During the Book Fair I gave an interview to an Australian radio station, 2ser 107.3, based in Sydney. I’ve only just discovered the link to the archive of the interview – My contribution is the first segment of the show. Hilariously, I was credited as John Sharp!
This week English PEN has been at the London Book Fair. China was the ‘Market Focus’ country and as such, there were a lot of Chinese state-run stands at the fair.
I joined with activists from the Tibet Society and the Independent Chinese PEN Centre to stage a poetry protest in front of the Chinese Government stands. The poetry we recited earned their authors a ten year prison sentence.
Later, GAPP officials used a load of pull-up conference banner stands to block the protest from view. “The Great Pull-Up Banner Wall of China”. Not a good look, in a trade fair designed to promote openness.
I was also reprimanded by the security guards for holding up a sign saying ‘Free Speech is not a crime’ on carpet owned (or at least, paid for) by the Chinese government.
A quick aide memoir for the future: Examples of people being arrested or convicted for stuff they wrote on social networks.
1. Paul Chambers:
Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!
A chap made an obviously ranty joke in a tweet, and was convicted of ‘menace’.
Organised riot events on Facebook.
3. Azhar Ahmed
Charged with a ‘racially agravated public order offence’ for posting an immature anti-war rant on Facebook.
On this last story: Index on Censorship notes that there was no actual racial content in Ahmed’s message; author Tony White points out that the same sentiments, expressed more eloquently by Guardian readers, went unremarked and are run-of-the-mill; and Kenan Malik suggests that Ahmed’s arrest is part of a growing appetitie for “the criminalisation of Islamic dissent”.
You can listen to the interview here. My five minutes of fame comes at exactly 61 minutes into the show. There’s a funny point in my monologue where Peter takes a breath to ask another question, but I carry on talking. I should learn to speak in shorter sentences.
Later in the same show, my English PEN colleague Irene Garrow talks about her experience as a writer-in-residence in the prison system, and the reading and writing workshops she organizes with prisoners. Her slot starts at about 105 minutes.
Plenty of Sharp-bait in the media this morning. David Cameron will give a speech today criticising the European Court of Human Rights, for going against the laws and judicial decisions of Council of Europe countries.
I’ve argued before, in a post on paedos and prisoners, that in the human rights framework, a judgement that frustrates the populist sentiment is a feature, not a bug. The case of Abu Qatada is cited as an example of a problem, but I see it as the system working well. The man (odious as he may be) hasn’t had a proper trial, and the European Court pointed this out. What’s wrong with that?
The response from the reactionaries is “he doesn’t deserve a fair trial”. This implies a two-tier system of liberty and justice, an Us-and-Them approach which eventually dehumanises certain groups. We need an effective justice and security system to provide some protection against violence and extremism. But it has to apply a consistent set of rules and procedures if it ismto woeffort perky. And we also need an external court of human rights, to protect us from the careless elements in our own society, who are happy to dispense with due process whenever it is not to their taste. it’s a shame that our Prime Minister is pandering to these “careless elements” and I hope the other party leaders, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, do not follow suit.
Compare how two authors deal with book reviews that they believe to be defamatory.
First, Chris McGrath, author of “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know” took blogger Vaughan Jones to the High Court over a review that Jones posted on the Amazon website, of all places. The judgement on whether this case can proceed is expected today.
Historian Niall Ferguson was similarly upset by a negative review. His book Civilisation was eviscerated by Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (a much more credible and prominent platform than Amazon’s product review pages). Ferguson felt he had been defamed as a racist. However, in contrast to Chris McGrath, Ferguson chose a different forum to express his grievance and demand satisfaction – the letters page.
This approach – fighting words with more words – is precisely the kind of counter-speech I advocated in my ‘Way of The Blogs‘ piece for the Guardian a couple of years ago. It offers a form of redress to the aggrieved person, while avoiding censorship, and it is also much cheaper. I think it is a much classier way of dealing with critics, than hauling them down to the Royal Courts of Justice.
The riots seem to have brought out the worst in our politicians. You would think our political class would be well aware of the perils of knee-jerk responses and short term expediency, but apparently not. First, a few Conservative MPs (the Prime Minister among them) have called for social networks to be interfered with in times of crisis – an astonishingly cynical and hypocritical idea, given our condemnation of the Iranian and Egyptian regimes when they did the same thing.
