Censorship through the millennia

Project Co-Investigator and author of The Literature Police, Peter McDonald discusses charts the origins of censorship and asks how – in the age of digital technology and powerful non-state actors – our ideas about censorship and free expression have evolved…

Once upon a time we all knew what censorship was, who the good and bad guys were, and what could be done to make the world a better place. Look up the noun “censor” in the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll find an outline of a much-told story under definition 2 (b):

An official in some countries whose duty it is to inspect all books, journals, dramatic pieces, etc, before publication, to secure that they shall contain nothing immoral, heretical, or offensive to the government.

Attributing the first instance of this usage to the English poet John Milton, the lexicographers illustrated it with a quotation from his anti-censorship pamphlet, Areopagitica (1644).

He (the author) … must appear in print like a punie (i.e. a new schoolboy) with his guardian, and his censors hand on the back of his title, to be his bayl and suretye that he is no idiot, or seducer.

Following Milton’s gendered rendering, the story, therefore, went something like this: the censor was the bad guy (Milton’s “temporising and extemporising licencer” with his “cursory eyes”). The writer was the good guy (Milton’s “learned” champion of “free writing and free speaking”). And the plot involved the struggle of the latter against the former not just in his own interests, as a member of the “Republic of Letters”, but in the interests of creating a freer and more grown-up commonwealth for all.

True, the odds were stacked in favour of the all-powerful, infantilising state. Yet no matter how often the struggle played out, the outcome was assured: the seemingly puny champions of freedom and truth would prevail in the end.

There wasn’t much room for us so-called “ordinary readers” in all this. We were either the innocents the paternalistic-repressive state was supposedly trying to protect, or the voiceless fellow citizens on whose behalf the writers were supposedly fighting. But, if we wanted to make the world a better place, it was clear who we needed to support.

Messiness of history

For about three centuries, that is, for the greater part of what we could call the “age of print”, this story had some currency and even some plausibility. I’ll gloss over the messiness of the actual history that all too often throws up inconvenient facts. It reveals in some cases, for example, censors who were not cursory or paranoid state bureaucrats but “learned men” in Milton’s sense who believed they were making the world a better place.

And the canonical story hardly dated overnight. Even in the early years of the digital revolution, it looked like it had plenty of time to run.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

So wrote John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the American rock band, Grateful Dead, in the opening of his 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, an Aeropagitica for the digital age.

Barlow wasn’t being quixotic. Far from showing any signs of weariness, the old state giants were already gearing up to make the most of the opportunities the new technologies afforded for extending their sovereignty, whether repressively (think of China), defensively (think of the UK) or aggressively (think of Russia).

The complication was that the emerging tech giants of the post-industrial world were themselves poised to become the new disrupters in ways Barlow did not anticipate.

Over the course of the next decade the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter — the “private superpowers” as historian and commentator Timothy Garton Ash dubs them — turned Barlow’s brave new cyber world into a vast profit-making machine effectively run on surveillance algorithms. At the same time they created the conditions for other actors, whether of the state (think of Donald Trump), allied to it (think of India’s social media vigilantes), or outside it (think of the worldwide population of trolls), to wield new forms of “temporising and extemporising” power.

Sometimes adding the threat of violence to the mix, these new enemies of free expression act like a novel breed of self-appointed censor, deforming, infantilising or closing down public debate at every opportunity.

Freedom to hold opinions

Opening the digital Pandora’s Box may have spelt the end of the old story but well before the 1990s developments in international law had already introduced other complications:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In the aftermath of World War II and amid the gathering shadows of the Cold War, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) represented a major turning point in the long story. It marked the moment the battle-scarred “giants of flesh and steel” collectively agreed if not to curb their powers, then at least to affirm the freedom of expression as a shared ideal.

Only six years later, however, another key UN instrument, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (drafted 1954, signed 1966), added some significant qualifications. The first was under its own Article 19(3) which covers the “rights and reputations of others” as well as “national security”, “public order” and “public health or morals”. Then in Article 20 it prohibited “propaganda for war” and “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the phrase “hate speech”, the origins of which it traces to a report about Hitler in the New York Syracuse Herald for 29 September 1938, now encompasses

hatred or intolerance, esp towards a particular social group on the basis of ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexuality, etc.

