Drawn from more than 2,000 nominations, the shortlist celebrates those at the forefront of tackling censorship and threats to freedom of expression. Many of the 17 shortlisted nominees are regularly targeted by authorities or by criminal and extremist groups for their work: some face regular death threats, others criminal prosecution. “The Index Freedom of Expression Awards recognise some of the world’s most courageous journalists, artists and campaigners,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of campaigning charity Index on Censorship. “These individuals and groups often work in isolation, with little funding or support, but they are all driven by the vision of a world in which everyone can express themselves freely – no matter who they are or what they believe.”
Lirio Abbate is a Rome-based journalist working for the weekly news magazine L’Espresso. He specialises in investigating the criminal activity and political connections of Italian mafia groups, from whom he is routinely subjected to violent threats. Abbate has written four books about mafia groups since 1993. The most recent, Fimmine Ribelli or Rebel Women (2013), illustrates the severe plight of women living under the sway of the ‘Ndrangheta’ – the Calabrian mafia. Abbate is also a leading member of press freedom NGO Ossigeno Per L’informazione (Oxygen via information). In 2011 he founded an anti-mafia literary festival called Trame, which has taken place annually in the heart of Calabrian mafia territory.
Safa Al Ahmad has spent the last three years covertly filming an unreported mass uprising in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province. Her 30-minute documentary, Saudi’s Secret Uprising, was broadcast in May 2014, and has drawn wide attention to the violent and bloody protests. Al Ahmad took enormous risks in her regular filming trips. First, as a woman travelling alone, she drew the attention of Saudi officials in a country in which women have limited control over their day-to-day lives. Second, she carried a camera full of footage of dissent. Saudi Arabia is ranked by Freedom House as one of the most restrictive Arabic countries in terms of free expression – Al Ahmad would almost certainly have faced severe punishment if caught filming.
Rafael Marques de Morais is an Angolan journalist and human rights activist. Since 2008 he has run anti-corruption watchdog news site, MakaAngola.org. Marques de Morais exposes government and industry corruption, as well as human rights violations. In 1999, he was arrested and detained for 40 days without charge, and denied food and water for days at a time, following an article critical of the Angolan president. His six-month sentence for defamation was finally suspended on condition that he wrote nothing critical of the government for five years. Within three years he was again reporting abuses. He currently faces nine charges of defamation for reports on human rights abuses committed during diamond mining operations.
Ekho Mosky (Echo of Moscow) An independent Russian radio station, Echo is one of few media outlets that is critical of Vladimir Putin’s regime and describeded by many as the last bastion of free speech in the country. It has an estimated audience of 7 million people across Russia. Echo was set up in 1990 by radio veterans jaded with Soviet propaganda, and has taken an interrogative stance towards Russia’s government ever since. Its focus is on maintaining balance – it airs pro- and anti-Kremlin voices in equal measure. Editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov has often battled with Putin. In 2012 Putin remarked that Ekho served foreign interests and “pour[ed] diarrhoea over me day and night”.
Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla – Bonil is the pen name of Xavier Bonilla, an Ecuador-based editorial cartoonist who draws for several national newspapers, particularly El Universo. For thirty years he has critiqued, lampooned and ruffled the feathers of Ecuador’s political leaders, earning a reputation as one of the wittiest and most fearless cartoonists in South America. More recently, Bonil has gained a new epithet – ‘the pursued cartoonist’ is how Spanish newspaper El Pais styled him in its list of the 12 Latin Americans in 2014 news. Twice in 2014 incumbent president Rafael Correa publicly denounced Bonil and threatened him with legal action – the first case was successful against Bonil, and the second is ongoing.
Mouad “El Haqed” Belghouat – El Haqed, roughly translated as ‘the enraged’, is a Moroccan rapper and human rights activist. His music has publicised widespread poverty and endemic government corruption in Morocco since 2011, when his song ‘Stop the Silence’ galvanised Moroccans to protest against their government. He has been imprisoned on spurious charges three times in as many years, most recently for four months in 2014. Haqed believes that police had been looking for an opportunity to arrest him after the release of ‘Walou’ – Haqed’s 2014 album, which is banned from being sold or played in public. One officer at the scene was heard to say “I have scores to settle with you”. Haqed and his brother were beaten by police as they were detained.
Rory ”Panti Bliss” O’Neill – Rory O’Neill sees his it as his duty as “to say the unsayable”. A Dublin-based stand-up comedian and self-described accidental activist for gay rights, he has performed a comedy drag act under the name Panti Bliss for more than two decades. O’Neill rocketed to international fame in January 2014 after he and national broadcaster RTE were threatened with legal action for defamation following a TV appearance in which he identified homophobic writers and groups in Irish media. RTE edited out the offending segment on its online player, issued an apology and paid six individuals €85,000 of public money to settle the dispute. The apology prompted almost a thousand complaints to the TV station and triggered countrywide debate.
