Tag Archives: free expression

cif-social-media

Free speech will suffer if politicians get tough on offensive tweets

I’ve had another article published on Comment is Free—this time about social media prosecutions and the tougher prison sentences that MPs want to introduce to punish those who send threatening messages via Twitter.

Social media is supposed to be the great enabler of free speech, but in fact it’s full of paradoxes. Posting on Twitter or Facebook is sometimes the quickest way to get censored. Governments like China and Vietnam closely monitor the online space for any sign of dissent, and a recent law passed in Saudi Arabia means a simple retweet could land you in prison for a decade.

Life is better in the UK, but the contradictions persist. Caroline Criado-Perez received misogynistic threats when she launched a campaign to keep a woman on the £10 note. Jane Goldman felt compelled to leave Twitter after receiving a torrent of abuse – ironically because her husband Jonathan Ross was perceived as sexist. Rape threats, hate speech and racism are common on social media. Women and minority voices are being forced off the platform: precisely the people who we need to hear more from in our political and cultural discussions.

These contradictions are a challenge to anyone who values free expression and open rights online. If we do not act to fix this problem – with either social or technological solutions – then those in parliament who are less concerned with protecting human rights will simply introduce tougher legislation to fix the problem for us.

You can read the whole thing on the Guardian website.

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Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison

The latest act of literary campaigning from English PEN is to publish Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison by Enoh Meyomesse.

Enoh has been an opposition activist in Cameroon for decades. In 2012 he stood in the presidential elections against authoritarian strong-man Paul Biya. Soon after he was arrested for apparently trying to organise a coup. The authorities later dropped that accusation, and instead manufactured trumped up charges of robbery.  There were no witnesses to this alleged crime, yet he was convicted anyway.  PEN International consider the conviction and imprisonment to be a violation of Enoh Meyomesse’s right to freedom of expression.

While in prison, Enoh was able to write and publish Poème Carcéral, a collection of poetry.  We at PEN put a call out to our members for volunteer translators, and managed to get the book translated into English.  This month I designed a cover graphic, and published the book as a print-on-demand paperback, available from Lulu.com.  E-book versions (both ePub and Kindle) are also available for download.

I am particularly pleased that we were able to publish the book under a creative commons licence.  Enoh Meyomesse is in prison and this publication is intended to give him a voice once more.  The creative commons licence encourages further translation, remixing and performance of the poems, amplifying what once was censored.

Defending Free Speech for the Far Right

20140128-095704.jpgI had fifteen seconds of fame on Friday, defending the free expression of far right political groups.

The anti-fascist campaign group Hope Not Hate have called for Hungarian politician Gabor Vona to be banned from the UK. He is the leader of Jobbik, a particularly unpleasant far right group that former MP Andrew Dismore calls “the most powerful outwardly fascist political party in Europe”.

Clearly Mr Vona and his supporters have deeply unpleasant politics. But I do not believe they should be banned from entering the UK, and I said so on Al Jazeera TV. Here’s why: Continue reading

Free Speech, Offence, and Maajid Nawaz

Maajid Nawaz, the author of Radical and the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, has been at the centre of a controversy this week, after he tweeted a image from the satirical Jesus and Mo cartoon series.  Maajid had been a guest on the BBC’s The Big Questions debate show, where the illustration had been discussed.  He made the point that as a liberal Muslim, he found nothing offensive about the cartoon.

Cue an angry social media backlash.  Many people tweeted their condemnations and threats over what they perceived as a blasphemy.
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Questions for the Impress Project, part I

Last Monday, my former colleagues Jonathan Heawood and Lisa Appignanesi launched the Impress project. This is an attempt to devise a new press regulator that is compliant with the principles of the Leveson Report, but also tempered to resist being nobbled by either the politicians or the press. Continue reading

The Coercive Royal Charter

The Royal Charter that would establish a body to oversee press regulation was due to be referred to the Privy Council today. But industry bodies representing the press have filed an injunction against that happening. The court will examine the application this morning. Legal blogger and former government lawyer Carl Gardner says judges may grant the injunction for the time being, even as he doubts that any legal challenge by the press will ultimately succeed.

In the Monday editon of the Guardian, Helen Anthony (legal consultant to English PEN) laid out a succinct explanation of just what is wrong with the new regulatory system. Continue reading

The Outliers

I have worked for (and with) some courageous people at English PEN.  I am often struck by the personal cost of exercising your right to free expression, and how damaging to life and finances taking stand can be.

For Banned Books Week, I was asked by Tor.com to write a piece on these people, the ‘Outliers’ who do the thing that most people would not.


Have you ever been stood up by Cory Doctorow? I have. Back in 2010 I was due to interview him at the London Book Fair about his latest novel For The Win. I read his entire back catalogue and planned loads of insightful questions, but when the time came for the interview in the PEN Literary cafe, he didn’t show up. Later, I received an e-mail from him with a preposterous and obviously made-up excuse about how his plane had been grounded by a volcano. So it was me on the stage with an empty chair. (My hastily written chat standard performance poem “The Empty Chair a.k.a Cory Doctorow Is Not Here Today” rocked YouTube, with literally dozens of views.) Continue reading

Quoted in the Washington Post

I’m delighted to have spoken to the Washington Post for an article about the Twitter abuse furore:

“The worry is that the abuse button will be abused,” said Robert Sharp, a spokesman for English PEN, a literary group that promotes freedom of expression. “It puts the power of censorship into the hands of those who would be offended, which is fine when it’s a rape threat. But the same technology will be used by Christians to censor atheists, used by atheists to censor Christians, and so on.”

Credit where its due: Tom Phillips’ article on theTwitter abuse button was fresh in my mind when I spoke to the WaPo journalist.  And there’s a huge body of work out there on the issue of ‘offence’ as a trigger for censorship.  My turn of phrase “those who would be offended” is not natural speech, but its the sort of thing that springs to mind when you’ve been marinated in these kinds of arguments.

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The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged

As is my wont, I made a book to illustrate this. Physical objects are useful props in debates like this: immediately illustrative, and useful to hang an argument and peoples’ attention on.

James Bridle is probably best known as the artist who first articulated ‘The New Aesthetic‘, but he has run many projects on books and technology. His project ‘The Iraq War‘ is a favourite of mine – the entire Wikipedia Edit History of the ‘Iraq War’ article, from 2005-2009, which stretches to twelve volumes. He’s also the creator of a Book of Tweets.

James’ projects are the inspiration of one of my own – The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged. It collects together, in chronological order, every single parliamentary document published during the passage of the recent reform of our libel law. These include the various versions of the Bill (which I have previously published in a spliced together version, ‘Tracked Changes in the Defamation Bill‘), the parliamentary Hansard transcripts of the debates; and the amendment papers. Continue reading