Just as we were discussing offence, blasphemy and Islam, a reminder that hard-line Muslims are not the only enemies of free speech. Index on Censorship reports that The Reduced Shakespeare Company has been forced to cancel its production of The Bible because of complaints from religious groups.
First posted on OpenDemocracy
The government has responded to grassroots pressure for libel reform, but its proposals do not go far enough towards genuinely safeguarding free speech on the internet and ensuring that powerful corporations cannot silence their critics.
During a panel event on Defamation Reform earlier this year, the lawyer Paul Tweed said that the recent focus on Libel Tourism was the result of “the most successful lobbying campaign since that conducted by the tobacco industry”. Those of us at English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science who had done some of that lobbying gleefully re-tweeted Tweed’s back-handed compliment.
We’re lobbying for libel reform in the UK because we believe the law is not fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The high cost of fighting an action in the High Court is coupled with a law that seems to prioritise reputation over free expression. The truth of the matter and the harm caused are presumed in favour of the claimant. And because the law has not been updated to reflect the invention of the Internet, each web-page is treated as a ‘publication’ as if it were a book printed in the country where it is read. All this has created the phenomenon of Libel Tourism, where foreign libel claimants take advantage of the English Courts’ claimant-friendly jurisdiction.
More crossposting with the English PEN site.
The state of free expression in Azerbaijan has be a major focus for English PEN in recent years. In 2009, we sent two of our members, Eva Hoffman and Alev Adil, to Baku to meet the writers there and to ask what the literary community in the UK can do to help. On their return, Eva filed a report for our OPEN magazine:
Such freedoms, however, are regularly violated in Azerbaijan. During our few days in Baku, we hear detailed and distressing stories of writers and journalists who have been imprisoned, or who have been persecuted in flagrantly unjust ways.
I must say that my writerly self felt a twinge of anxiety constricting my chest as I heard this story. To lose the fruit of so much work, which must have relieved the ghastliness of unjust incarceration — even while that incarceration continues! And yet, the spirits of our interlocutors seemed undampened.
We are now assisting some of those writers in the creation of a new Azerbaijan PEN Centre.
PEN has also worked closely with our colleagues at Index on Censorship, Article 19 and Amnesty International on a series of demonstrations and campaign actions for imprisoned writers in Azerbaijan, including Eynulla Fatullayev, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade (all of whom have since been released). The video below records one such demonstration, and you can view our photo galleries from other actions.
This weekend, Azerbaijan will host the Eurovision Song Contest – a concept predicated on their idea of free expression. The arrival in Baku of the kitsch, glitz and music must inspire an improvement in the Azerbaijan Government’s approach to free expression.
Our colleagues at Article 19, have run extensive programmes in Azerbaijan and provided crucial documentation of the abuse and harassment experienced by journalists who are critical of those in power. Their compelling report Running Scared: Azerbaijan’s Silenced Voices described the attacks and jailing of journalists, the ban on protests, and lack of independent broadcasting.
Index on Censorship (who share offices with both Article 19 and English PEN) have launched a petition for a Guilt Free Eurovison. We urge all PEN members and supporters to sign the petition, demanding that President Ilham Aliyev takes positive action to end the harassment against the writers, activists and musicians who are being attacked.
Tahrir Square – “The biggest think-tank in the Middle East”
In the Western world, there is much hand-wringing over just how our people and governments can help the people of Egypt get a better government. Since we are viewed as part of the problem, any interventions (either supporting the Mubarak regime, or condemining it more forcefully) will likely make matters worse. So for now, we hear slightly patronising platitudes about how the Egyptian people “must decide for themselves” followed by cautionary tales of radical Islam in the very next breath.
There is one way in which Western nations – or rather, the people civil society groups in those nations – could help the pro-democracy groups, and that is by publishing their message. With communications still slow and unreliable in Egypt itself, the messages of What They Actually Want are patchy, stilted, and vulnerable to pro-Mubarak spin.