At the same time Article 15(3) of the companion Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights embellished the Universal Declaration. It specifically required states,

to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.

Taken together, these legal, cultural and technological developments made the canonical story look less and less tenable in the new millennium. They have also reopened the most basic questions once again: What is censorship? If thinking in simple binaries still makes any sense, then who is on the side of the good and who the bad? And what can we ordinary citizen-netizens do to make the world a better place?

This piece first appeared on The Conversation on 9th September 2018.

 

New RAs Join The Project Team!

We are really pleased to welcome two new Research Associates to the project, each of whom will be bringing their own particular expertise to our work on writers’ organisations and free expression.

Dr Kate Highman

Dr Kate Highman

Dr Kate Highman is an expert in South African literature, whose own work considers debates around plagiarism and cultural ownership in South African literature and the history of English Literature as a discipline in South Africa.She will be bringing her existing expertise on PEN South Africa and on other writers organisations to her research in the PEN Archives in Cape Town.

She will also be contributing blogs and interviews to this website, while she completes her research.

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Dr Chinmay Sharma

Dr Chinmay Sharma is an expert in Indian literature, particularly after Independence and has worked extensively on Mahabharata re-telling in English and Hindi, exploring through this issues around free speech, internationalisation, modernity and nation-building.

He will be working on the PEN Archives in Thesophy House in Bombay, as well as exploring other organisations campaigning for free expression in India.

Chinmay will also be contributing to this blog and hopes to secure some exciting interviews with key figures in Indian literature and free expression campaigning.

We are really looking forward to seeing what we can unearth as we move, this year, into the Indian and South African archives and will be sharing all of our most exciting discoveries here.

On behalf of the rest of the team – welcome Chinmay and Kate!

Read more about the project and our plans for it.

PEN’s Women’s Manifesto

Rachel Potter looks at the important implications around PEN’s new Women’s Manifesto and its place in the organisation’s history…

At the end of last year, for the first time in its history, PEN International issued a Women’s Manifesto. Listing six key principles, and with signatures from 22 global PEN centres, the Manifesto is partly the result of 25 years work by the PEN international Women Writers Committee, as well as the more recent efforts of its first ever woman International PEN President, Jennifer Clement. It calls on PEN centres to endorse non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity.

That Jennifer is the first woman President of International PEN is, in many ways, surprising. From 1923, the organisation began to host annual Congresses in various cities around the world and as the organisation expanded, its rules and regulations became more structured. Dawson Scott was consistently vigilant in ensuring that PEN uphold her

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Current P.E.N. International President Jennifer Clement

feminist principles. In 1928, at the Oslo PEN congress, she noted that it had come to her attention that one of the PEN centres did not admit women. Declaring that this was ‘contrary to the spirit of the PEN’, she insisted that the principle of equality be enshrined in PEN principles.

It was not only London PEN that included prominent Women in its early days. They were key to its global network of centres as well. The vocal cosmopolitan writer and theosophist Sophia Wadia energetically headed up the Bombay PEN centre that was established in 1933. Turkish writer, women’s rights activist and exile, Halide Edip Adivar was a central figure in PEN circles throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and was a key figure in the discussions after the Second World War about the rights of writers. When Adivar and another famous writer gave a speech to the London PEN centre in 1927, the Times wrote enthusiastically about her spellbinding performance. The other writer got barely a mention. He was James Joyce.

There were many other women writers who were active in PEN in the period before the Second World War, including Victoria Ocampo, on-off friend of Virginia Woolf and editor of surrealist magazine Sur who was involved in Buenos Aires PEN, and was important in running the 1936 Buenos Aires Congress.

When Dawson Scott died in 1934, the organisation continued to have strong female and feminist members, including Storm Jameson, who ran the London centre in the late 1930s, and, after the Second World War a host of prominent global women writers, including  Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.

