European Endowment for Democracy logo logo stating 10 years supporting Democracy
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Giving a voice to women, youth, and marginalised communities

Fadwa Zidi is the chief operating officer and executive producer at The Munathara Initiative, an online debate forum which seeks to highlight underrepresented voices in the Arab public sphere by creating opportunities for women, youth and marginalised communities to engage in constructive debate and address issues relevant to public affairs. “Our sole aim is to present alternative views and beliefs, and to teach the youth and new generation the art of debating, discussing, and accepting differences without resorting to conflict or letting our beliefs harm us,” says Fadwa.

Munathara organises workshops to train youth, women, and marginalised groups in media skills, such as how to engage in TV shows, formulate opinions, create a political image, and investigate information accuracy, and it also acts as a platform to broadcast debates.

'Musabaqat Munathara’ is an online debate competition where participants are invited to upload speeches in video format, with winners chosen by the general public. They are then paired with politicians or opinion leaders to engage in live-broadcasted television debates. The results of these debates are presented to policy decision-makers and other stakeholders.

“Munathara tries to encourage debate, discussion, and dialogue while facilitating citizen participation in dialogues that have an impact on decision-making processes. I think there are significant challenges in the Arab world, and we acknowledge and confront them,” says Fadwa. By empowering underrepresented voices to engage in the political sphere of their country, Munathara seeks to meet their growing desire for participation in society, and in the overall democratic process.

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Changing people’s mentalities one meme at a time

Fisnik Çerkini started Coolnfresh just before the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The satirical Instagram account posted memes to comment on political and social events and to spark a discussion about topics ranging from corruption to sexism, stimulating critical thinking through satire. “We are trying to show people that you can laugh about any kind of issue while still caring for it.”

Three years later, after going viral during the lockdown, Coolnfresh boasts 127,000 followers, and has expanded to Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, becoming a point of reference for satirical commentary and the most powerful alternative media in Kosovo.

The outlet’s approach can best be described as making fun of everyone across the political spectrum equally, an attitude that has earned Coolnfresh the trust and loyalty of its followers. Coolnfresh also doesn’t shy away from tackling controversial politically incorrect topics, as they believe it’s necessary to help people change their mind.

“Whatever someone’s opinions are, they should be expressed, because if they have any unacceptable ones we can all talk about them and change them, instead of just sweeping them under the rug,” explains Fisnik.

* All references to Kosovo on this website should be understood to be in compliance with United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.

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Empowering Syrian women to take part in public life

When a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck southern Turkey and northwestern Syria in February, many of the people involved were already living in precarious conditions in refugee camps.

“People were already traumatised before the earthquake, because of the shelling, the bad economic situation and the feeling of neglect,” says Hiba Ezzideen Al Haji, who heads Equity and Empowerment.

For Al Haji, humanitarian aid should go hand in hand with developing a culture of human rights. “You have the right to ask for food and shelter, but also the right to ask for democracy,” she says.

Equity and Empowerment’s mission is to enable Syrian women to take part in public and political life. “We are pushing for the community [...] to understand that democracy cannot be achieved without women.”

As part of their work, they bring together women from diverse backgrounds to build trust between different communities and facilitate peacebuilding through discussions on education, health and other common issues. They are also working on engaging more women in public affairs in the Idlib governorate.

“By working with women, we noticed that they are very good negotiators. They can work on the conflict resolutions by themselves. [...] But we’re afraid that, if a political solution [to the conflict] happens, it will exclude women. So we need women to be active in their community now.”

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A rural village protecting their valley and their way of life

Ibrahim Turak has been the president of Pusti me da tečem since 2020, a local movement established to protect the Neretvica valley near the town of Konjic in Bosnia and Herzegovina from an illegal small hydro-electric plant construction project. Planned construction of 15 small hydro-electric plants would have had a disastrous effect on the valley’s unique ecosystem and hugely impacted local people’s access to water.

Ibrahim, together with a large group of people representing five local associations, was determined to fight this construction. The group organised a mass protest in the valley attended by 1,500 people which received national media attention. They then physically blocked construction trucks from entering the valley over a twenty month period as they fought a legal case against the municipality. In August 2021, the group’s legal team successfully obtained a court ruling that the hydro-plant constructions were illegal.

The group began collaborating with environmental groups from throughout the country to campaign for a total ban on the construction of these small hydro-power plants. Thanks to their work, a law was passed in July 2022 banning the new construction of small hydro-power plants in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Building bridges between the Turkish and Armenian communities through literature

“Literature is the voice of the unheard. [...] And literature is a tool to claim a space for our true self and not for the self which is created by a racial stigma or a myth,” says Lora Sarı of Aras, the only bilingual Turkish-Armenian publishing house in the world. Aras has also established the Yesayan Salon, a unique cultural center in the heart of Istanbul that hosts a variety of events related to culture, democracy and free expression.

Aras’s catalogue ranges from novels to cookbooks, and Sarı is especially fond of their children’s literature books. “I grew up with no western Armenian books available, and as a result I had a love/hate relationship with the language,” she recalls. “Now a friend of mine has a shelf for his kid full of western Armenian books.”

In a socio-political context where freedom of expression is increasingly limited, nationalism is on the rise, and the space for both activists and minorities is shrinking, Aras is carving a much-needed niche for Armenian literature, culture and cross-cultural dialogue in Turkey.

“Cultural activities work as a reminder [...] they remind you how people are normalising authoritarian regimes, and that you have to try and reverse this dire situation. I know it sounds like a cliche, but literature also reminds you that courage is contagious.”

