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We are still reeling from the events of last weekend when a series of protesters were arrested in London. The protesters, from the anti-monarchy group Republic, had liaised with the police in advance and been given the green light for their demonstration. Despite this they were arrested as soon as they turned up, with no reason given. They spent the day in jail.
This overreach by the police is, sadly, part of a broader pattern of peaceful protesters and journalists reporting on these protests being arrested, all of which has been exacerbated by the passage last week of the Public Order Act 2023 – which Index has opposed from the get-go.
Commentators have raised the alarm bell. We’re sleep walking into a dictatorship, some have said. Others have warned of the UK turning into an illiberal democracy, like Hungary. So what lessons can we learn from other places that have seen their rights to protest crumble? We asked a series of people – artists, journalists and activists – to share messages with us here.
‘Akrestsina prison wasn’t born in a day’
I read Julian Assange’s letter to King Charles III from HMP Belmarsh. I recognise the prison he describes. 1,768 political prisoners in Belarus recognise it. Thousands of Belarusians who took to the streets for peaceful protests recognise it. The name of the prison is insignificant. When I tell people in so-called “first-world countries” that I spent nine days in prison for a peaceful demonstration in Belarus, they get shocked. We come to these countries for security and protection, because we believe that the rule of law works there. Who will protect their own citizens from their state?
As I followed the news from Coronation day, I questioned: why is the smoothness of the show more important than an individual’s right for freedom of assembly? Why is it so much more important that a bill is passed to make detentions of the organisers legal. They were detained before the protest even began. I remember police in Minsk in 2020 arresting us as we walked from different parts of the city, trying to gather in one spot. I remember the Belarusian oppositional candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu being beaten up and arrested on his way to the protesters on the post-election night on 19 December 2010. I don’t remember it but I read about the opponents of Lukashenka disappearing in the 90s…
Do you think I’m dramatising and it won’t happen in the UK? Not to that extent? Akrestsina prison, this torture chamber where 53 women were kept in a cell for eight, listening to the screams of men raped with a baton on the corridor, wasn’t born in a day. It is the Frankenstein of a society which disregarded the detentions and calls of activists. Don’t let Britain become Belarus.
Hanna Komar, poet and activist from Belarus
‘Authoritarian governments are watching closely’
After Hong Kong finally lifted its last pandemic restrictions in March this year, the first protests were authorised in more than three years. Ever since coronavirus arrived in the city in January 2020, the pandemic had been used as a pretext for banning demonstrations, giving rise to absurd situations where it was legal to gather in a restaurant in a group of 12 but illegal to congregate outside in groups of more than four. Protests still happened during that time, particularly in response to the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020, but once the Hong Kong government raised the fine for violating the four-person assembly rule to HK$5,000 (£500), many people were deterred. Nonetheless, a blind eye was turned to larger groups who turned out to support the government.
When it became legal to protest again, there were a lot of strings attached, often literally. In March protesters against a proposed land reclamation project and waste-processing facility were forced to wear number tags and walk in a cordoned-off line with heavy police presence, while the organisers had to agree not to exceed the permitted 100 participants. Another march, for women’s rights, was cancelled by organisers after police said there was a risk of violence. Former members of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions called off a May Day march after one of the organisers was harassed by police.
The right to protest in Hong Kong is now severely circumscribed, to the point that to do so is to invite police attention designed to deter turning out. The National Security Law has also had a chilling effect on people, who might be fearful of losing their job if they take to the streets. The Hong Kong government continues to claim there is freedom of assembly but, like many freedoms in the city these days, it is highly conditional, even hollow.
Tens of thousands of Hongkongers have moved abroad in the past few years, to Taiwan and Singapore, and also to Western countries, including the UK. For many, it is a refuge away from the deteriorating situation back home. But some are also conscious of how things are not perfect in their new adopted countries. The UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, with its emphasis on disruption, has aspects that are similar to restrictions back in Hong Kong, while in France, many have been shocked by the brutality of the police in repressing protests against the government’s pension reform law. Unlike in Hong Kong, there is still the possibility of legal recourse against these measures, but Western countries ought to be aware how their repressive tools undermine their own criticism of governments such as China’s and Hong Kong’s. When British police arrest anti-monarchy protesters, authoritarian governments are watching closely, and are only too happy and eager to use this as a justification, however disingenuously, next time they round up protesters on their own turf.
Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, poet from Hong Kong
‘Continue standing up for your voice’
Hungary has a long history of protests. In March 1848, a group of intellectuals kicked off a demonstration against the Habsburg empire, which led to the creation of the dual monarchy after a year-long fight. In 1956, university students sparked a mass protest against the USSR, in which over 2,000 people were killed, but which ultimately resulted in a softer governance. It was a series of protests that led to the toppling of Hungary’s last socialist PM, Ferenc Gyurcsány, too, following the leaking and broadcasting of a profane and controversial speech in 2006. A young right-wing party, Fidesz, organised multiple protests.
Ultimately, these events and Fidesz’s role contributed to the election of party chair Viktor Orbán in 2010. Since then, he has been leading the country into an increasingly anti-democratic future, including cracking down on protesters’ rights.
The country has witnessed plenty of protests since, despite increasingly strict laws and growing retaliation. In the latest, students marched against the restrictions of freedom of teachers. Two events, held one week apart in April and May, were both ended by the police spraying tear gas, in some cases directly in the faces of minors.
The popularity of these protests shows that the Hungarian youth isn’t keen on standing down and giving in to a future without voice, joining youth around the world, be it protesting against monarchy, for pensions or human rights.
Videos of this protest see visibly young people tearing down the metal fence in the Buda Castle, climbing on buildings and chanting the mantra of protests around the world: we won’t allow this.
“This shows that we got under someone’s skin, we started doing something… And maybe we will get even more under their skin,” one young protester said when asked why she persists, by the independent portal Telex.hu. Perhaps this should be a message for all protesters around the world: to continue standing up for your voice and displease those who are trying to take it away.
Lili Rutai, journalist from Hungary
LGBTQI rights. Gender equality. Media freedom. The fate of liberties in Hungary hang in the balance as the nation heads to the polls on Sunday. With a falling currency, a mismanaged response to the pandemic still fresh to mind and a stronger opposition under United For Hungary – a coalition of six parties spanning the political spectrum – the election campaign has been the closest in years. But the war in Ukraine, right on Hungary’s border, has changed its course in unexpected ways. Below we’ve picked the most important things to consider when it comes to the April 2022 elections.
Basic rights could worsen
Since his election in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has whittled away fundamental rights in the country to the extent that Hungarian activist Dora Papp told Index in 2019 free expression had no more space “to worsen”.
Orban’s main targets have been people who identify as LGBTQI. Last year, amid global outcry, he passed a law that bans the dissemination of content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change. Seeking approval for this legislation, Hungary is holding a referendum on sexual orientation workshops in schools this Sunday alongside the parliamentary elections.
Orban also takes aim at the nation’s Roma and immigrants, and has revived old anti-Semitic tropes in his attacks on George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist who Orban claims is plotting to flood the country with migrants (an accusation Soros firmly denies).
As for half of the population, Orban’s macho-style leadership manifests in rhetoric on women that is dismissive, insulting and focuses on traditional roles. Asked in 2015 why there were no women in his cabinet, he replied that few women could deal with the stress of politics. That’s just one example. The list goes on.
His populist politics have seeped into every democratic institution and effectively dismantled them. The constitution, the judiciary and municipal councils have all been reorganised to serve the interests of Orban. Education, both higher and lower, has seen huge levels of interference. Progressive teachers and classes have been removed. Even the Billy Elliot musical was cancelled after Orban called the show a propaganda tool for homosexuality.
But the media can’t freely report much of this
In response to claims of media-freedom erosion, the Hungarian government likes to point out that there are no journalists in jail in Hungary, nor have any been murdered on Orban’s watch. But as we know only too well there are many ways to cook an egg. Through gaining control of public media, concentrating private media in the hands of Orban allies and creating a hostile environment for the remaining independent media (think misinformation laws and constant insults), the attacks come from every other angle. Orban has even been accused of using Pegasus, the invasive spyware behind the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, to target investigative journalists.
It’s little wonder then that in 2021 Reporters Without Borders labelled Orban a “press freedom predator”, the only one to make the list from the EU.
