Writing in the Guardian last week, Carole Cadwalladr lamented the way in which Twitter catalyses and facilitates global bullying. This prompted a short exchange between me David Heinemann from Index on Censorship. We noted the betrayed promise of free speech for all that social media offers, and what—or rather, who—might solve the problem.
Continue reading “Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All”
A few years ago the Russian government introduced a set of ridiculous regulations on how art can be produced in the country. It prohibited swearing in films and TV shows, and mandated that books containing LGBTQ content be sold in plastic wrappers.
Insisting that such books are packaged like this introduces a stigma. It places LGBTQ literature into the same conceptual category as pornography which makes it less likely that readers will buy the books, or that readers will have the books bought for them.
Naturally, this affects book sales for Russian publishers, and some have taken extreme steps to avoid having their books placed in the stigmatised category. Last week, fantasy author Victoria Schwab revealed that her Russian publisher had bowdlerised the translation of her Shades of Magic series. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia”
I’m a week late in logging the fact that I was also quoted in the Guardian last week, praising debating societies.
If a perception of this kind of competitive debating as old-fashioned and the preserve of public schools and university societies goes unchallenged, then we lose a great deal. Robert Sharpe [sic] of the worldwide writers’ association English PEN sees charges of elitism as a shame, because “the skills one learns through a good debate are crucial for modern life. Political events continue to remind us of the importance of persuasive arguments and good oratory that appeal not only to our rational side, but our emotional side too.” He also thinks the ability to see the other side is particularly important. “The essence of free speech is that we allow people with whom we disagree to speak. Wrongheaded views will be aired. But free speech means no one gets the last word. We can – and indeed, we should – use our own right to free speech to challenge expression we think is unpleasant or wrong. To do this we need to be equipped to argue in public. Debating competitions are a fantastic way to teach this important skill to young people.” Later this year, English PEN will join the Chamber Debate in the House of Lords, in which students from state schools across the country will discuss the issue of free speech.
I was never in a debating society at university but I have debated at both the Cambridge Union and the Oxford Union in my time. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, Praising Debating Societies”
Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.
Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion. Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award.
In the New York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”
Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:
“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
Continue reading “Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award”
Today I am quoted in the Guardian, blasting the Maldives‘ ridiculous new law that insists all books be passed by a board of censors:
At English PEN, head of campaigns Robert Sharp called the “sweeping new law” a “disaster for freedom of expression in the Maldives”.
“The parliament should be acting to expand the space for freedom of expression, not enacting laws that will stifle debate and dissent,” said Sharp. “These new rules will also damage Maldivian culture. How can Dhivehi authors flourish when all novels and poetry must pass a board of censors? Maldivian literature will stagnate under these new rules. We hope the president and the parliament of the Maldives will think again.”
Read the whole article on the Guardian website.
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.”
I have been away this week and unable to write anything on the PRISM revelations that have dominated the news over the past few days. Here are a few notes and links in lieu of something more rounded.
At ORGcon, I did preface my remarks during the ‘free speech online in the UK’ panel to note that the right to free speech includes the right not to be surveilled. If you think your conversations are being monitored, then you are not going to speak as freely as you may wish. (I will post a longer reflection on the ORGcon discussion soon).
This week I did read an article by Daniel Solove in the Chronicle of Higher Education which summarises variations on the “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” argument for surveillance. It’s obviously extremely relevant given recent revelations surrounding the US Government’s PRISM programme.
Solove’s article is a frustrating read, because the arguments against surveillance are, like many human rights issues, bound up in ‘slippery slope’ or ‘boiling frog’ concepts that tend not to resonate with ordinary people. Public interest (and outrage) at privacy invasions only occur when rare real-life examples manifest themselves, as when the damage has already been done (the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone being the prime example). Liberally minded people who oppose surveillance and privacy intrusions on principle need more sound-bites to compete with “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. Solove lists a few candidates – “Why do you have curtains, then?” is probably the best retort. Continue reading “Notes on PRISM, privacy and surveillance”