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.
I 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
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.
Thinking more about the Impress initiative, I think the main issue with the idea of a ‘Leveson compliant’ regulator is that Sir Brian’s principles might not be the most appropriate way to solve the problems which prompted his Inquiry in the first place. Continue reading
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 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 headteacher at the Harris Academy in London has banned the pupils from using slang. This is not a new thing: Earlier this year, a school in Sheffield did the same thing, the Manchester Academy in Moss Side introduced a similar policy in 2008… and its exam results increased the following year.
UCB Radio asked me on the the Paul Hammond show to discuss the issue. You can listen to my contribution by following this link, or via the SoundCloud player below. Continue reading
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