It is not the case that women writers have never been asked to take on the role of International PEN president in the past. At times they simply haven’t wanted to. Perhaps most amusingly, when Virginia Woolf was approached in the mid-1930s she recoiled violently, writing to her sister that she had ‘never been so insulted’ in all her life.

It is nevertheless interesting that the creation of the organisation’s first women’s manifesto should coincide with the fact that it has its first woman president, and that the specific challenges faced by women when trying to write freely has been addressed as an issue distinct from broader rights to freedom of expression. One of the key differences here is that while the founding feminist PEN members tended to focus on equality of rights to membership, access and opportunity, the principles announced today see equality as both ‘equality with men before the law’, and as something that requires taking ‘steps to eliminate discrimination’ as well as the ‘advancement of women writers’. Despite the different understandings of what equality for women writers might entail, I have no doubt that the Women’s Manifesto, and the spirit that lies behind it, would have been enthusiastically endorsed by the organisation’s founder.

Come and join the team!

We are currently advertising for two Postdoctoral Research Assistants to come and help us work on this fascinating project.

One will be exploring the workings of the PEN South Africa Centre and free expression in South Africa, working with Professor Peter Mcdonald.

The other post with be exploring the workings of All-India PEN, and other organisations campaigning for free expression in India, working with Dr Laetitia Zecchini.

For more information on the South Africa post based at Oxford University see the Job Advert and  Further Particulars.

For more information on the India post based at CNRS Paris see the Job Advert and apply direct to Dr Laetitia Zecchini.

 

Freedom of Expression Winner announced!

The winners of the 2017 Freedom of Expression Awards, run by Index on Censorship have been announced and include a Chinese cartoonist, a Russian LGBT campaigner and a brave journalistic team from the Maldives.

Red Pepper (AKA Wang Liming) won in the Arts category, in recognition of his struggles as a political, cartoonist, satirising and criticising China’s government.

Liming said: ‘Since 2010, I have been adhering to the use of cartoons as a weapon against the Communist Party of China’s totalitarianism. The CPC’s blockade and crackdown on freedom of expression has never ceased. Their persecution against me has not stopped.’

He has refused to be silenced by the regime and will continue his work as a a fellow of the Index on Censorship Scheme.

Ildar Dadin is a Russian opposition and LGBT campaigner, jailed for staging a number of silent, one-man protests against Putin’s latest election victory.

Unable to attend the awards due to travel restrictions imposed upon him by the security services in Russia, Dadin may have been released from jail but remains imprisoned in his own home and his own country.

He refuses to stop speaking out and hopes that the award and fellowship will allow him to continue and promote his work worldwide.

Anastasia Zotova accepted the 2017 Campaigning Award on behalf of her husband Ildar Dadin. (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_50a

Turkey Blocks, led by Turkish British Technologist Alp Toker, won the digital activism award for their work monitoring restriction on free expression online in Turkey.

The organisation use software to track black outs and other censorship practices online and have reported 14 instances of online censorship links to Turkish authorities since 2016.

‘Our alerts, issued within minutes of detection, have helped Turkish citizens to stay online when shutdowns get implemented and provided the media with enough confidence to report assertively on digital censorship in Turkey.’ — Alp Toker

Maldives Independent won the Media fellow award, battling an increasingly oppressive regime in the Maldives. Following increasing crackdowns on ‘defamation’, which have allowed the government to heavily fine and even shut down media outlets, Maldives Independent is one of the only remaining independent media outlets.

Editor Zahenna Rasheed, who herself had to flee a violent police raid on the Maldives Independent offices this year said: ‘“Journalists in the Maldives have taken unprecedented risks in reporting on human rights, business corruption and abuse of authority. I believe a free press is crucial, essential in protecting human rights.’

SAGE Publishing’s Ziyad Marar, 2017 Freedom of Expression Award Journalism Fellow Zaheena Rasheed, Maldives Independent’s Ahmed Naish, CNN London bureau chief Tommy Evans (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)EMK_3637web.jpg

Heroes of Free Expression Honoured in Awards Shortlist

Writers and artists fighting for freedom of expression worldwide have been honoured in the shortlist for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards.

