Europe and Central Asia: Women on the frontline of defending free speech

Europe and Central Asia: Women on the frontline of defending free speech - Civic Space

Oslo, Norway, 2020. Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/ Shutterstock

Women around the world are creating their own networks as a means of self-protection, solidarity, and support. To mark the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, ARTICLE 19 speaks to several woman journalists and activists in Europe who are on the frontline of defending free speech and press freedom in their countries.


Anna co-organised the first civil rights protest in the history of her small Polish town. Bojana is a seasoned investigative journalist who, together with her colleagues at KRIK, reports on organised crime in Serbia in spite of threats. Diana leads an organisation that works towards better protection of journalists and freedom of expression in Kazakhstan. Hanna brings to international attention the ongoing repression of her compatriots in Belarus and tirelessly advocates for justice. While they all come from countries with distinctly different levels of freedom, they do have a lot in common. Each of these courageous women – together with their peers – refuse to cease their efforts to safeguard human rights, including the right to protest, the right to speak, and to be informed, as well as to be free from any form of violence. 

Anna, Bojana, Diana, and Hanna sat down with ARTICLE 19 and spoke about their daily work, hopes, and the struggles they face on the bumpy path towards accountability and protection of civil freedoms.

Poland_activist_Anna Styranczyk

Anna Styrańczak, Women’s Strike activist, Węgorzewo, Poland 

Many are asking: “Where is the Women’s Strike”? We are scattered across Poland, we are in big cities, small towns, and in the countryside. There are thousands of us. We are part of a great vibrant movement and we gradually change the grim reality in Poland. We are here to remind the authorities that our fundamental rights need to be respected and we will not cease to defend them.

My message to other women: Do not put too much pressure on yourself. Do what is in your capacity. Whether it is being on the frontline or sharing the petition away from the hustle and bustle.

 Coordinating a protest in a small town really differs from a campaign in a big city. While it’s easier to reach out to people directly, taking to the street also means a lack of anonymity. You meet your neighbours, your distant family members, or even your kids’ teacher. Their reactions will not always be positive. People in small towns are not used to protesting as a means of showing civil disenchantment. You need to prepare yourself for a scenario where there are only 5 people beside you at a protest. That’s why every person matters. Regardless of the turnout, you need to be strong and determined enough to shout, cheer and carry on with your plan like you would be speaking to thousands. The fact that at the exact same time, women across Poland were marching the streets of their cities like we did in Węgorzewo gave me strength and a strong sense of solidarity, and sisterhood. even if there were only a handful of us.

The protest we organised in 2016 as part of a nationwide wave of the reproduction rights movement in Poland was the first of this kind that took place in my hometown, Węgorzewo. For many people in such a small community, showing your anger on a street was a real shock. Reactions have been drastically different over the years. Some people have tried to take away my megaphone or spit on me. Others have smiled or shown their thumbs up. The fear is real but so is the satisfaction when a woman you greet in a doctor’s office or a grocery store comes to you and wants to sign the petition for liberalisation of the abortion law. It creates a non-verbal connection and a sense of unity. Especially when you start noticing more and more people with protest badges with a red lightning bolt. More people also trust us with their problems and seek support in abortion or for their LGBT friends/family members. We are honoured they confide in us.

Our experience in organising protests comes in handy while coordinating support for people from Ukraine who come to Poland to flee the war. I am Ukrainian myself and assist refugees in their dialogue with institutions and NGOs that can help them further. I also assist in teaching Polish or translating documents. 

You ask me if I ever feel discouraged. I have lots of energy but there are moments I need to slow down and regroup and charge my batteries. Being an activist can be exhausting and frustrating but I would argue against the idea that nothing has changed. We may not have made the government repeal the oppressive abortion ban but the change in people’s minds and behaviour is visible. People seem to abandon their prejudices and choose their words more carefully, not to hurt vulnerable groups who continue to be targeted with hostile rhetoric fueled by far-right groups.