As election day approaches the attacks continue. In February, for example, pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet said it had obtained recordings showing that NGOs linked to Soros were “manipulating” international press coverage of Hungary, a claim instantly rejected by civil society groups.
Ukraine War has shifted the narrative, for better and worse
Given Orban’s track-record on rights, it comes as no surprise that he’s the closest EU ally of Vladimir Putin. This wasn’t a great look before 24 February and it’s even less so today, as the opposition are keen to highlight. They are pushing Orban hard on his neutral stance, which has seen him simultaneously open Hungary’s borders to Ukrainian refugees and oppose sanctions and the sending of weapons.
But Orban is playing his hand well. Fears of becoming embroiled in the war appear to be stronger in Hungary than anger at Putin’s aggression, many analysts says. Orban is claiming a vote for him is a vote for stability and neutrality, while a vote for the opposition is a vote for war. He’s even tried to cast his February visit to Moscow as a “peace mission”.
And though he has condemned the invasion, he has yet to say anything bad about Putin himself. Worse still, Hungarian media is blasting out Russian propaganda. Pundits, TV stations and print outlets are pushing out lines like the war was caused by NATO’s aggressive acts toward Russia, Russian troops have occupied Ukraine’s nuclear plants to protect them and the Ukrainian government is full of Nazis.
Yes. Orban met with a coalition of Europe’s far-right in Spain at the start of the year. They discussed the possibility of a Europe-wide alliance. What that looks like now in a post-Ukraine world is hard to tell. We’d rather not see.
Then there’s the fact that Serbia also goes to the polls Sunday. Like Orban, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by president Aleksandar Vučić, has been unnerved by growing opposition. Also like Orban, they’re close to Putin and using the Ukraine war to their advantage – reminding people of the 1999 Kosovo war when NATO launched a three-month air strike. Orban and Vučić have developed close ties and will no doubt be buoyed up by each other’s victories should that happen on Sunday.
So will the Hungary elections be free and fair?
If the 2018 elections are anything to go by, they will be “free but not fair”, the conclusion of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who partially monitored the 2018 election process. That’s the optimistic take. Others are fearful they will be neither free nor fair, so much so that a grassroots civic initiative called 20K22 has recruited more than 20,000 ballot counters – two for each of Hungary’s voting precincts – to be stationed at polling centres on election day with the aim of stopping any voting irregularities.
News from yesterday isn’t confidence-boosting either. Hungarian election officials reported a suspected case of voter fraud to the police. Bags full of completed ballots were found at a rubbish dump in north-western Romania, home to a large Hungarian minority who have the right to vote in Hungary’s elections. Images and videos shared by the opposition featured partially burnt ballots marked to support them. As of writing, no details have been provided of the actual perpetrators and their motives, and Orban has been quick to accuse the opposition of being behind the incident. Either way, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
As Slovenia takes over the presidency of the council of the European Union, some are questioning the country’s commitment to one of the bloc’s key principles, that of the freedom of the press.
A new report by Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a coalition of non-governmental organisations that tracks press freedom in EU Member States, says Slovenia “is no longer a relative safe haven for free media” and that prime minister Janez Janša and the ruling Slovenia Democratic Party (SDS) are “undermining critical journalism, reaching for control of public service media and reshaping the media landscape to boost SDS propaganda channels while pressuring mainstream media”.
The report reveals that journalists in the country are facing rising threats of violence and women journalists in particular are facing misogynistic and sexist insults that have been legitimised by the government’s actions.
Janša, for example, has openly questioned the legitimacy of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA), which covers events in the country, and launched a vicious and completely unfounded attack on Bojan Veselinovic, its director, accusing him of murder.
Janša posted a tweet, a familiar tactic employed by the prime minister to put pressure on opposition voices online, which said: “Amazing for the EU in the 21st century that a collaborator in the murder of a journalist is still leading the STA and therefore cashes in 8,500 euros per month, more than the president of the republic.”
The allegations are unsubstantiated, but the STA is one of many opposition voices that has faced attacks this way.
Meanwhile, investigative journalist Blaž Zgaga, who questioned the government’s Covid-19 response in April, has received multiple death threats.
Slovenia’s 2006 media law is viewed as outdated and offers journalists little protections against smears and political interference.