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Proudly advocating for LGBTQI+ rights

When Mariam Kvaratskhelia took the helm of Tbilisi Pride in 2021, she had almost a decade of experience in advocating for LGBTQI+ rights.

She was motivated to become an activist by the events of 17 May 2013, when an LGBTQI+ group who was celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB) was violently attacked by far-right protesters.

Ten years later, she’s proud of how far her country has come: “Even though the situation is challenging, I do have hope. [..] There is a shift in public attitudes compared to four or five years ago. Nowadays, 47 percent of Georgians believe that LGBTQI+ rights should be protected.”

Despite the many risks, which include threats from far-right groups and the Georgian Orthodox Church, and its office being raided by a homophobic group in 2021, Tbilisi Pride has managed to start a conversation about queer rights in Georgia. Its community of queer activists are at the forefront of all major demonstrations in the country, including this year’s protests against the controversial ‘foreign agents law’ proposed by the parliament.

“I think that founding Tbilisi Pride took Georgian queer activism to another level: we are more political, we are a force that is listened to, and a group which has a seat at the table where decisions are made,” says Mariam.

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Uncovering corruption and spreading the truth

“Democracy? It's not a gift, but a goal for which you have to fight every day, regardless of all the forces in government. Temptation to abuse power will always exist. Our role is to be careful and to sound the alarm on such cases, to inform society about the values of democracy and to offer an attractive alternative to Russian propaganda” says Mariana Raţă, senior editor at TV8, one of the leading independent TV channels in Moldova.

Since its launch in 2017, the media has consistently been rated among the most transparent and trustworthy TV channels in the country. It has been at the forefront of covering major events affecting Moldova’s politics and society.

As Mariana explains, “people seek us out whenever something important happens in the country. As we’re a young and dynamic team, we’re able to adapt to needs quickly. For instance, we’re one of the few independent TV stations that added more content in Russian following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

By producing original content in a transparent manner, TV8 has positioned itself as an independent alternative to well-resourced Russia-aligned and oligarch-owned propaganda media in Moldova.

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Documenting Russian war crimes in Ukraine

A lawyer and civil society activist, Oleksandra Matviichuk’s human rights defender career spans more than 15 years. She launched the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) in 2017, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.

In 2014, CCL began to document Russia’s war crimes in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in part thanks to an EED grant - one of the very first grants awarded in Ukraine. The grant also allowed CCL to coordinate EuroMaidanSOS, a grassroots initiative demanding justice following the crackdown on peaceful protesters by the Ukrainian authorities in November 2013.

With the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Oleksandra and CCL joined the rest of the country in an exceptional volunteer effort. “Ordinary people started to do extraordinary things. [...] Millions contributed to the resistance,” she says.

CCL is now documenting Russia’s war crimes in the occupied territories, building an archive of evidence to hold perpetrators accountable. Their tireless work was internationally recognised when Oleksandra received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Centre in 2022.

“For decades, the voice of human rights defenders was not heard in our region. And now the Nobel Peace Prize provided us with an opportunity [to be heard],” she says.

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Using the Arab storytelling tradition to break taboos

Ramsey Tesdell is the co-founder and executive director of the Arab-language podcasting platform Sowt and he is a firm believer in the power of storytelling and audio as a vehicle for complicated narratives. It was this belief that led Ramsey and his team to set up Sowt as a podcasting company in 2016 at a time when podcasts were in their infancy in the Arab-speaking world. Their ambition was to take a holistic approach with a focus on ‘the nuance and the spaces in-between’ narratives and to tell the stories not covered in mainstream media.

The Sowt team now produces over 25 shows that cover a range of topics, appealing to audiences in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, and across the Middle East and far beyond, and it is one of the most popular podcast producers in the Arab-speaking world. The award-winning ‘Eib’ podcast (Arabic for ‘shame’) was one of the first shows launched by Sowt. “It was one of the first shows to tackle gender and sexuality in Arabic head-on and without limits…It paved the way for others to tackle these topics,” says Ramsey.

Ramsey acknowledges that the media environment in the Middle East and the Gulf States is not an easy one, and it has become more restrictive over the past 10 years. He believes that podcasts are an ideal medium in this environment, as unlike classical news reporting, they often go under the radar. “Our job is storytelling and narrative; we are not news reporters. We use emotion in a way traditional media cannot, to talk about things that are not covered in the mainstream media,” he says.

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Debunking fake news and investigating corruption from exile

A journalist since 2009, including for the major Belarusian outlet Belsat TV, Stanislau Ivashkevich founded the Belarusian Investigative Centre (BIC) in 2019 to develop investigative journalism in Belarus.

BIC investigates corruption in the country, uncovering cases of money laundering and sanctions evasion. When the 2020-21 protests in Belarus were met with harsh repression by the Lukashenko regime, the BIC team used it to its advantage at first. “Most of the repression was done by plain-clothed police,” explains Stanislau, “So we could easily pretend to be police, approach people, even officials.”

The regime soon increased repression against journalists. Stanislau himself was arrested, as were many of his colleagues. Eventually, all members of the BIC team were forced to flee the country and they are now working from exile.

Collaborating with major media outlets and journalism networks, BIC works to show how Belarusian officials can easily evade EU sanctions and they have uncoveredsmuggling schemes through Lithuania1, Serbia, and Cyprus.2

“Last year we discovered a total of $1 billion in corruption schemes, and of these, $700,000 million were acted upon by the EU,” says Stanislau.