Index Freedom of Expression awards


Last night Steve and I had the honour of being guests at Index on Censorship’s gala award ceremony at the Barbican Centre in London. Set up in 2000, the Freedom of Expression Awards celebrate some of the bravest and most creative champions of free speech around the planet, and highlight the sinister efforts of numerous regimes and other organisations to censor and silence dissent – an issue I encountered many times during my Year of Reading the World.

The evening combined a number of wonderful experiences. It was the first time we had ever been in the Barbican’s cinema and lush garden room, where we relished sipping something bubbly and looking at the artwork Index has commissioned from cartoonists around the world in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. I particularly liked the picture by Burkinabé cartoonist Damien Glez, which showed a small boy with one tiny, squashed speech bubble next to a massive, bloated and suited bureaucrat or politician, whose robust pronouncements filled the rest of the page.

It was also the first time I had seen comedian Shappi Khorsandi perform live. She was hosting the event and spoke with great wit and humour about her family’s experience of fleeing Iran after her father published a satirical poem. ‘A fatwa is the Iranian equivalent of an Oscar,’ she quipped.

But by far the most powerful experience of the night was hearing about the nominees in each of the four categories – Journalism, Campaigning, Digital Activism and Arts –and listening to the winners’ speeches. From Kenyan women’s rights activist Amran Aboundi, who dedicated her award not only to those she has helped on the Somali border but also to the people who have threatened her because of her work, to Moroccan rapper El Haqed, who has been imprisoned three times and finished his speech with a performance of one of his hits, the people honoured were an extraordinarily inspiring bunch.

We heard from Saudi documentary maker Safa Al Ahmad – who defied the laws restricting women’s movements to make the film Saudi’s Secret Uprising – about the preciousness of facts in a society where the media is the mouthpiece of the state (you can watch her film below). Meanwhile Angolan journalist and activist Rafael Marques de Morais spoke bravely about the court action he must face in his home country, where he is being sued by numerous powerful figures whom his work has exposed. The experience would only empower him further he said.

Closer to home, Hungarian journalist Tamás Bodoky, founder of, talked about the need for investigative journalists to ‘position ourselves outside the mainstream media’ because most outlets have come to ‘represent the interests of local oligarchs’. In addition, exiled Azeri journalist Idrak Abbasov won a special award in recognition of the dangers that he and many of his colleagues face under the vicious crackdown on free expression in Azerbaijan, where several journalists have been murdered in recent years.

By the time actor Simon Callow stepped on stage to end the evening by speaking about his long-term support for Index and to appeal for donations, no one was in any doubt as to the huge amount of work that has to be done to win and safeguard freedom of expression in every society.

After all, there are plenty of places where even writing a blog post like this is a risky business. And the distance between those places and those of us living in so-called ‘free’ societies is smaller than we might like to think.

Photo by Steve Lennon

Costa Rica: searching for solutions

This book was one of a pile of tempting-looking titles that Richard from now-defunct Aflame Books very kindly gave me earlier this year. I had originally been planning to try to source some other recommendations for Costa Rican literature and had in fact had some leads from Cherie at Palabras Errantes. She suggested Anacristina Rossi and Carmen Naranjo as two respected writers from the country.

However, when I tried to track down their books, there was a problem: translations by these writers are extremely thin on the ground. Only a couple of Carmen Naranjo’s short stories seem to be available in English, while Anacristina Rossi’s work is either untranslated or prohibitively expensive – the English translation of her novel The Madwoman of Gandoca that I finally managed to track down would have cost me more than £100 to buy and ship.

That was a bridge too far for me, particularly when I already had a Costa Rican novel peering down at me from the shelf above my desk. Cadence of the Moon by Óscar Núñez Olivas it would be.

Based on the crimes of Costa Rica’s first recorded, and as yet unidentified, serial killer, the novel follows young journalist Maricruz and jaded, divorced police detective Gustavo as they ply the tools of their respective professions to try to solve the case. The extreme sadism and skill of the murderer and the compromised nature of the organisations in which they work test their ingenuity, endurance and professional ethics to breaking point. With only their intelligence and consciences to guide them, do Gustavo and Maricruz have what it takes to find the killer and see justice done?

Gender politics play a huge part in the book. From the ‘game of Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf’ Maricruz is forced to play to win her male colleagues’ cooperation every day of her working life, through to the gruesome, female-focused mutilation rituals of the murderer, this is a novel about how men and women interact. Some of the observations can feel a little two-dimensional and cliched, as when Maricruz’s gay friend Pedro launches into a lecture about the narrowness of straight men, however there are some nice touches that lift the narrative and the handling of the relationship between the two central characters is generally good.

Olivas also does tension well. While working a series of outlandish elements into the story – among them the occult, an underground political movement, and the symbolic significance of the phases of the moon – he manages to keep the plot moving and make it believable. Nevertheless, readers (at least those who can get hold of a copy of this now out-of-print translation) will probably find the ending surprising, given that here the narrative veers sharply away from the conventions of the murder-mystery form, having adhered to most of them throughout the book.