Not to be outdone, a group of Labour politicians have now put opportunism and short-term thinking above the principles of good democracy. The leaders of thirteen London Boroughs, together with John Biggs AM and MPs Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick, called for a proposed EDL march in Tower Hamlets to be banned on account of the cost of policing, which they say “would simply be too great”.
The potential cost of policing the march wass half a million pounds, which is be no small sum to remove from London’s clean-up effort. But the costs of banning the EDL march will be much higher in the long term. It will fuel resentment among those wishing to march, and award them the status of ‘free speech martyrs’ that they crave, but do not deserve. Their warped view of immigration and their fantastical idea of what constitutes ‘true’ British culture will remain unchallenged once again. This will only lead to more tension and conflict that the police will have to spend time and resources to contain.
Citing costs as a reason to deny political or artistic expression is a classic argument used by despots abroad to suppress internal opposition. Of course, there is no comparison between our democracy and their tyrannies… but that’s an argument that carries zero weight when you’re campaigning for human rights in those places. Cameron’s suggestion that we censor social media, and the Labour call for the banning of this EDL event, will hamstring the fight for free expression elsewhere: “You do it, so why shouldn’t we?”
Worse, this excuse also puts the power of censorship into the hands of the mob. For example, in 2004, a small and unrepresentative group of youths were able to stop performances of Behzti at the Birmingham Rep Theatre (which they found offensive), by threatening to cause chaos that the police were unable to stop, on grounds of cost. Six years later, another theatre had to fight tooth-and-nail to ensure that the police would guarantee the safety of performers in another play by the same playwright. If this precedent persists, then we give extremists like the EDL, the BNP, or Islam4UK an ongoing permit to shut down any gathering they disagree with. Already we’ve seen local councils bullied into withdrawing Moonfleece, a play that challenges far-right extremism… because those same extremists threatened ‘trouble’! Arguments that seek to ban the EDL, however well-intentioned, slide inexorably into the banning of others, and eventually, banning everyone.
When the riots erupted across our cities earlier this month, we rightly saw them as a threat to our way of life. We demanded the police throw all their resources at the problem, regardless of the cost in these austere times. The right to freedom of expression must be protected by the police with equal vigour, and it’s odd that our London councillors have forgotten this.
To argue that the EDL must be allowed their right to march is only the beginning of the discussion. Those who advocate the right to free expression have a moral obligation to challenge those who preach hate and division. No one is arguing that an EDL march will not exacerbate tensions in Tower Hamlets, but these can be diffused without trampling on the right to association and assembly. This is where we need leadership, from those very same elected Labour representatives who signed the letter in the Guardian on Monday. I met and campaigned with Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick when I lived in Tower Hamlets – They are both deeply respected in their constituencies. They, together with the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police, have both the wit and the standing to co-ordinate and lead a peaceful response to the EDL. Why did they not playing a central role in the Unite Against Fascism counter-protest? So far it has only garnered support from the unions and the mosques.
It is down to our politicians to present the contrast between the thuggery of the far-right, and the vibrancy of multicultural inner-city life, all while respecting free speech. Granted, this is not as simple as just banning the march. But we elect our Members of Parliament and Councillors to take on these difficult tasks, not to engage in easy, knee-jerk letter-writing. Time for Labour to lead.
As tweeted yesterday, I was asked onto Paul Hammond’s morning show on UCB Radio, to discuss Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breiviks’ manifesto, which has been published online. I made the case that, unpleasant though Breivik’s views are, censoring his manifesto would only give him a martyrish status. Also, the reasons given for suppressing such writings would quickly be used to attack and censor other books (like the Bible).
On the UCB’s Facebook page, a few people raised dissenting views.
… surely the human rights of the Norwegian students and there families should be held in higher esteem the Anders Behring Breiviks. He gave up his rights the moment he blew up the building in Oslo.
I think this is just a confusion of the concept of human rights. Of course rights such as free expression may be lawfully removed, but its wrong to say that a killer or any other hated person in society can forfeit their rights in this way. If that were the case, we would call them ‘privileges’ not ‘rights’.
Another common sentiment:
But I would caution against publishingg such material. Not everyone has the wisdom or intelligence to be able to read it. God forbid but what if there was to be a copycat killing because of publishing this?
To this, I am reminded of Bronwen Maddox writing in The Times, discussing the ramblingsof another killer, Cho Seung Hui:
The accusation that the NBC broadcasts may provoke copycat attacks — the most serious charge against the network — appears to rest on a notion of severe mental illness as contagious, common and predictable.
