant: An academic on what to do around the weaponisation of words.

Good, bad and everything that's in between, by Ruth Anderson: New threats to free speech call for new approaches.


Ukraine's disappearing ink, by Victoria Amelina and Stephen Komarnyckyj: One of several Ukrainian writers killed in Russia's war, Amelina's words live on.

One-way ticket to freedom?, by Ghanem Al Masarir and Jemimah Steinfeld: A dissident has the last laugh on Saudi, when we publish his skit.

The show must go on, by Katie Dancey-Downs, Yahya Marei and Bahaa Eldin Ibdah: In the midst of war Palestine's Freedom Theatre still deliver cultural resistance, some of which is published here.

Fight for life - and language, by William Yang: Uyghur linguists are doing everything they can to keep their culture alive.

Freedom is very fragile, by Mark Frary and Oleksandra Matviichuk: The winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize on looking beyond the Nuremberg Trials lens.

New Assange film hopes to spur action

As Julian Assange awaits the verdict of his final court appeal against his extradition to the USA, where he faces a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information, those on the outside are determined not to give up the fight to free him.

The Trust Fall: Julian Assange – which will be released at cinemas this Friday – follows the Australian publisher and activist through his lifelong pursuit of truth. The film explores Assange's life through archive footage and recollections of those who know him, focussing on his work on WikiLeaks and the years he has spent in isolation both in London’s Ecuadorian embassy and Belmarsh Prison. Director Kym Staton told Index that although his initial mission was to raise awareness of Assange’s plight through the documentary, the reception it has garnered during early screenings has made him optimistic that real weight can be added to the campaign for his freedom.

“We worked really hard to make something that was emotional and powerful and that would help people make sense of [Assange’s] situation. It’s going so well and getting such a great reception, fantastic ratings,” said Staton. “It’s given me a lot of hope that perhaps we can do more than we thought and it might even be a part of this battle to secure Assange’s freedom.”

In the documentary’s most harrowing scene, the infamous Collateral Murder video published by Assange on his WikiLeaks site is played out in full. The footage shows a helicopter attack by the US military in Iraq in 2007, in which 11 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, were shot and killed. Soldiers can be heard laughing in the background of the video as bullets rain down on those on the ground. It’s a difficult watch, but Staton says it was essential for the footage to be included in the documentary in order to drive home Assange’s motivations.

“It’s such a powerful video and there’s nothing else that has ever been seen like it. The impact of that footage is so great it just had to be part of the film,” he said. “To show it to people for the first time on the big screen is such a great opportunity.”

“To witness people’s reaction in cinemas, to look down the aisle and see people crying watching it, it just shows us that it was a good choice,” Staton continued. “I really feel that we can’t achieve change unless people feel something on a hard level. If they don’t feel upset or cry, they may not be compelled to do anything.”

The director also notes that although the Iraq War Logs, of which the Collateral Murder video is part, is the basis of the case against Assange, the US government failed to include this particular video in their indictment, which Staton says is due to it being ”embarrassing” for the state. 

The documentary drives home the importance of Assange’s case, which will have huge implications for the future of journalism. One particular concern for Staton is that these charges are being levelled at a journalist for his work in a country purporting to have a free press, which is indicative of the way in which western states tend to fly under the radar when it comes to eroding media freedom due to their reputation for liberal democracy.

“World leaders in the west – in America, Australia, the UK and other countries – they love to give these gallant speeches about free speech and about protecting journalists while on the other hand they’re bringing in all kinds of scary laws,” he said. 

“It’s not so much about hate speech, it's about clamping down on the dissemination of truth.”

The director also said the mere existence of Assange’s case was setting a “shocking and scary” precedent.

“To have an Australian journalist charged under a US law for journalistic work is just a huge injustice, a huge travesty. It’s absolutely obscene,” he said. “If things worsen and he’s put on trial in America and tortured over there, goodness knows what’s in the future for everybody. How are we ever going to have access to truthful information?”

Assange is yet to learn his fate following his appeal, but most routes to freedom have already been exhausted. Because of this, Staton said it was more important than ever to spread awareness about his cause. The director said the film only spent three months in the festival circuit as he wanted to make sure the documentary could be seen by more people as soon as it was ready. 

“It just would’ve taken too long and it just wasn’t appropriate when we had a largely crowd-funded documentary to slow down the process to win awards,” he explained.

He is also conscious of the desperation of Assange's situation on a personal level. During the production stage, Staton read Nils Melzer’s book The Trial of Julian Assange, which included some shocking details that are recreated in the documentary using animation. 

“During a prison cell search they discovered [Assange] had hidden a razor blade in his cell so that if he was extradited he could take control of the situation and take his own life. When I read that I was floored. I put the book down and I just sat there,” he said.

Such details humanise the story of Assange, who can often be overlooked due to the wider importance of his case. The documentary shows that not only does this case matter due to the implications it has on the future of media freedom, but that Assange is a real person who has been imprisoned for journalistic work. He deserves to be freed.

The Trust Fall: Julian Assange is released in UK cinemas on 15 March 

UK, USA continue attack of protest rights

After passing the Public Order Bill last year in the UK, which increased the powers of the police to restrict people’s fundamental rights to peaceful protest, the government is looking to restrict protest rights further. The new Criminal Justice Bill is currently being considered by parliament and contains measures designed to clamp down on protesters climbing on national monuments, hiding their face or carrying flares.

