Magda Szubanski, Yassmin Abdel-Magied take out free speech awards

One of Australia’s most popular actors and a prominent activist are among those awarded this year’s major free speech awards, announced today.

A further award went to a journalist asylum seeker who has been imprisoned without trial offshore by the Australian Government for over four years.

Actor Magda Szubanski has topped off an astonishing year by being honoured for her work for marriage equality. She is the recipient of the nation’s top free speech honour, the Voltaire Award.

Given by Australia’s oldest human rights organisation, Liberty Victoria, the Voltaire Award honours a person or group considered to have furthered the right of free speech in the previous 12 months. It recognises those who in their work, interests or passions make an extraordinary contribution to these rights, whether it be through speaking out, writing, campaigning, whistle-blowing or defying authoritarianism. Those honoured have often gone beyond the call of duty or office by refusing to be cowed or silenced.

Magda's drive, warmth and humanity played a significant part in Australia voting for marriage equality.

She rose to national prominence in the hit TV comedy series Kath & Kim and has appeared in numerous award-winning films and shows. After coming out on national television in 2012, Magda threw herself into the marriage equality campaign, lobbying leaders, making frequent appearances and addressing rallies in support of marriage equality.  Magda’s courage, and her fight for love and acceptance of LGBTI+ people has given hope to many, and has brought a light and positivity to the marriage equality campaign.  Her candid, multi-award-winning book, Reckoning, has been a beacon to many, including LGBTI+ people and their families.

Previous winners of the Voltaire Award include former human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, commentator Waleed Aly, journalists including David Marr and Peter Greste, authors, activists and critics.

The Young Voltaire Award has been awarded to mechanical engineer, award-winning social advocate, author and broadcaster, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, whose February 2017 appearance on the ABC’s Q&A was a sensation, gathering over 12 million views in less than a week. Yassmin's courageous activism on topics of race, equality and unconscious bias have brought her to the forefront of public debate in Australia and abroad. Her acclaimed TED talk, ‘What does my headscarf mean to you’ and other public appearances have made her a globally renowned speaker.  Yassmin has published an autobiography entitled 'Yassmin's Story', which tells the story of growing up as a Sudanese Muslim woman in Australia. 

After a social media post on Anzac Day saying 'LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)', Yassmin was attacked by internet trolls, tabloid newspapers and even numerous Members of Parliament. Yassmin refused to give in to fear mongering. Despite being personally targeted by high profile political figures through inaccurate and racist media reporting, she would not be silenced. She continued to speak out against racism, discrimination and harmful stereotypes. Yassmin continues to give voice to the experience of young Muslim women in Australia and beyond.

Later, she said, “The reality is the visceral nature of the fury — almost every time I share a perspective or make a statement in any forum — is more about who I am than about what is said."

Liberty’s Empty Chair award goes to journalist Behrouz Boochani. This award is given to someone who cannot be present because they are detained or in jail as a consequence of their courageous exercise of free speech.

An ethnic Kurd, Behrouz fled Iran after several of his colleagues were arrested in 2013, crossing south-east Asia and then sailing to Christmas Island. He was then transferred to Manus Island, where he has since been held.

With Australian journalists largely barred from Manus and Nauru, his articles for the Guardian and elsewhere bear graphic witness to life behind the wire. He has received an Amnesty International Award and he shot a film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time inside the Manus centre on a mobile phone, which has been shown at the London and Sydney film festivals.

“His courage over the four years of his internment in the face of the horror of Manus – a hell of repression, cruelty and violence – has been of the highest order,”  said the Booker-prize-winning writer Richard Flanagan. “Behrouz Boochani kept on smuggling out his messages of despair in the hope we would listen. It’s time we did.”

The awards will be presented at a dinner in Melbourne on Saturday, July 21 2018.

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Read more about the Voltaire Awards 2018