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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.
Index on Censorship’s upcoming “Banned by Beijing” event will highlight the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to censor and repress freedom of expression through an evening of art and performance. The CCP’s repression of human rights has been widely documented but few realise that their repression extends far beyond its borders, including into Europe. This event will provide an opportunity for attendees to see and hear what the CCP have tried to repress.
Earlier this month, the Chinese Embassy in Poland tried to block the opening of the exhibition, “Tell China’s Story Well”, by the political cartoonist and human rights activist Badiucao. Chinese embassies in Prague and Rome have previously made similar attempts to close his exhibitions. He will join the event to speak about his experience of transnational repression.
Uyghur campaigner Rahima Mahmut will also speak about her experience of transnational repression, and perform with her band the London Silk Road Collective. Mahmut previously contributed to a report by Index, which highlighted the transnational repression faced by the Uyghur community in Europe.
The event will also mark the opening of the Banned by Beijing exhibition, aimed at highlighting transnational repression from China. As well Badiucao’s artwork, works from husband-and-wife painting duo Lumli Lumlong and cartoonist and former secondary school visual arts teacher Vawongsir, will be displayed. The exhibition will run until 10 July.
The event will take place as we mark the third anniversary of the enactment of Hong Kong’s National Security Law. The exhibition will pay tribute to the 75-year-old British businessman and founder of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, Jimmy Lai who remains in prison in Hong Kong, charged with violating the national security law among other offences. It will be the first time that Lumli Lumlong’s “Apple Man” will be shown in public.
Jessica Ní Mhaínin, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Index on Censorship said:
“This Banned by Beijing event will provide an opportunity to see a side of China that the Chinese Communist Party would much rather you didn’t. We want people to join us on the evening to stand in solidarity with those who are being subject to transnational repression. The event will send a clear message: dissident artists and performers cannot and will not be censored by the long arm of the regime.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
The exhibition Seeing Auschwitz, which opened recently in South Kensington, London, focuses on the images which play a large part in our collective perception of the Holocaust. What makes the images in this exhibition unique is that they were predominantly taken by the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
A focus of the exhibition is to try and humanise these images. Blown up large, we are invited to study the small detail for any stories we can see. A farewell embrace, children laughing, a gaze up to the sky.
The pictures in the exhibition were taken over a three-month period in 1944. The clear, more polished photos taken by the Nazis are juxtaposed by a section of the exhibition which shows several snatched photos taken by the Sonderkommando (work units made up of death camp prisoners). One of the photos (it’s not known how they accessed a camera) shows a group of women being forced naked, a hurried snapshot of terror. Drawings made after the war by one of the Sonderkommando gives an insight into the horror of the gas chambers.
One interesting photo is taken by neither perpetrator nor victim. The image, taken by a 14-year-old boy from his bedroom window, shows inmates from Dachau on a death march through his village. It places the horrors of the concentration camp, very rarely, in a normal, suburban setting.
The exhibition reminds us that, with around two million visitors per year, Auschwitz itself isn’t the only place we can understand what happened there. It can also be ‘seen’ in the void - the absence of large Jewish populations, common in towns and cities throughout Europe before the Second World War, which signifies whole generations of people who will never be born.
Attempts to destroy evidence of the Holocaust by the Nazis failed overall. Aside from antisemitic and right-wing conspiracy theorists, the world is clear about what the Holocaust was, and who the perpetrators were.
Similar efforts to bear witness to atrocities continue today. In March 2022, at least 458 people were killed in and around the town of Bucha in Ukraine by the invading Russian Army, which Russia’s UN envoy denied and claimed was a ‘staged provocation’. Journalists and civilians alike collected evidence to prove that was a falsehood. Elsewhere it is not so easy. In a chilling echo of the Holocaust, around five years ago there were reports that China was building internment camps for its Uyghur population, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority living in the far north western region of the country. The Chinese Foreign Ministry publicly denied there was a genocide in 2021; reporters are rarely allowed into the region where the genocide is taking place and when they are, they are often followed and/or their press trips tightly controlled. Those who have left the region are subject to harassment and intimidation, as we reported in our Banned by Beijing report. Still, a growing network of brave individuals are speaking out, journalists are working hard to obtain information and a clear picture of what is taking place is emerging.
Like Sydney Silverman did in 1942, it’s important for organisations like Index on Censorship to pressure those in power to take action against human rights abuses, to support those who are on the frontlines of gathering information and to also fight back against denial in spite of evidence. In an age of misinformation and disinformation, the fear is that evidence of atrocities, like the Bucha and Uyghur genocides, become distorted from the side of the perpetrator. Seeing Auschwitz reminds us to look deeper into what we’re viewing.
“If a painting can overthrow a government, then the government must be very fragile”
- Lumli Lumlong
Since its inception, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to exert influence over every component of Chinese society, including the world of art. Art is perceived by the CCP as a tool to legitimise its systems of government, not as an expression of human creativity. This project has taken on global relevance as the CCP has sought to utilise art and culture to counter international criticism on a range of topics including the state’s treatment of Uyghurs and Hong Kong’s independence, and assuage concerns about its growing influence in the world economy and international institutions.
The CCP sees itself as the single arbiter of Chinese culture. By the CCP’s definition, being “Chinese” encapsulates not only Chinese nationals but the entire global diaspora. As a result, even artists living in Europe but originally from mainland China, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere can be subject to attempts at censorship if their art does not toe the party line. The tactics used to achieve this goal are diverse: from physical violence and the leveraging of financial ties over European galleries to the threatening of family members. Fear of repercussions for themselves or their families is enough to silence many artists even if they now live in Europe.
The extra-territorial nature of CCP censorship should concern anyone wishing to ensure artistic expression is protected. The perpetual threat of violence against artists and their family members in Europe is a stark reflection of the challenge to freedom of expression that the CCP poses across the world. The ability of the CCP to silence critics and curate conversations about themselves globally is unprecedented.
However, the CCP’s struggle against dissident artists also reflects its weakness. Lumli Lumlong, a Hong Kong painting duo based in the UK, told Index “We really want to expose the cruelty of the CCP. They are fragile, their hearts are made of glass.” While the CCP’s soft power operations in Europe have struggled to influence the artistic landscape in Europe, artists have played a crucial role in raising awareness in Europe of the CCP’s human rights abuses.
To investigate the current state of artistic freedom in Europe, and whether and how the CCP attempts to undermine it, Index on Censorship has submitted over 35 Freedom of Information requests and has conducted interviews with more than 40 artists, curators, academics and experts from 10 European countries. The report demonstrates how art can be used by states to extend the reach of censorship into cities across Europe, while also offering a powerful way for artists to challenge state power.
You can download the report here