In their announcement of the new measures, the Home Office declared that the right to protest is "no longer an excuse for certain public order offences". Additionally, attorney general Victoria Prentis KC is leading an attempt to outlaw the ‘consent’ defence for climate protesters, which argues that defendants have a lawful excuse for their actions due to their honest belief that those affected by their actions would consent to the damage had they understood the dangers of the climate emergency. This attack on what is one of the last remaining lawful defences available to climate activists has been described by environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion as “concerning”.

“The government would rather curtail our right to protest, and waste valuable court time and public money, than do what everyone agrees is necessary to protect us from the worst climate impacts and cut people’s energy bills,” a spokesperson for the group told Index.

“When political parties keep prioritising narrow private interests ahead of the lives, homes and security of its citizens the solution is to put people in charge through an emergency citizens' assembly on the climate and nature emergencies.”

This is particularly alarming given the rise in environmental activists facing potential legal action. Hundreds of such campaigners in the UK have received legal threats, leading to claims that states and private companies are using the threat of costly legal action to silence critics.

Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders, has previously expressed concerns over the UK’s increasing intolerance of environmental protests, calling the new laws “regressive” and warning of the “chilling effect” they will have on free expression. This statement came in the aftermath of the infamous case of Just Stop Oil campaigners Morgan Trowland and Marcus Decker, who made history last year when they were handed the longest sentences for a peaceful climate protest in living memory. Both have been jailed for more than two and a half years after scaling a bridge on the Dartford Crossing, forcing its closure and causing gridlock for the traffic below.

The current ongoing conflict in the Middle East has increased concerns over protester safety. Since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war, weekly marches have taken place in the UK and have become a source of contention in the free expression world. Suella Braverman, for example, stated that waving a Palestinian flag “may not be legitimate” and encouraged a “strong police presence” in response. There have been hundreds of arrests during pro-Palestine protests since the conflict broke out, raising questions over the line between incitement and free speech. In December, nine people were arrested in London after displaying a pro-Palestine banner. Five people were arrested the month before for taking part in a peaceful sit-in at King's Cross station after refusing to comply with an order to disperse.

This pattern of increasing police powers to clamp down on peaceful protest demonstrates a worrying break from usual democratic principles, which could have serious consequences for free expression in the state.

Anti-protest laws are not just gaining traction in the UK. Similar incidents have occurred in the USA, marking a worrying trend. Earlier this month, freelance journalist Reed Dunlea was arrested while covering pro-Palestine protests in New York. He was officially charged, confusingly, with resisting arrest, but no reason has been given as to why he was being arrested in the first place, particularly as his press pass and media equipment was on full display.

Freelance photographer Stephanie Keith told Index that she saw Dunlea’s arrest in progress as she was covering the protests, but that it wasn’t clear what he was arrested for.

“I was across the street documenting an earlier arrest when I saw a number of NYPD [officers] slamming a fairly large man onto the ground,” she said.

Keith has been covering the recent pro-Palestine protests in the USA and said she has noticed attitudes towards protesters changing in the last few months.

“The NYPD have been much more intolerant of the Palestinian protest in the last two months,” she said.  “Protesters used to be able to march in the streets and now if anyone sets foot in the streets, they are arrested.

“The police have a very different attitude towards the protesters now than they did at the end of last year.”

This incident was one of many to have occurred under New York Mayor Eric Adams, a pro-police candidate. During his term, misconduct complaints against the NYPD have risen to their highest levels in more than a decade.

Outside of New York, the police forces of other US cities have also displayed an increasingly hostile attitude towards protesters. Following the racial justice protests of 2020 that broke out after the murder of George Floyd, at least 19 US cities were made to pay settlements totalling more than $80m to protesters who sustained injuries as a result of law enforcement action.

If such a trend continues, the UK and US will have serious questions to answer over their treatment of protesters. One of the most fundamental concepts of any functioning democracy is the right to peacefully protest. The charge sheet of both the UK and the US is not looking good and we must make sure we don’t look the other way.

Index reiterates our urgent call for Assange to be freed

Julian Assange; illustration: Hafteh7

Today, as a panel of High Court judges convene the last stage of UK proceedings in the US government’s extradition case against Assange, we reiterate our urgent calls to free Julian Assange. This week's hearing marks the beginning of the end of his extradition case, as there can be no further appeal in the UK.

Not only will extradition put Assange at risk, given his mental health, but it will inevitably have a serious chilling effect on media freedom around the world. We fear that he will not face a fair trial in the United States given the hostile publicity around the case.

Wikileaks published a series of leaked diplomatic cables in 2010 and 2011, which caused serious embarrassment to the United States government. These included the US army manual on the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and a video showing a helicopter attack on innocent civilians in Iraq. Assange acted as a journalist and publisher in bringing these disclosures to public attention. He did so in collaboration with a number of mainstream, respected media organisations including the Guardian and the New York Times.

We call on the international community to support Assange in this, the final stage of his battle against extradition. If the US government succeeds in bringing espionage charges against Assange it will have the potential effect of turning all journalists reporting on alleged US security abuses into spies.