Serbia_journalist Bojana Jovanovic KRIKBojana Jovanovic, investigative journalist and Deputy Editor-in-chief at KRIK, Belgrade, Serbia

Just four days before me and my colleagues from KRIK received the first prize EU award for investigative journalism for the best investigative story in Serbia in 2021, we were ‘awarded’ with something else – a conviction. The judge convicted us of defamation over a report we published about the evidence presented in court involving the ex-director of the secret service, now interior minister. The person who sued us is known, among other things, for his sexist statement to a female journalist – while the journalists were preparing to take a statement from him, he said that he ‘likes female journalists who kneel easily’.

It is just one of the 11 lawsuits we are currently facing. I personally have three lawsuits against me – two were filed by heads of the police witness protection unit and one by a controversial businessman who was on the run for more than a decade, hiding from the Serbian judiciary.

But these events are the best portrayal of our everyday life and work – while we are being awarded for our outstanding investigative work, powerful people close to the government are pressuring us, suing us, and trying to discredit or intimidate us.

It is not easy to be an investigative and independent reporter in such circumstances. During my 12-year journalistic career, I worked on different topics, mostly organised crime, and its connections with people in the government, and I never faced the things I am facing in the past several years.

Besides lawsuits, I and my colleagues were targets of the smear campaigns; we have been labelled traitors, spies, and criminals.

I would lie if I said that I never asked myself if there was too much stress or annoyance and if it was time to quit and give up. But very quickly I would remember that for me this is not just a job, it is a way of life, a life calling, and it is very hard to part with it.

And I know that giving up is exactly what all of those who are pressuring us want – that’s why they do it so that we quit and make it easier for them. So, I am not giving up. I work with great people and that’s giving me strength – we fight and walk this path together to bring a positive change to society and help people to better understand how crime and corruption affect their lives. It is a fight for a better life, rule of law, and democracy.

We are not heroes. Far from it, we’re just doing our job.

And most important – my team consists mostly of women.


Kazakhstan_Diana OkremovaDiana Okremova, Director of the Legal Media Center Public Foundation, Astana Kazakhstan 

The mass protests that broke out in January were a real test for all of us living and working in Kazakhstan. The violent crackdown on civil society and those who were documenting it once again showed that journalists need support, legal protection, and solidarity from their peers. 

Our foundation was established almost 20 years ago and we have been busy with work ever since. At first, we focused on consultations and workshops and then got more engaged in media research as well as discussions on legislative measures concerning press freedom. Back then achieving a positive change seemed hardly possible. We have been up against restrictive laws and state control of the media, including their financial dependence. After years of consistent, arduous work through public statements, legal actions, and discussions with key stakeholders we can talk about slow progress. 

In recent years, we have been working in various areas: protecting digital rights, freedom of speech online, access to information, lobbying for progressive legislative norms, and reforming the system of state media funding. Day by day we become stronger, more resilient, and wiser. Our organisation is led by women. We prove that women are by no means weaker than men and break harmful gender stereotypes that are still deeply rooted in the fabric of our region’s identity. 

Human rights work is dangerous and difficult but can be incredibly fulfilling. Especially when your efforts lead to real results. It’s comforting to know that you and I are not alone in this ongoing quest for justice. We can support each other both mentally and also through other concrete resources. However, it’s easy to keep going for the fences and experience mental burnout. That’s why observing your body and mind is important. We need to recharge our batteries every now and then.


Belarus_Hanna LubiakovaHanna Liubiakova, Belarusian journalist, researcher, and activist. She is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

More than two years have passed since the stolen election and state terror the regime in Minsk unleashed against the citizens of Belarus, the country’s civil society, and independent media. But it has also been two years of resilience, solidarity, and dedication to our profession. We continue working from exile, having a vast network of witnesses and citizen journalists on the ground who risk their freedom while sending information to the media. Independent websites are blocked but we use social media. Newspapers are banned from printing but we use leaflets or Samizdat, which are self-made newspapers.

The safety of our sources in Belarus is so far the biggest concern and challenge. But it can also be scary for many of us in exile. I am personally on the regime’s wanted list based on the criminal case for ‘attempting to seize power’. It makes me a target. Many of us also struggle with digital threats and our families’ intimidation back at home. The regime wants to silence independent sources, arrest our colleagues in Belarus and repress us abroad, but we won’t stop. We develop institutional support and help each other on a personal level because, with the war against Ukraine, the role of independent media in Belarus only increased.