This is probably due to the fact that the things Olivas seems most interested in as a writer are only tangentially connected to the murder case. In many ways, the real focus of the novel is on the politics and compromises that riddle big organisations, such as Maricruz’s newspaper and the police. During the course of the story, both of these come under pressure from outside influences, ranging from advertisers and funders in the case of the newspaper, through to public opinion and government interests in the case of the police – although it must be said that some of the ethical dilemmas Olivas poses his characters are a little underwhelming. Maricruz’s initial reluctance to cultivate Gustavo as an off-the-record source because she believes she should publish everything she discovers, for example, comes across as more than a little naive.

Interestingly, while Olivas, himself a journalist, is relentlessly scathing about the European publisher Mr Grey – who makes crass pronouncements about the ineffectualness of Costa Ricans and all but strangles the newspaper in his desire to micromanage it – the writer is more chary when it comes to the police. Alongside the FBI expert who sweeps in to draw up a psychological profile of the killer, Gustavo and his colleagues appear bumbling and crude in their methods. Whether this is a reflection of the status quo or not I don’t know, but it seems odd that Olivas does not try to balance the exposure of the Costa Rican police force’s weak points with some observations about how its methods might compare favourably with the clinical, anonymous approach of the US agent.

All in all, however, it was a pleasant surprise to find that this book was more than it was cracked up to be. From the cover picture of a gagged woman on a full-moon night, I assumed I’d be getting a brutal and sensationalist whodunnit. In fact, the contents where a lot more subtle and thought-provoking. Hmmn. What’s that old adage about books and covers again?

Cadence of the Moon (En Clave de Luna) by Óscar Núñez Olivas, translated from the Spanish by Joanna Griffin (Aflame Books, 2007)

Italy: beyond the #stopkony effect

The power of compelling storytelling has been demonstrated this week. Within hours of the release of Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 film urging the world to ‘stop’ Joseph Kony, leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, by lobbying for his arrest, the subject was trending on Twitter, clogging up Facebook feeds and scoring Youtube hits in the millions.

The premise of the film is simple. Director Jason Russell exposes the atrocities of the rebel group, which has recruited and brutalised 30,000 children since its inception in 1987, through the story of one former child soldier, Jacob, whom he met while visiting the country as a student nine years ago. The sucker punch comes in the form of a description of the actions of Joseph Kony to Gareth, Russell’s young son, who, on hearing about the deeds of the ‘bad guy’ for the first time, declares that we must ‘stop him’. The issues are so simple and clear-cut, it seems, that even a four-year-old child can grasp them.

However, I suspect Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, which blew open the workings of the Neapolitan mafia in 2006, would advocate a different approach.

Like Russell, Saviano has a personal stake in the story he is telling. In fact, he grew up in the area and watched acquaintances, friends and even his own father suffer at the hands of the Camorra, which metes out a level of violence that Saviano claims has hurled the region into a covert civil war.

His passion for his topic is evident. He knows the power of the personal story every bit as well as Russell does and uses it again and again to bring home the horror of life in the region. We hear of teenagers caught in the crossfire, priests executed for speaking out, beheadings, burnings, flayings, and even the clan member killed by having his mouth and nose stuffed with sand. Indeed, Saviano goes much further than Russell in his attempt to paint a vivid picture, having witnessed the aftermath of brutal murders many times. ‘I believe the only way to truly understand, to get to the bottom of things, is to smell the hot breath of reality, to touch the nitty-gritty,’ he writes.

The individual accounts, though, are only one aspect. Packed with facts, figures, names and details — the result of years of painstaking research — the book traces the web of power in which the region is entangled, revealing how the Camorra controls 50 per cent of Naples’ shops, as well as Campania’s rubbish collections, milk distribution, music festivals, factories, construction, the merchandise it ships all over the world and even parts of the global fashion industry. Saviano’s aim, he says, is to ‘pull the threads of the economic knot one by one to arrive at the criminal head’.

He also contextualises his accounts, providing a rounded picture of Camorra life — from the complex codes that govern the clans’ relations with women and religion to the bizarre copy-cat effect that films like The Godfather have had on the gangsters. At times, he almost seems to feel compassion for the clan bosses, who enjoy a brief reign in the full knowledge that they will soon be overthrown and murdered, writing of the ‘suffering and solitude of a man who must always think he is about to be killed’.

Set against this are the ambulance-chasing reports of the world’s media, which arrived to cover a particularly bloody conflict between clans in 2005. Ignorant of the context and character of the world they are covering, the journalists tear through the streets in search of ‘the worst possible story in the shortest possible time’. In extreme cases, their camera lenses seem to accelerate the horror, goading the gangsters to even greater shows of machismo and ‘the war kills quickly, out of respect for the reporters’. The desire to condense what is a complex and far-reaching crisis into a simple narrative of goodies versus baddies appears to do more harm than good.

Not long after the publication of the book, the Camorra set a bounty on Saviano’s head and he was forced to go into hiding, where he remains to this day. No doubt, if someone asked him if he would like to ‘stop’ the Camorra, he would say yes. But his book shows that the only way we can hope to tackle such entrenched and widespread criminality is by tracing the roots of the problem, understanding its context and the complicity of everyone involved in it, including ourselves.

Arrest one clan boss and there’ll be another one tomorrow. And, who knows, he may be worse.

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano (translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss). Publisher (this editon): Pan Books (2008)