It is clear there is a combination of the government attempting to change the media narrative, as well as defunding critical voices. It means journalists in the country are facing increasingly difficult circumstances.
The STA had its state funding revoked and will not receive it again unless it submits to direct financial oversight from the government’s communications office (though Slovenian media have since reported that funds are to be given). The move would essentially put the agency under the direct control of government communications.
It is indicative of a strategic ploy by the government to remove state funding from opposition voices, but reward its cheerleaders. The report says that “propaganda outlets parroting the party line are rewarded with lucrative advertising contracts from state institutions and companies”, for example.
Janša’s schemes have been likened to the strategy implemented by Hungarian autocrat prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has faced heavy criticism for his record on free speech, as has the government in Poland. Hungary and Poland are known to be two of the most concerning cases regarding free expression in Europe.
Ties between Janša and Orbán are known to be close, as Anuška Delić, journalist and founder of Oštro, a centre for investigative journalism, wrote in the winter 2020 edition of Index on Censorship magazine.
Motivation for Orbán’s interference in Slovenia is obvious, as he looks for supporting voices in a Europe when there is concern over his actions.
Hungarian funds, with ties to Orbán and his Fidesz party, are being funnelled into pro-SDS media outlets, which, in a country where media revenue is declining and funds are desperately sought, should be of great concern.
The outlook is not entirely bleak, the report said.
“Despite these pressures, the Slovenian independent media sector has proven to be resilient and has continued to display high-quality watchdog journalism during the pandemic. Importantly, support and solidarity between civil society, journalists’ associations and newsrooms has been strong, giving hope for the future of the media landscape in Slovenia.”
Yet not everyone is convinced.
Delić has welcomed the report’s findings, but questioned the notion that media freedom in Slovenia is not as threatened as elsewhere, and said that it will not take much for Slovenia to become the next Poland or Hungary.
“We have just witnessed a new case of meddling where the prime minister asked Val202, a public radio station, on Twitter whether it was true that they played a current protest song on Independence Day,” said Delić, who was consulted by the authors of the report. “On that day one of the speakers at the official celebration was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán whose government’s malign influence in Slovenia is clearly portrayed throughout the report.”
As Slovenia takes on the Council presidency, the report’s authors have called on the country’s government to stop the defunding of journalism, amend current media legislation and publicly condemn threats against reporters.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
“The invasion of privacy is the reverse side of censorship. If you don’t feel that your privacy is immune, you’re not going to speak out, you’re going to hold your tongue. Or not talk about certain things. So it has this strange underbelly of censorship,” said Judith Vidal-Hall, former editor of Index on Censorship from 1993 to 2007. I meet Vidal-Hall on a sunny afternoon at a river-side cafe in West London to discuss her experiences of editing the magazine. We’re chatting about the internet and the privacy concerns that come with it, a concern that went from almost non-existent to ubiquitous during her time as editor.
“One of the greatest threats to free expression at the moment is privacy,” she added.
Vidal-Hall worked at Index at one of the most pivotal eras in recent world history. In 1993 the Twin Towers still stood, the world wide web was in its infancy and South African apartheid continued to be enforced. By 2007 the political and social landscape had become almost unrecognisable.
Under Vidal-Hall’s stewardship, Index navigated this global metamorphosis, identifying those in power who obscured the truth, those who were being shut out of the narrative, and gave the “voiceless a voice”.
How did Vidal-Hall find herself editing the magazine in 1993?
“It’s quite a long story, it’s a bit of a saga,” she told me over sausage rolls and tea. And a bit of a saga it really is. Returning to the UK in 1976 after a couple years of travelling, Vidal-Hall approached the Guardian, on behalf of a Bangladeshi friend, to start the Guardian Third World Review. It was, she said, “an absolutely pioneering supplement where third world people told their own stories”.
She remembers a Guardian journalist at the time asking her: “Don’t you think we treat the third world fairly?”. “That’s not the point.” she had replied. “You’re keeping their voices out…I didn’t use the word at the time I don’t think, but they’re censored. You keep them out.
Without skipping a beat, she added: “We then started a magazine called South.” South: The Voice of the Third World, was a monthly magazine which was about including other voices. South closed its doors in 1989 and, Vidal-Hall chuckled, “my husband buggered off at the same time so I was left with no husband, no income”.
