Women on the Front Line in the Fight for Freedom of Expression

A panel of four women discusses the freedom of expression in their respective home countries and their position as women in the fight for this particular freedom. The discussion is moderated by Marina Petrillo, journalist and author.

According to Khadija Ismayilova of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) the freedom she enjoys in Azerbaijan is not really freedom, so she’s pushing the boundaries. Unfortunately, a couple of years ago this led to her being arrested and spending time in prison. This goes to show that freedom of expression is not respected in Azerbaijan. Even now, after serving time in prison, Ismayilova is still banned from working for foreign media because she has been convicted with so-called illegal entrepreneurship. There are no local independent media, which means she is severely limited in terms of her working life. As for her personal life, Ismayilova was blackmailed by her country’s secret services who had put cameras in her bedroom. This was in retaliation for the Panama Papers, in which it was revealed that Azerbaijan’s president has offshore companies in Panama. Because of the lack of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, many journalists leave the country. When they do this, however, the government will turn to their family members and take them as political hostages. Others, like Ismayilova herself, are banned by the government from travelling abroad. This prevents them from attending trainings, seminars and meetings with other journalists. Being a member of OCCRP has given Ismayilova an opportunity to work with journalists abroad. OCCRP has also helped free her from prison.

Maryam Al-Khawaja is a human rights activist from Bahrein who is now living in Denmark after she was exiled from her home country. According to her, freedom of expression is closely tied to the status of civil society as a whole. The crackdown of civil society and the freedom of expression go hand in hand. The threats to the security of activists extend all the way to western countries, which goes to show that there is no longer an ‘us’ (western society) and a ‘them’ (the Middle-East). Moreover, states are moving from conventional tools of oppression like prison, torture, and unfair trials, to more unconventional tools like travel bans and social media. Activists’ strongest weapon is their credibility, but the Bahreini government tries to defame activists and take away their credibility through social media campaigns. They will also try to limit activists’ access. The human rights elite, those who are able to travel and visit the UN, are not hit as hard by these new tools. It is mainly the grassroots activists, those with a low profile, that are targeted the hardest by governments. Their access is very limited. Al-Khawaja was sentenced in Bahrein for the assault of a policeman, a made-up charge. Because of this, she is not able to travel to any country in the Middle-East or North-Africa, and also several South-East Asian countries. A travel ban seems like a minor thing to deal with in comparison to torture or jail time, but it does make an activist’s life extremely hard and virtually impossible. However, these things don’t get highlighted as much as the conventional tools.

All panellists agree that it is important for journalists to keep telling the truth. Trumps and Orbáns exist because the world tolerates Putins and Assads. The local can become global very quickly, and human rights and the violation of them are no exception. It is journalists’ job to make people aware of the situation all over the world, to make them look outside the bubble of their own country. Problems should not be ignored because they occur abroad. Furthermore, Al-Khawaja suggests that human rights activist take a little break to find new tools and strategies to fight the new situation with. She also stresses the importance of connecting social movements all over the world to strengthen the

As for the OCCRP, the increasing unconventional oppression and regression of human rights leads to journalists not wanting to put their names on their stories for fear of being prosecuted. It is even harder for female journalists, because they will often become the victim of smear campaigns and defamation articles. Miranda Patrucic, investigative reporter for OCCRP, has noticed that for many young female journalists, Ismayilova serves as a role model. She inspires them to be brave and put their names on their pieces. Ismayilova in turn is inspired by the young women at OCCRP, and she owes them a great deal. When she was released from prison, it was one of her students who helped her get back on track and start working again. She also states that the best investigative journalists in Azerbaijan are women. Patrucic suggests that this is because women are more willing to learn new things than men. Men, she says, tend to think they know everything already. Curiosity and determination are characteristics that are typical of good journalists, and it seems that women possess these characteristics more often than men.

Al-Khawaja refrains from calling herself a role model. The fight for human rights should be the rule, not the exception. Therefore, a human rights activist should not be put on a pedestal and seen as different from everybody else. They are just like everybody else, but they just woke up one morning and decided to fight. Every single one of us can do the same. Moreover, women are always talked about as joining the revolution, helping take the lead in the struggle for human rights. However, they were always there. Men just took the credit for everything they did. This is why women need to start their own discourse and stop talking as if they by mistake joined the revolution when in fact they were always fighting.

by Aster Dieleman