Two Pussy Riot Convictions Upheld

Pussy Riot in the dock
Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

Yesterday in a Moscow court-room, two of the three Pussy Riot convictions were upheld.  Nadezha Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina will serve a two year sentence for hooliganism.  The appeal of Yekaterina Samutsevich was granted and she was released.

The three members of the Pussy Riot punk art collective had previously been convicted on a charge of hooliganism, for a political protest staged in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  The English PEN website has more detailed information and suggested actions to take in support of the two imprisoned women.

The Russia Legal Information Agency published a live-blog of the appeal hearing yesterday.  One entry stands out:

13:11 [Prosecutor] Alexei Taratukhin is up. He negatively assessed the request for a special ruling to restrict President Putin from expressing sentiments about the trial. “Everyone has the freedoms of thought and speech. Should we force the highest official in the country to give up his opinion?”

(Emphasis added).

So: The prosecutor in a trial seeking to suppress protest cites the value of free expression, but only when applied to the President.  The hypocrisy here is breathtaking. Continue reading “Two Pussy Riot Convictions Upheld”

Another Misguided Facebook Conviction

Another person has received a criminal conviction for something they posted on a social media site. Matthew Woods received a 12 week prison sentence for posting a message about missing schoolgirl April Jones on his Facebook page.  At 20 years old, Woods sits in the same young and foolish male demographic as Azhar Ahmed, @Rileyy_69 and Leo Traynor’s troll.

The media have refrained from reporting Wood’s comments. This is a good thing. The joke assumes the guilt of the person accused of April Jones’ murder, so reporting it would prejudice a trial.  Media restraint also minimises any distress to April’s family, and denies the attention-seeker further opportunities to provoke.

However… The only reason this Woods has received any attention in the first place was because he has been hauled before a magistrate! Had he not been arrested and charged, the comment would have been lost in the obscurity of his Facebook timeline after a couple of days. The comment obviously violates Facebook Terms & Conditions, so he might have been banned from using the site. We might describe that as a contractual matter, not criminal. And he might have lost a lot of friends (both in the real sense and the Facebook sense). But this is a social sanction, not criminal. Continue reading “Another Misguided Facebook Conviction”

Two e-Books

Last week, I published two e-Books for English PEN.

The first is Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe and Sophie Mayer. This is a fantastic piece of literary campaigning for three prisoners of conscience. The government of Vladimir Putin, in collaboration with the Russian Orthodox church, have sought to censor the satire and criticism directed at them by the punk art collective Pussy Riot, by convicting three of them on a charge of ‘hooliganism’.

There is little English PEN or I can do to help with the legal battle. But what we can do is ensure that the feminist poetry and the dissident message is not suppressed. Catechism amplifies what Putin sought to silence.

Download the eBook or buy a printed copy now! You can even make a donation if you feel so inclined.

The other project is PEN Atlas: 10 Literary Dispatches from Around the World. It has been published to coincide with the international translation day conference taking place today in London. It is a re-packaging off some of the best content from our PEN Atlas online project.

Download the e-book now!

In creating these publications, I applied some of the lessons learned during the course of my Insignificant Woman project. I also advanced my knowledge a bit too.

I had been using the EPUB conversion cool within Lulu.com to create my e-book files. This tool is simple and easy to use (you just upload a Word Document) but is somewhat limited. For example, when you want to place two headings adjacent to each other in the text, it creates unnecessary page breaks. However, by good fortune I happened across the Sigil tool on the Google Project Hosting repository. It is not an entry-level program, but it is perfect for someone like me, who has basic knowledge of HTML and CSS. I used it to tweak an existing EPUB file for Catechism, but then used Sigil to create the PEN Atlas file entirely from scratch. Later, I used Calibre to convert and EPUB file into a Kindle ready eBook.

Confronting a Troll

Troll, by Doug Wildman on Flick
Troll, by Doug Wildman on Flick

 

For once, I am ahead of the Internet curve.  This fantastic post by Leo Traynor is all over the Internets and the Twitters this morning… but yrstly was sharing it yesterday!  Does that make me some kind of opinion former?

In the blog, Traynor describes how he was bullied off Twitter by a persistent troll, and then lived in fear when he started getting offline threats too.  Eventually, he managed to track down the IP address of the troll, and found that his tormentor was the 17 year old son of a friend of his.