Songhoy Blues – Is a four-piece “desert blues” band, based in Mali. It is made up of musicians who fled north Mali after militant Islamist groups captured the territory and implemented strict sharia law – including the prohibition of secular music – in spring 2012. Despite the lifting of sharia law many musicians continue to self-censor, fearful of the Islamist groups’ return and retribution. In 2014 Songhoy Blues went on a global tour, and also supported artists such as Damon Albarn and Julian Casablancas across Europe. Mojo magazine has named them one of 10 “new faces of 2015”. Their debut album, Music In Exile, will be released in February, and its lead single – Al Hassidi Terei, produced by Zinner – has received critical acclaim.
Amran Abdundi – Is a women’s rights activist based in north-eastern Kenya. She runs the Frontier Indigenous Network, an organisation that helps women set up shelters along the dangerous border with Somalia. It offers first aid and support for rape victims, including moving them to a safer part of Kenya. As well as protecting citizens endangered by the guerrilla activities of Al Qaeda-linked group Al Shabaab, the organisation helps those fleeing drought and failed harvests in Somalia. Abdundi has established radio-listening groups for women, in which she encourages them to challenge repression and educates them about diseases such as tuberculosis.
Yaman Akdeniz and Kerem Altiparmak – Yaman and Kerem are cyber-law experts and internet rights activists who have campaigned vigorously against the Turkish government’s increasingly restrictive internet access laws. Together, they have raised repeated objections to controversial internet law 5651. This law ostensibly blocks access to child pornography and other harmful content, but it is also used to censor politically sensitive content such as pro-Kurdish or left-wing websites. It has been used to block around 50,000 websites. Their advocacy efforts, including an appeal to Turkey’s highest court, forced the overturn of blocks on Twitter and YouTube in 2014.
Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar – Is an Afghan journalist and the executive director of the media advocacy group Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, which works to develop a free media in Afghanistan as the country develops a peacetime society. A radio journalist for more than 10 years, Khalvatgar is also a member of Afghanistan’s Foundation Open Society Institute, working as media coordinator and acting country manager. Khalvatgar is also an active member of the Access to Information Law Working Group, a group of more than 15 media professionals and activists working for better access to Information Law in Afghanistan.
“Nazis against Nazis” (ZDK) – Rechts gegen Rechts was a guerrilla event that took place in Wunsiedel, Germany, in November 2014. It was designed to peacefully counter an annual neo-Nazi march through the streets of the small town where Rudolf Hess is buried. For every metre the marchers walked, money was raised for an anti-extremism, Nazi-rehabilitation charity ZDK. ZDK was set up in 2003 to tackle all forms of extremism – particularly religious and nationalist extremism. As well as rehabilitating neo-Nazi defectors, it recently began a project called Hayad – meaning ‘life’ in Arabic – which aims to de-radicalise Muslims who want to leave their families and join jihadist groups.
The Union of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia – Is an NGO network based in Russia, dedicated to improving transparency and exposing human rights abuses in the Russian military. It aims to provide soldiers’ families with reliable information, kept private by the notoriously secretive Russian military. It also provides legal advice for Russian soldiers and their families, and to conscientious objectors. The first Soldiers’ Mothers groups were established in 1989, in the last days of the Soviet Union. In 2014, members began revealing that their investigations had found that many wounded or killed Russian soldiers had been fighting in Ukraine.
Atlatszo.hu and Tamás Bodoky – Atlatszo.hu is an investigative news outlet founded and managed by Tamás Bodoky, the main goal of which is to promote free, transparent circulation of information in Hungary. The website, which receives around 500,000 unique visitors per month, acts as watchdog to a Hungarian government which has increasingly tightened its grip on press freedom in the country. Through it, Bodoky produces investigative reports based on freedom of information requests, and instigates lawsuits in cases where its requests are refused. In 2014, the website has uncovered cases of state control of the media, election fraud, government corruption, tax fraud, and misuse of public funds.
Nico Sell – Is a US-based entrepreneur and activist for online privacy and secure digital communication. Sell is the CEO of Wickr, a private messaging app with watertight encryption technology. Messages sent using the app ‘self-destruct’ after a length of time adjusted by the sender – from six days to one second – and are then overwritten by gibberish data on the sender’s and receiver’s phones, making them impossible to recreate. Every year at Defcon, Sell runs a nonprofit training camp for children and teenagers called R00tz Asylum, in which digital skills such as white-hat hacking techniques are taught.
Syria Tracker – Is a crisis-mapping platform, which collates and exhibits live data on human rights abuses and other welfare issues brought about by the Syrian conflict. Reports of killings, rapes, water and food tampering, and chemical attacks ongoing in Syria are geolocated and collated onto a live map by US-based volunteers. Syria Tracker synthesises two pre-existing data-sourcing platforms and this combination makes for meticulous accuracy, since data from one source is triangulated with the other, and unverified information is discarded. The news-tracking tool covers anti- and pro-Assad news sources to reduce potential bias.
Valor por Tamaulipas – Is a crowd-sourced news platform, based in Mexico and set up in 2012 to fill the void created by the region’s cartel-induced media blackout. Valor’s online followers – more than half a million on Facebook and 100,000 on Twitter – send in reports of cartel-related violence, such as shootings, robberies, or missing people. These reports are immediately curated and disseminated by the page administrator, with a hashtag such as #SDR (“situación de riesgo” i.e. situation of risk) attached. From its inception, Valor por Tamaulipas (which means “Courage for Tamaulipas”) has been under constant threat by cartels.