In Tahrir Square, just over one hour ago, Mostafa Hussein sends out the following message:
Tahrir square is the biggest brainstorming & think-tank in the middle east and possible the world now. #egypt #jan25
Well then: how about the people of Europe and North America, with their unrivalled and unfettered communications network, publish the preliminary findings of this new think-tank?
I do not mean “Let’s publish thoughts of Egyptian journalists and analysts” or “thoughts of Arab writers” or “eye witness accounts of what is happening”. I mean, why not publish the debates and discussions of those in the square right now.
Now, I actually think that a book is the right medium for this. Something that has been formally published and can exist in printed form has a certain authority and weight (literally and metaphorically) that these ideas need. TV interviews and news reports are two-a-penny and far too transient, as are blogs, YouTube Channels and Twitter feeds. A book on the otherhand – even a short book – can step outside the river of news and become something more tangible and influential. It will be something other than the charter of the Muslim Brotherhood, that everyone can point to as an alternative to Mubarak and his henchmen.
With the new digital inventions at our fingertips, there are no technical barriers to doing this. Initiatives like The Benjamin Franklin Project have shown that the free tools on the Internet are all that is required to gather and publish news and views. And the means to pull content together are already in operation down on Tahrir Square. Lulu.com allows you to publish a proper book, with an ISBN and a listing on Amazon, almost on a whim.
So, how about a British or American civil society group offers to spend until the end of this week managing the project, and undertakes to publish the book, in English, to an international audience. I am thinking of a projects of the scope of The New Liberal Arts project – short essays. I reckon think tanks like Demos, or the Fabian Society have the capacity to pull this off… or maybe a forward think news organisation like OpenDemocracy, The Guardian, or The Atlantic?
A couple of PEN members may be putting this together with their contacts in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Libya! Get in touch via the comments if you would like to help.
In the Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes on the delights that post-colonials bring to the English language, and laments the decline of language and civility online:
The future looks bright then, until you notice those who use new technology without due care. Some crazed demons on Twitter believe anything goes. Written words matter and hold meanings beyond that narcissistic urge to send off instant thoughts. The Tory councillor who sent out a vile and scary message about me says it was a joke. After some thought I decided I will not press charges. My objections have been made and there is no need for more. Yet having read many blogs and tweets that followed the incident, I do wonder whether our manners and morals will survive and if English itself, the best thing about us, is now seriously endangered.
She joins Dame Helen Mirren in lamenting the decline in standards brought about by the new technologies. Andrew Marr recently made similar comments about ‘ranting’ bloggers.
I fear that such comments will become a regular punctuation in our discourse from now on. Such attitudes from the dead-tree columnists come about by a failure to understand that the new technologies like Twitter and teh blogs are not changing culture, but revealing it. Clay Shirky, in his bestseller Here Comes Everybody, likens the net to a public mall. Its a public space, but that doesn’t mean every conversation is directed at you. In a shopping centre, if you were to eavesdrop on a chat between a group of teenagers, then make comments about their awful slag, you would be regarded as, at best, a curmudgeonly pedant; or at worst, a dodgy weirdo worthy of a report to the mall security guards. Likewise with blogs and twitter, not every conversation in the public domain is intended to be a public pronouncement in the way Alibhai-Brown, Mirren and Marr traditionally understand it.
Of course, one could argue the opposite. Tweeting and blogging about a celebrity might also be likened to taking your conversation from the pub after last orders, and continuing it loudly outside the door of the house of the person you are talking about. There, the awkwardness, the social autism, is on the part of the speaker, not the listener. If (say) Yasmion Alibhai-Brown has to step over noisy yobs outside her gate, then she may well choose to call the police. Thankfully, to take the analogy to its conclusion, she has told the yobs (in this case a conservative Councillor from Birmingham) to “stop being so rude, and to bugger off”… which seems the most healthy course of action to me. Her disgust is registered without anyone’s free speech being censored. Dave Osler’s take on the case is interesting and Paul Sinha’s speaks my own mind perfectly:
If you believe that Paul Chambers is a victim of a miscarriage of justice … then you should also believe that the police have no role to play in the strange case of Alibhai Brown vs Compton.