This is a useful piece of writing for two reasons.  First, it is an example of speech that I do not believe should be free, that it is legitimate to criminalise.  Traynor experienced sustained personal threats.  It is the very opposite of the ‘generic racism‘ and unspecified unpleasantness put out by Liam Stacey (who posted racist messages about Fabrice Muamba) and Azhar Ahmed (convicted for a Facebook rant).

I was also eager to share, because it speaks directly to an idle wish I made in an article for the Free Word website, earlier this year.  Discussing internet ‘trolls’, I suggested that an enterprising journalist might track down some of the people who do this, and find out what makes them tick. The answer in Leo Traynor’s case was the young man was bored, confused, and appeared to enjoy the feeling of power it gave him.

Censoring Inflammatory YouTubes

The ‘Innocence of Muslims’ nonsense also raises the questions on the other side of the controversy: should the American filmmakers have published the video? Should they have been are allowed to upload it to YouTube?

First: The principles of free speech are pretty clear cut in this case. The video is pretty awful, but does not call for violence towards anyone. So banning such a video would set a terrible precedent. It would allow the religious to censor criticism of their religion… And God knows, the Christian fundamentalists in the USA would relish that opportunity.

However, the question of whether the authors should have made the video is another matter. I wish they had not. They did it for hateful, disrespectful reasons. It comes from a bigoted mindset, and is designed to provoke and inflame. People who make that kind of art tend not to be very nice, interesting, or intelligent. But, to repeat the key point of the article I wrote about Günter Grass for the New Statesman, To say this is an act of artistic and moral criticism, not a statement on the principles of free speech.

Finally: should YouTube have removed the clip or suppressed it in certain countries? They did precisely this in Egypt, I believe. I think that this might be the most interesting part of the whole affair. On the one hand, YouTube is a private company, with its own Terms & Conditions that are distinct from the law of the land. If it wants to set a higher bar for free expression then I suppose it has the right to do that. On the other hand, YouTube has become so ubiquitous that It has become part of our public square, a shared communal space that is essential for democracy. Perhaps it has to act more like a government than a private company, and take a more permissive attitude to free expression.

Convicted For A Facebook Rant

Teenager Azhar Ahmed has been found guilty of posting an offensive Facebook message following the deaths of six British soldiers in Afghanistan. The message he posted on his Facebook wall is reproduced below:

Azhar Ahmed Facebook Status
Azhar Ahmed’s Facebook status update

The judge called this “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory”.

Although Ahmed’s message is deeply unpleasant, I do not think that updates of this nature should qualify for a criminal conviction. Much political speech is “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory” and the first part of his message reads very much like a politcal opinion.

In the latter part of the update, he says that the soldiers “should die” and “go to hell”. Wishing for someone to die is also unpleasant, but it is not the same as a death threat. If it were, then thousands of Trades Unionists would surely have been prosecuted for wishing death and Hell upon Margaret Thatcher! No-one was specifically mentioned or targeted in Ahmed’s message. Moreover, it was broadcast to those in his Social Network – not towards the soldiers’ families.

To my mind, this reads like the frustrated outpourings of an inarticulate teenager, similar to the @Rileyy_69 and Tom Daley controversy. It is not the whipping up of an angry mob (unless the 8 Facebook ‘likes’ somehow count).

The appropriate response to this kind of ill-informed and unpleasant, offensive language, is through the power of the pen or the keyboard. Social opprobrium, and even Facebook’s ‘Report’ function for T&C violations are all means of discouraging this kind of speech, without resorting to criminal sanctions.

What’s next? Well, the religious overtones and talk of Hell in Ahmed’s message is noteworthy. The next step on the slippery slope is the criminalisation of offensive criticism of, and by, religious organisations. And those union members with their Thatcher’s Grave t-shirts better watch out too.

There’s another aspect to this, related to the other big free expression story of the moment: the “Innocence of Muslims” film which has been cited as the cause of rioting in Libya that led to the death of the US Ambassador.

As Alistair Campbell said, the British don’t ‘do’ religion, so blaspheming Christianity is hardly controversial these days. But it occurs to me that soldiers who have died in the line of duty fulfil a similar ‘sacred’ role for the secular British as the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) serves for practicing Muslims. Any denigration of either is seen as “derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory” and worthy of punishment. I am reminded of Charlie Gilmour, imprisoned for swinging on the Cenotaph.

