One of the most pernicious, lazy and irritating arguments for mass surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. I’ve dealt with cursory responses to this before: “Why do you have curtains, then?” is the best short response, in my opinion.
But behind the glib cliche is a more subtle argument. Politicians, in arguing for surveillance, seek to reassure us that the powers they seek (and have recently awarded themselves) would never be used against ‘ordinary’ people. They hope that we have forgotten Paster Neimoller’s ‘And Then They Came For Me’ poem… or that we assume it does not apply to us. They want us to believe that their power of surveillance is so they can keep an eye on other people. In this manner, the public consent to more powers, and barely notice when the security services abuse these powers to attack the free press.
Here are two sophisticated arguments against even responsible governments having mass surveillance powers. First, the philosopher Quentin Skinner, in conversation with journalist Richard Marshall. I quote at length without apology: Continue reading
Today The Herald has published an opinion piece by me, urging reform of the libel law in Scotland.
Incredibly, the cradle of the Enlightenment offers fewer free speech protections than England and Wales. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.
Read the whole thing in the paper, or at HeraldScotland.com.
Yesterday’s news carried reports that the government may act to criminalise ‘revenge porn’. This is when an angry, jilted person posts private, explicit photographs of their ex-lover online.
At the moment, those who have been exposed in this way can try suing for a breach of privacy in the civil courts, but it’s not currently a criminal offence. For something to constitute ‘harassment’ it has to be a pattern of behaviour, which does not capture the one-off posting of consensual photographs. Continue reading
There was some controversy last month surrounding free speech group Index on Censorship. They’ve appointed Steve Coogan as a patron, but he is famously a part of the Hacked Off campaign which supports press regulation policies that Index does not. Both Nick Cohen in the Spectator and Richard Pendlebury in the Daily Mail have written angry responses to the manoevre.
I’ve heard a couple of people express dismay that Hacked Off are being described in such reports as a “pro-censorship lobby”. Through my work at English PEN 1, I’ve met three of the people who run the group—Brian Cathcart, Martin Moore, and Dr Evan Harris. If you have read their countless articles, heard any their speeches, or read their tweets on the issue, I do not think one can seriously suggest that they are in favour of “censorship” as the word is commonly understood. They are at pains to point out that they do not endorse any kind of pre-publication curbs on the press.
On Tuesday I was quoted in a Belfast Telegraph report on the rise of super-injunctions in Northern Ireland. Super-injunctions, you will recall, are those special types of gagging-order where the judge not only stops you from reporting certain facts, but also bars you from even telling anyone you’ve been censored. As a rule of thumb, this tends to be a bad thing. Continue reading
In a recent press release, Janice Atkinson, a UKIP candidate for the European Parliament, calls on the police to prosecute Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism protesters under ‘hate crime’ legislation.
Ukip demands police action to arrest so-called ‘anti-racist’ protestors
Janice Atkinson, as Ukip SE chairman, and MEP candidate, jointly with colleagues Patricia Culligan and
Alan Stevens, MEP candidates, have raised concerns about the way the police will deal with the protestors
at the Hove Ukip public meeting, on Tuesday, 13th May to be held in the Jewish Hall.
They have formally asked the chief constable to arrest any protestors who call our supporters ‘fascists’, hurl other abuse or any physical assault, for ‘hate crime’ or under the public order act.
We therefore call on the police to confirm that they will prosecute under ‘hate crime’ any individual or group who seeks to intimidate our supporters and candidates or at least under the Public Order offence under
Section 4, 4A or 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.
This shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the law and of the principles of free speech. Continue reading
Vladimir Putin has this week signed into a law some measures to ban swearing in films, books and music. Films with obscene content will not be granted a distribution certificate and exisiting books and music with foul language will have to be sold in special wrapping.
I spoke to Alison Flood of the Guardian about the new law, and what it says about the state of Russian politics:
Writers’ group English PEN has already condemned the move. Robert Sharp, its head of campaigns, says: “Swear words exist in every language and are part of everyday speech. Russian artists will no longer be able reflect genuine, everyday speech. Instead, they will have to sacrifice authenticity in order to please a committee of censors. This new law sends the signal that law-makers want to sanitise and silence the voice of ordinary Russians.”
In recent years, Sharp adds, we have witnessed Russia’s slow slide into authoritarianism, with impunity for the killers of Anna Politkovskaya, the prosecution of Pussy Riot, and the ban on discussing homosexuality. “These things have all squeezed the space for free speech in Russia. The government claims it is ‘protecting and developing culture’, but the effect will be to ensure that culture becomes staid, uniform and boring.”
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.
Last week, the works of the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were removed from the Riyadh International Book Fair because they were ‘blasphemous’. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Information said the books “violated the kingdom’s laws”. This theological position comes about because in some of his work Darwish treats Judaism, Christianity and Islam as equivalents, which obviously upsets the fundamentalists.
I spoke to the Guardian about the ban and was quoted in their report:
But the writers’ group English PEN issued a stinging rebuttal to the move. “It is bizarre and disappointing that the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed a small group of people to censor one of the Islamic world’s most important modern poets. The Riyadh international book fair is supposed to promote culture and commerce in Saudi Arabia, but this incident has had precisely the opposite effect,” said its head of campaigns, Robert Sharp. He also pointed to the case of newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, who was imprisoned without trial in Saudi Arabia for two years after he posted a short series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad.
“Blasphemy laws stunt cultural development,” said Sharp. “If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws.”
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.