A Zimbabwean pastor who was arrested by authorities for his #ThisFlag campaign, an Iranian Kurdish journalist covering his life as an interned Australian asylum seeker, one of China’s most notorious political cartoonists, and an imprisoned Russian human rights activist are among those shortlisted.

The awards are crucial for drawing attention to the causes of artists, writer, journalists and campaigners facing persecution all over the world for their work.

Sixteen people have been shortlisted, some of whom face violence, imprisonment and even death at the hands of authorities and extremist groups.

Nominees include Pastor Evan Mawarire whose frustration with Zimbabwe’s government led him to the #ThisFlag campaign; Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish journalist who documents the life of indefinitely-interned in Papua New Guinea as they seek asylum in Papua New Guinea; China’s Wang Liming, better known as Rebel Pepper, a political cartoonist who lampoons the country’s leaders; Ildar Dadin, an imprisoned Russian opposition activist, who became the first person convicted under the country’s public assembly law; Daptar, a Dagestani initiative tackling women’s issues like female genital mutilation and domestic violence; and Serbia’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), which was founded by a group of journalists to combat pervasive corruption and organised crime.

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Other nominees include Hungary’s Two-tail Dog Party, a group of satirists who parody the country’s political discourse; Honduran LGBT rights organisation Arcoiris, which has had six activists murdered in the past year for providing support to the LGBT community  and lobbying the country’s government; Luaty Beirão, a rapper from Angola, who uses his music to unmask the country’s political corruption; and Maldives Independent, a website involved in revealing endemic corruption at the highest levels in the country despite repeated intimidation.

One of last year’s winners Charlie Smith of GreatFire said:’The GreatFire team works anonymously and independently but after we were awarded a fellowship from Index it felt like we had real world colleagues. Index helped us make improvements to our overall operations, consulted with us on strategy and were always there for us, through the good times and the pain.’

“The creativity and bravery of the shortlist nominees in challenging restrictions on freedom of expression reminds us that a small act — from a picture to a poem — can have a big impact. Our nominees have faced severe penalties for standing up for their beliefs. These awards recognise their courage and commitment to free speech,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of campaigning nonprofit Index on Censorship.

Index on Censorship was set up by the poet Stephen Spender in 1972, to help to advocate for writers and free expression.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony on 19th April and will each recieve an Index on Censorship fellowship which provides support and training in areas such as advocacy and communications.

Awards are offered in four categories: arts, campaigning, digital activism and journalism.

Judges for this year’s awards, now in its 17th year, are Harry Potter actor Noma Dumezweni, Hillsborough lawyer Caiolfhionn Gallagher, former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, designer Anab Jain and music producer Stephen Budd.

Winners, who will be announced at a gala ceremony in London tomorrow.

Funding Granted for Full Cataloguing of International PEN’s Archives

The Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas in Austin has received a sizeable sum to catalogue its vast PEN archives.

The holdings, which relate mainly to International and English PEN but also contain letters and reports from writers and Centers around the world constitute perhaps the largest archive of PEN material in the world, dating back to 1912.

As well as details of meetings and regular newsletters, the archive also contains more than 100,000 pieces of correspondence revealing exchanges between members and documenting the association’s major issues and priorities.

Some of the represented writers include Chinua Achebe, Elizabeth Bowen, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Nadine Gordimer, Günter Grass, James Joyce, Arthur Miller, Octavio Paz, Salman Rushdie, Aung San Suu Kyi, Virginia Woolf and W. B. Yeats.

The important holdings illustrate PEN’s place at the centre of debates not only around writing, censorship and freedom of expression, but also around refugees and asylum, human rights and international cooperation.

The NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) funding, for the project entitled “Writers Without Borders: Creating Global Access to the PEN International and English PEN Records”, includes cataloging and creating an online finding aid for the records.

While the HRC has long held this crucial and fascinating archive, large parts of it have remained uncatalogued, leaving many of its treasures and much of PEN’s history as an international organisation undiscovered.

This grant will allow archivists to properly log all of its contents, to digitise particularly interesting elements for public use and even to use materials to teach students about PEN’s history.