I do think that soldiers killed in the line of duty should be revered. Their sacrifices should be memorialised, and society has a duty of care to the families they leave behind. However, saying unpleasant things about them should not be a criminal offence, because sometimes their actions may be in need of scrutiny and criticism. Moreover, criminalising derogatory comments about one sacred thing opens the door to criminalisation of other sacred things too.

And before you know it, we will be confronted with a pantheon of plastic Gods and tacky idols, protected from criticism, staring mutely at us, as we stare mutely back.

Update

Now cross-posted at Liberal Conspiracy, where there are 74 comments.  Add yours now!

Pussy Riot: Beyond the Retweets

The sentencing of Pussy Riot for hooliganism happened late last week, when I was out of the office. Theirs is clearly and ’emblematic’ case for human rights groups and free speech organisations like English PEN. However, I do feel a subtle unease at the way in which the case is being reported and discussed in the media and online.

Two pieces of comment scratch the itch. First, Jonathan Heawood says “There’s more to protest that hitting retweet”:

But to pin the fate of Pussy Riot on to one man, as though Putin runs Russia single-handedly, is misleading. He runs a powerful machine, certainly, but there are millions of active cogs inside the Russian regime, and there are many other passive participants who are allowing this to happen. Once the silly season is over, the world will once again stand back as the state machine continues its relentless project to dismantle Russian democracy and civil liberties.

Who’s standing back, you say? We’ve sent literally loads of tweets about it. Some of us have even been to the Russian embassy to protest. How many of you? Oh, at least a hundred. Well congratulations to those who stood up to be counted, but where was everyone else?

This is a theme discussed regularly on this blog. Raising awareness is not the same as establishing consensus, much less provoking the mass movements required to force through positive change.

Jonathan ends the piece by applauding Madonna’s interest in the Pussy Riot case. However, Joshua Foust is less excited. He says that the focus on Pussy Riot actually detracts from the actual anti-democratic manœverings in Russia:

Magnitsky’s death prompted some wrangling in the US Congress, where a bill named after him now awaits enactment. But the many celebrities urging their fans to show concern about Pussy Riot, about Russian women, about the plight of Art, apparently don’t know about the many men, non-punk rockers, regular Russians who face far worse brutality and mistreatment by Putin’s government every day.

Raising the problem of this misplaced attention to spectacle on Twitter raised a number of complaints — namely, that any attention drawn to Putin’s abuses is good attention, regardless of detail (along with some particularly unpleasant comparisons of Pussy Riot to Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks). This is wrong, however: focusing on the spectacle of Pussy Riot actually obscures from the real issues that prompted the Pussy Riot trial in the first place.

So: Emblematic cases are only useful ’emblems’ if they serve as a gateway to the wider context.

Finally, Rohan Jayaskera of Index on Censorship (the one stop shop for news on Pussy Riot) has a pertinent tweet:

More on Tom Daley and the Twitter Trolls

After viewing some of the responses to my article on Tom Daley and Twitter trolls, I have been thinking some more about this issue, and the wider problem of people posting offensive and threatening things online.

Many responders felt that I was too lenient on @Rileyy_69, when I said that “This appears to be the kind of outburst that is commonplace in a noisy, modern, and connected society.”

In their view, the level of abuse was not an ‘outburst’ as I put it, but something more sustained. The same person posted threatening videos on YouTube, and the invective he posted on twitter was not limited to the Daley tweets on the day in question. If this behaviour is systematic rather than a heat-of-the-moment slip of the finger, then it should be treated as threatening behaviour. Or so the argument goes. Continue reading “More on Tom Daley and the Twitter Trolls”

Involving the police is not the way to teach trolls a lesson

First published at the New Statesman, so add your comments there.  I will definitely post a follow up to this as lots of people have made very pertinent points about this whole shennanigans.

Another day, another Twitter controversy. Less than a week after Paul Chambers heard that the appeal against his conviction in the so-called Twitter joke trial had been upheld, we hear that the police have arrested another person for something written on Twitter.

The person arrested is a 17-year-old, who sent messages to the British Olympic diver Tom Daley. In one tweet, the troll said “u let ur dad down” and in another (later deleted) said that Daley should be drowned. It must be assumed that it is this language of violence which led to the arrest.

When it comes to the limits of free expression, context is important. The messages were deeply unpleasant, but did not appear to include any specifics. The teenager was in Plymouth, not in the Stratford Aquatics Centre. He did not call for others to take a specific action. This appears to be the kind of outburst that is commonplace in a noisy, modern, and connected society. The referees of every professional football match receive similar threats every weekend. Edwina Currie said that tax exiles should be shot. Jeremy Clarkson wants to murder the entire public sector. We often hear calls for bankers to be hanged. Outlawing this kind of speech might seem desirable in theory, but would be chaotic in practice.

