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Removal of British schoolgirl's prizewinning pro-Palestine speech sparks row

Speakers Trust denies that Leanne Mohamad was disqualified for her speech, MEE reveals
Leanne Mohamad, 15, participating in the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge (YouTube)

The organisers of a public speaking competition in the UK have been criticised for removing the video of a British-Palestinian schoolgirl giving an impassioned call for Palestinian rights in her entry. 

Leanne Mohamad, a 15-year-old secondary school student from east London, won the regional final of the prestigious Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge last week. In her speech, Mohamad told an audience of 1,200 that the “time had come to stop the suffering of innocent children” in Palestine.

However, Speakers Trust, the London-based body behind the competition, have since removed the video of her entry from its website, prompting allegations of self-censorship.

Mohamad, who has recieved abuse on social media over her speech, has complained that she was “silenced” after a campaign by pro-Israel “adult trollers”.

The three minute-long speech entitled "Birds Not Bombs," which is now available on YouTube, begins: “What if I told you that for some children across the world, hide and seek is not just a game but a matter of life or death... How would you feel if you were woken every morning by bombs not birds?”.

Mohamad fought off competition from 18 other speakers to win the event, but the announcement of her victory and the video of her entry was removed from the Speakers Trust website over the weekend amid reports that Mohamad had been disqualified from the next round for “an anti-Israel speech”.

In an interview with Middle East Eye, Julie Holness, the chief executive officer of the Speakers Trust, denied that the teenager had been disqualified and said her earlier comments on the controversy had been “misconstrued".

She said the teenager was one of 22 regional winners whom judges decided did not merit a place in the next round of the competition, and that the video of her entry had been “removed for her protection” after abusive messages had been posted underneath it.

However, Holness also said that she and some of the judges, including herself, had “concerns” that the speech could be “potentially inflammatory”.

She added: “Our concerns were whether it was upbeat enough and whether it was potentially inflammatory, but it was absolutely not disqualified for those reasons. Those concerns have been misconstrued into a claim that she has been disqualified because we took the video down, as we were unable to moderate the comments over the weekend.”

The video has already gained tens of thousands of views on YouTube and sparked a fierce online debate over censorship of legitimate debate.

On Monday, Mohamad told Middle East Eye that she was asked to take part in the competition by her “very supportive school” and was “saddened” that she had been targeted by “adult trollers”.

She said: “I am a very reserved young lady and they wanted to help me build my confidence which I have the upmost respect for and am really saddened that my lovely school is being subjected to this abuse as well.”

“I am a 15-year-old child and should not be subjected to the vile abuse that I have been receiving. We are working with the police regarding the online abuse.”

Mohamad added that the video was taken down by the Speakers Trust “without any consultation,” but that she blamed “adult trollers” for reports that she had been disqualified.

She said: “They will not succeed as I have been advised by the Speakers Trust that the video will be put back online shortly.”

“I would like to thank everyone for all the wonderful support I have received especially from family and friends but overwhelmingly from so many people that I do not know.”

Pro-Palestinian activists on social media have been quick to point out that Mohamad’s speech received loud applause from her fellow students, after she called for “justice for Palestine” and told the audience how her “baby cousin” had died in Palestine because he was “not offered correct medical care”. In the speech, Mohamad said, “He died because he was Palestinian.”

Her speech continued: “The time has come to stop the suffering of these innocent children. I am Palestinian and I am human. I shouldn't have to remind the world of that.”

“If I make a mistake you blame it on me and not my religion. Because terrorism has no religion. And this all comes [down] to equality. Nobody should be discriminated [against] because of their culture, their country or their race. Discrimination is wrong.”