Back to those who feel that the Internet is generally unpleasant: We can point out thousands of counter-examples! Paul Staines, and his phalanx of Tourettes-suffering anonymous commenters, get all the attention, because the blog is the online equivalent of a tabloid, intent on winning readers in the rudest and crudest way possible. However, for every Guido Fawkes there are hundreds of more thoughful bloggers, writing for pleasure and to seek out genuine and meaningful connections online. How to pick just one? Well, as it happens, I have Federay Holmes’ blog open on my browser (because she just won a PEN competition). She writes thoughful posts about politics, literature and family life, and seems to have as much sincerity as Fawkes has cynicism.
Alternatively, read the fantastic story of How Justin Long Affably and Reasonably Ended and Internet Flame War.
Finally, I might point to the huge continent of Internet dialogue that is Facebook. As far as I can tell, the discourse on that site is entirely made up of expressions of friendship, congratulatory messagages (concerning love and friendship) and photographs of events that are themselves marking friendship, love and achievement. It can be saccharine at times, but its entire structure pretty much enforces civility and niceness. There are ways to signify ‘Friends’ and ‘Like’, but no means to do the opposite.
While everyone else has been banging on about the election, I’ve been banging on about free speech. Here’s a review that was commissioned for Index on Censorship and cross-posted at Comment is Free, so choose your forum for comments. As before, I’ll post a selection of CiF comments on this blog in due course.
Last Friday, British theatre took a small step in the direction of free speech. At the Soho Theatre, in the heart of London’s west end, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti was performed in the UK for the first time since it was controversially cancelled in 2004.
Let us be clear: this was no great stride for freedom, more an anxious shuffle. The performance was a rehearsed reading, not a full production, and received no publicity whatsoever. It was completely absent from the theatre’s website, and was only advertised to those who had been to see Behud, Bhatti’s most recent play. Buying a ticket felt a little like purchasing bootleg liquor from under the counter, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was, I imagine, how dissidents must have felt in the 1640s, when religious puritans closed the theatres and drama was performed illegally. Proper free speech has to be more open than this.
However, at the start of the performance, it became clear just how necessary and important this toddler’s step was to those who lived through the panicked, abrupt cancellation of 2004. I was surprised to hear Janet Steel, the director of the original production, say that she “thought this day would never come.” To an outsider, this modest reading was hardly radical. But to those who were threatened, who witnessed the picket lines first-hand, it is as if the cancellation happened yesterday. The first impressive thing about Friday’s reading was how many of the original cast had turned out to revive the script.
The performance revealed just how essential it is to the piece that it is set in a gurdwara. The rapist, Mr Sandhu, has built the temple, and is responsible for extending it. His office is his lair, and he derives his power over the other characters when he is in it. Choose any other setting (as some have suggested) and the key dynamic simply doesn’t work.
Behzti is often referred to as “that Sikh play”, a phrase which suggests a comparison with “The Scottish Play” (indeed, it has a lot in common with Macbeth, including a heightened realism and off-stage murders). This label suggests that it is for the Sikh community alone to determine its worth and relevance. This is a mistake – sexual abuse is, sadly, universal. For example, scenes from Behzti were mirrored in Two Women, which has just finished a run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In that play, too, we see the complicity of women in the perpetuation of the abuse cycle. And we all know that child abuse and even murder within a church setting is a long established theme for drama. Behzti is a visceral play that the British public, all of us, deserves to see.
Six years after its abortive first production, Behzti still feels current and relevant. The actors turned in a robust delivery with very little time to rehearse, as if they were picking up where they left off. They have reinforced the artistic case for a proper revival.