Shortly after, she received a call from Philip Spender, who was running Index, asking for a reference for Andrew Graham-Yooll, who had been an editor at South. Graham-Yooll became the editor of Index, and it was he who brought Vidal-Hall into the fold.
It was not the best time for Index. Many of Index’s funders had seen it as “a Cold War weapon” and, believing communism to be over with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they had withdrawn their funding. By the early 1990s Index was “basically bankrupt”.
Enter the Fritt Ord Foundation, a group of Norwegian newspaper owners “ashamed of the takeover of their media by the Nazis in the 40s, and they had made a resolution, never again to work for anyone but themselves and to support independent media.”
And so in 1993, supported by funds from the Fritt Ord Foundation, Index was relaunched with Vidal-Hall as the editor, who had some big plans.
“One was to make it an attractive, readable magazine.”
Next: “I wanted it to be much more diverse…it did have a sort of Cold War focus and I wanted to bring in a much more global focus.”
“The third thing I wanted was to get rid of the idea that censorship was what they did out there, not what we did. They censor, we don’t. So I wanted to make it universal, the concept of censorship.”
I discuss with Vidall-Hall an Index article from 2002 by Noam Chomsky, Confronting the Monster. In this article Chomsky, writing in the wake of 9/11, examines how the West considers only actions taken by the enemy to be war crimes, while believing their own actions are always justified.
“He was so much my hero,” Vidal-Hall said on hearing Chomsky’s name.
“The them and us, it’s a good way to put it [referencing Chomsky’s article]. They do it, we don’t. And I wanted to break that, so that was my main [aim], to make Index inclusive not only of all genders, colours etc and creeds, don’t forget creeds, but also to make it inclusive of us, as guilty as them in a different way.”
As we discuss Chomksy’s article, I ask what was the most important global event that happened while Vidal-Hall was at Index.
She says gathering around the television in the office to watch events on 9/11 unfolding live: “And that in some ways was the beginning of what I would call a series of events. It changed the balance, the perspective, relationships and priorities in the world. So, off the cuff, I would say that the sequence of events between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq…that was the changing moment.”
The conversation turns to media coverage of that time. How were the narratives controlled by the states in question? What did it mean for freedom of expression?
“[In 2001-2003] people thought they had freedom of expression but they didn’t know the facts. And why didn’t we know the facts? We were lied to, there were no weapons of mass destruction.”
She added: “For me, and it’s very personal, what that invasion did was destroy a level of what seemed like stability in international relations. And I think the revelations of the inquiry into the lies that have been told was quite shocking… Are governments transparent? No! When they need to lie they will lie if it defends them.”
While the events of 2001 to 2003 were the most important during Vidal-Hall’s time as editor, her favourite issue predates them. It is a 1999 issue called Underexposed, which explored the censorship of photographs.
“It was fascinating. I didn’t go to the office for days. I spent weeks searching [for images]…some of the ones I remember most clearly, visually, are the ones from the early 30s when Hitler was coming to power. The photos that were never published. I’ll give you one example. Never published in Germany! Photos of him. There’s this one photo where he’s being coached in sort of rhetoric and he didn’t want people to know that he was being coached.”
Vidal-Hall also reflects on interviews she conducted in the early 1990s, one with a key player in modern European far-right politics.
“When the [Berlin] Wall came down I went out to Hungary and various other places…I did some rather interesting interviews…One of them was with a man you might have heard of, Viktor Orban. I interviewed him back when the Wall had come down, communism had fallen and him and another young man whom I’m still in touch with, Peter Molnar, I interviewed them together. They were the founder of Fidesz, the party that has now gone extreme right. And Orban seems to have undergone a personality change.”
Meditating on far right politics in Europe today, Vidal-Hall said: “How much of it is our mistake in thinking that democracy can just be delivered to the door by Amazon in a parcel with a smile?”
This gloomy take is offset by Vidal-Hall’s praise for Index: “As a publication you are unique, there is nobody else who is doing what index is doing. And that is extraordinary, to remain so. I feel strongly about that.”
The interview wraps up and I leave, my mind awash with the battles Index has won alongside all of those that we are still fighting today. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]