The outrage against these tweets (and by extension, a justification for the police intervention) is that Tom Daley is a national treasure. This is true, but laws cannot only protect people we like – they need to work equally well for everyone. If another, less popular, athlete receives similar abuse, will there be similar outcry?

In fact, one could argue that death threats to public figures are less important than those directed at ordinary people. If a schoolboy living in one of the East London boroughs around the Olympic park receives a tweeted death threat today, it is likely to be from someone he knows and who he actually meets every day. This kind of bullying is much more serious that the “remote” trolling experienced by members of Team GB.

Daley, meanwhile, has a legion of supporters. He seems to be perfectly capable of dealing with trolls like this without the police being involved. His response to the unpleasant tweets was classy – he re-tweeted them! The troll then received a heavy social punishment – thousands of people wrote in solidarity with Daley. His antagonist was so humiliated that he later posted some gushing apologies. The storm should have ended there. What happens on Twitter, stays on Twitter. When confronted with offensive and threatening words, it is usually better to respond in the same medium. Fight a book with a book, a play with a play, a tweet with a tweet. Police involvement might teach that troll a lesson, but it also “chills” other people’s free expression. People have a right to be angry.

In the coming days, we may hear from a few luddites (almost certainly members of one or other of the Houses of Parliament) decry Twitter and the internet as somehow inspiring this hate. This is of course rubbish. Poor taste jokes and vocalised wishes that certain public figures should die horribly have always been a feature of discourse. Before, these comments were lost in the din of a crowded pub. Now, they find a kind of semi-permanence on Twitter, which gives them a credibility they do not deserve. However we respond to this new kind of speech, let’s not confuse the medium with the message.

Analogising Science in Political Debate

According to Sunny Hundal’s new web service Rippla, Joseph Harker’s Guardian article, about racism and the demonisation of communities, was the most shared article in the UK yesterday.

And quite right too.  It’s a truly sublime piece of analysis, comparing recent news sources, real demographic data, and an apt turn of phrase, to analyse the differing media coverage given to the same crimes, when committed by different perpetrators.  When Muslims are convicted of sex crimes, the stories receive much more attention than when generic white Englishmen are found to have done the same deed.  Worse, the actions of wayward Muslims are deemed to be somehow inspired by their culture.  This same extrapolation never happens for white people.

This article feels like the definitive statement on the issue of how the media treats minorities.  It raises its head in various guises all the time.  Like many people, I have been mulling it for years.  Back in 2003, when I was part of The LIP Magazine‘s editorial team, we published ‘Do You Belong To A Community?‘ by Aisha Phoenix which begins with a bite: “Whenever the media describes someone as coming from a ‘community’, you know they are not white.” Almost a decade later, and I see the same anxieties in this comment from the novelist Kamila Shamsie to the columnist David Aaronovich: “Could we have a moratorium on the phrase ‘Muslim leader’ please?”

Much rhetoric in politics is of a kind where the speaker (or writer) claims that his or her special interest group are being treated unfairly, and if they were of a different skin colour or religion (or whatever) they would be treated better.  This is often an incorrect assumption, which betrays a lack of understanding of the society in which we live.

Harker makes precisely this kind of argument in his article, too.  However, instead of making a vague assumption, the nature of the issue means he does have the ‘data’ to back up the rhetoric, and the article becomes akin to a scientific experiment.  Since the two prosecutions he examines are so similar, it is almost as if one is the control group for the other, in one of those attitude surveys invented by psychologists: Keep the details similar but change the ethnicity of the person, and see how attitudes change.

I would love to see other scientific analogies used in political discourse.  In particular, I yearn for an equivalent of dye tracing or radio-active marking when a controversy flares.  This would be very useful during some of the free speech arguments I follow, when some kind of institution has to decide whether to support or withdraw an offensive text, event or artwork.  It would be great to trace the decision-making process in such a way as to perceive the point where the support for the principle of free speech breaks down.  That would help us identify where these values should be reinforced.  Unfortunately, I cannot quite imagine how one might set the ‘tracer’ off… short of manufacturing an argument.  So, if Anjem Choudary is reading this, perhaps he would give me advanced warning of his next stunt?  Then I can track the reactions he provokes with academic precision.