UCB is a Christian radio station, and as such there were a few comments invoking the more nebulous concepts of God and Satan:
He had his foot in satans kindom, he is a freemason wich is v evil ,he also listend 2 chantin an playd demonic games on computa,he gave the devil an entrance 2 his mind.ther so much ocult activities that warp the mind an insesetive the value of life
I don’t think this is helpful. Evil and even satanic Anders Breivik may be, but these are adjectives to describe his end state of mind, not the process by which he became like that. Explaining a good or a bad act as being the work of God or Satan is a way of avoiding hard thoughts and (maybe) a difficult truth.
Ezra Klein in the Washington Post:
Has any single human being, either directly or indirectly, cost the United States more money than Osama bin Laden? Even a very partial, very haphazard, tallying of the costs from 9/11 reaches swiftly into the trillions of dollars. … Has any single individual even come close to costing America that much? Adolph Hitler is probably one of the few candidates
That reminds me of this link I posted in 2005, pointing out the cost of the Iraq War was in the region of $1.25 trillion. Professor Keith Hartley suggested that it would have been cheaper and quicker to have paid Saddam Hussein and his family a few billion dollars to go into exile.
However cheap (relatively speaking) such a deal would be, we know it would never be workable. Revolutions and regime change stem from the terrible treatment of citizens by their Government and Leader. These injustices can never be considered ‘corrected’ if the wrong-doers swan off into luxurious exile. Our sense of what is morally right – that tyrants and genocidaires should be brought to justice (or at least killed) – trumps pragmatic considerations. We have an inate belief that this approach is worth the continued sacrifice of our soliders, and the chaos and cost in the world economies. Breaking this understanding, via the sterile calculations of a Cost-Benefit analysis or Return on Investment figures, would ultimately lead to bigger wars.
Some good news: Eynulla Fatullayev has been released in Azerbaijan. I reported last month on the demonstrations I have attended on his behalf.
An immediate tweet discussion of the news caught my eye. From @dontgetfooled
Wow. So “clicktivism” can work after all?
It is worth pausing analyse the success of this campaign and unravel the various elements. It is of course wrong to say that “Twitter released Fatullayev” although some media outlets will report it as such. My formulation would be to say that the Twitter response was made possible only because the groundwork had been laid by groups like ARTICLE19, Index on Censorship, Amnesty International and yes, English PEN. This ephemeral and intangible “awareness raising” is often undertaken as an act of faith – there are few metrics to measure how effective such campaigns are. As a campaigner, it is particularly encouraging to see how this work does actually pay-off in the long term. Communicating this to our donors and members is the next task.
We also cannot discount the other effects. @onewmphoto said:
Again, it is useful to have a demonstration of how a particularly nebulous cultural activity or action actually has a real effect. Eurovision, and other types of International comings-together, are always accompanied by grandiose claims about ‘understanding’ and ‘cultural capital’ and fraternity between the human nations. (I am thinking of the World Cup and the Olympics as the Ur-examples of this). However, although there are country-themed parties and school projects aplenty, it is rarely clear how this translates into ‘soft’ political power or influence beyond our borders.
The Fatullayev case is therefore a good and welcome example of where these cultural events do have benefits. As soon as Ell and Nikki won the Eurovision Song Contest two weekends ago, the mainstream media and the social media became peppered with negative and savvy stories about Azerbaijan (it was my job to contribute some of them!). I do not think for one moment that @PresidentAz reads anything I write with my thumbs. But I do know that we all contributed to a critical mass of short sentences that together was of a significant size to be noticed. It is definitely the case that Azerbaijani officials, linguists and supporters would have been aware of this chatter. Having all these discussions in the public forum of Twitter and Facebook (and ensuring through hashtags that said officials were aware of the conversations) would have left them in no doubt that a Eurovision PR headache was awaiting them in April 2012. Such were the circumstances that made it easier for the Azerbaijani Government to release Fatullayev, than to keep him detained. The Independence Day Celebrations on 28th May provided a face-saving, patriotic excuse to act, despite the fact there was no material change in Eynulla’s case or situation.
It would be prudent to note some obvious caveats. First, Eynulla Fatullayev was pardoned – his conviction was not overturned. This places his release as a gift of President Aliyev, not the just functioning of the law. This is not ideal.
Second, this release of a prisoner does not mean that the space for free speech in Azerbaijan is getting wider. In fact, the opposite may be true, as the Government on Baku proposes new ways to restrict discourse online. A much more difficult campaign, not centred around a free speech martyr, awaits.