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.”
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.”
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.
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 →
Yesterday, the Libel Reform Campaign learnt that Sir Edward Garnier MP was seeking to remove essential provisions from the Defamation Bill. TheGuardian asked me to comment:
Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications for English PEN, said both subclauses were essential “to stop the inequality of arms that corporations use. They use the libel law for PR.”
Sharp pointed out that Garnier does not have the full support of his party, with Tory peer Lord Mawhinney having given his support to the companies’ clause saying the fact they could sue anyone without any prima facie proof of financial damage was “a form of bullying”.
I was also quoted in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, in a piece by Andrew Gilligan about the Royal Charter and Hacked Off. I am less pleased about that one, though – it is a story about process, not policy.
My Nan had a prayer blue-tacked to her fridge. It is by It is by Reinhold Neibuhr:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We would do well to remember this in the debate over press regulation.
I think a great deal of the motivation of politicians and campaigners to impose regulation on the press comes from a hatred of its hackery, rather than phone hacking. Shoddy reporting, blatant ideological propaganda, and quotes taken out of context in order to misrepresent and sensationalise. Continue reading →
Here’s a perfect example of the libel laws preventing literature and public interest debate: Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear will not be published in the UK. His British publiser Transworld have said that some of the content was “not robust enough for the UK market.”
This is not a euphemism for saying the book is fabricated. It means that although the author is confident of what he has written, neither he nor his publishers can afford the time or the money to defend the claims against the (famously litigious) Church of Scientology. Continue reading →
“This and other cases highlight the fact that Turkey has a free expression problem,” said English PEN spokesperson Robert Sharp. “When ill-advised laws are put in place, then those with an ideological agenda will seek to use them to censor words or writing they do not like. This is why we campaign against ‘insult laws’ all over the world – including the UK. Censorship does not begin with the state instantly imprisoning authors and burning books. It begins with individuals using bad laws as weapons against each other.”
I was commenting on the ridiculous news that the board members of PEN Turkey were hauled into the Istanbul Prosecutors Office, to be questioned as to whether they had “insulted Turkishness” by they called Turkey’s censorship laws ‘fascist’. Thought-crime, essentially. It is a huge irony that a complaint at ‘fascist developments’ should be met by the sinster act of summoning all the board members for questioning… an irony apparently lost on the authorities.
I admit I have bouts of sentiment for the printed page. In general, however, I allow my head to rule my heart in thse matters. The China Mieville quote I posted a few days ago persuades me that we don’t really need to fetishize print.
However, I think that two commentaries on this news from two of my favourite bloggers miss something in their enthusiasm for this transition. Continue reading →