The winners of the annual Freedom of Expression Awards were announced lat week. These awards “exist to celebrate individuals or groups who have had a significant impact fighting censorship anywhere in the world”, and they fall into four categories: Arts, Campaigning, Journalism, and Digital Activism.
We’re used to thinking of freedom of expression as the ability to say what we want and how we want, and we know that all over the world people campaign for this and other rights so the first three of those seem intuitive. Digital Activism is very of this era and the entries used digital in diverse ways.
Turkey Blocks – the winner
A campaign/tech team that monitors and publishes information on censorship and government blocking of the internet, particularly social media platforms. They have been able to identify 14 mass censorship events that coincide with political events, and their tools will be used elsewhere in the world.
An online graphic novel that aims to help Iranians understand cyber-danger, and sexual health. Each episode helps readers understand cyber issues such as protecting their privacy online. One goal was to make tech less “male”, and empower women to use technology. Unsurprisingly it was censored by the Iranian government.
A digital sleuth who has investigated government attempts to track journalists and activists in Bahrain, and uncovered technological weaknesses and spyware that put them in danger.
A campaigner for better democracy in Zimbabwe his #ThisFlag campaign kicked off with a video of himself wearing his nation’s flag and led to mass protests. It’s now illegal for a flag to be in private ownership. It’s a mark of a campaign’s effectiveness when the government makes stupid laws in response.
The description for the category is “for innovative uses of technology to circumvent censorship and enable free and independent exchange of information”. Two of these finalists are there because the delivery of their campaign content was digital, and two are there because they did something in the digital ecosystem to understand and expose censorship. It’s a little hard for me to see the publication of a video online as innovative use of technology – YouTube has been around since 2005 – but the impact was high and Evan Mawarire was arrested on his return to Zimbabwe.
Look back at past winners in this category there is a strong reminder of just how great the risk of fighting for these rights can be. Bassel Khartabil won in 2013 for his work on creating a more open internet in Syria. He was not able to accept the award in person as he had been arrested, he is still imprisoned, and other activists are fighting for his release five years on.
Freedom of Expression is a basic right and the cornerstone of a functioning free society, the kind of society I want to live in. All the finalists are fighting for rights I pretty much take for granted, and I really shouldn’t, the rights were hard won and can be destroyed. ,