Over the past five and half years, all other barriers to a remount have also crumbled. The blasphemy argument is as incoherent now as it was then. Even in 2004, there was no consensus among Sikh commentators as to whether the play was an insult to the religion. Since then, the very idea that blasphemy is a reason for censorship has been discredited. After Behzti, controversies over the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and the protests surrounding Jerry Springer the Opera have tested the public’s patience on the issue of “offence”. Public opinion is now firmly against censoring art for religious reasons, and it is now broadly accepted that faith remains strong even when religion is criticised. Even the hotheads who might disagree in principle know that, in practice, peaceful protest and counter-speech are more effective than threats. The violent demonstrations outside the Birmingham Rep are a thing of the past.
Moreover, the police have shown unequivocally that they are prepared to guarantee the safety of the theatregoers at controversial performances. For Behud in Coventry, the West Midlands police force took this issue extremely seriously, and allocated their staff accordingly, at no charge to the theatre. They have offered to do the same for future controversial productions.
Most importantly, Bhatti herself is positive about a revival of Behzti. In past years, she was (understandably) reticent about new productions. But on Friday evening she said to me that she “would love to see a new production”.
For too long, the British theatre community has been embarrassed by the Behzti affair. Its response to the crisis was positive but far too slow. Half a decade later, theatre directors can no longer wish the play into obscurity – its continued censorship is a boil that must now be lanced. The only barrier that now remains is the British theatre community itself, which needs to purge itself of the cowardly and ignorant assumption that the play is still “off limits”.
No more of this apathy. Let it be known that, as of last Friday, this excuse of last resort has been demolished. Behzti is no longer taboo. It can be performed, properly and publicly. What are we waiting for?
I’ve just attended the launch of the CPJ report Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia. Index on Censorship hosted a debate as part of the Free Word Festival.
A culture of impunity has sprung up in Russia. The murderer of Anna Politkovskaya has not been brought to justice, and the authorities are under no pressure to take investigations to their conclusion. For the panel, the blame for this climate of indifference lies in a large part with the Russian media. According to Manana Aslamazyan, there is no culture of solidarity amongst Russian journalists. They fall into three categories:
- A sizable group of cynics, who are content to game the system and support the regime;
- A larger group of under-trained, provincial journalists, who live in fear of reprocussions and do nothing to upset the status quo;
- A small group of “mad” campaigning journalists, who persist in holding power to account.
It is this group which is being murdered. “An entire granch of journalism has been taken out” said Richard Sambrook, Director of BBC gobal news. Investigative journalism has been effectively killed off in Russia.
It therefore falls to the Western journalists to keep Russia from sliding further into a deadly authoriarianism, and to support their beleagred Russian colleagues. Foreign media can be a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities, says Aslamazyan, even ‘name-and-shame’ those in the domestic media community who are complicit in corruption and failure to accurately report. By leading the way, Western journalists can embolden their Russian counterparts. Indeed, said Oleg Panfilov (director of the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations), Russian journalists often ask foreign correspondents in Moscow to cover a trial on their behalf. A report in the Financial Times of London is worth more than dozens of domestic reports.
Panfilov’s mentioning of the FT dove-tailed neatly with a comment by the author of the report, Nina Ognianova, who suggested that campaigners should focus on “shared interests” that the West has with Russia, rather than the rejected notion of “shared values”. If the Russian government, and even the Russian public, are not outraged by the killing of journalists, then perhaps a campaign that aims for the wallet, rather than the heartstrings, might have more effect. Business journalists, lead by (say) the Financial Times, should place more emphasis on how the decline of investigative journalism leads to corruption… which stunts the economy and ensures fewer returns on investment. When the Russian elite realises that its own business interests are being irrevocably damaged by this culture of impunity, then perhaps they may be motivated to stop it.
I was at the House of Lords on Monday, listening to peers debate the Coroners & Justice Bill. As previously mentioned, this Bill offers the chance to repeal the laws of criminal defamation and seditious libel.
I have summarized this aspect of the debate over at the Index on Censorship Free Speech blog – another outlet for my furious typing…