About this time in 1973, 45 years ago that is, I published my first article in the second issue of an obviously unknown London-based magazine, Index on Censorship. It had been launched in November 1972, to publish banned, imprisoned, silenced writers and artists in Eastern Europe and beyond. Very much a Western instrument in the Cold War, but it went further than that.
My first article in that edition, Volume 2 No. 2, was an attempted summary of attacks on the press that did not meet with the then-Peronist government’s favour (remember the succession: Héctor Cámpora, Raúl Lastiri, Juan Domingo Perón and María Estela Martínez Cartas de Perón). Political activists were murdered frequently and the bodies were dumped somewhere near Ezeiza. Mine was not a friendly article and a small circle of contacts, in the Foreign Ministry and in Government House who could read English, warned against repetition. My articles were regularly published in Index and The Daily Telegraph, until we had to follow the airmail route out of Buenos Aires.
The gallery of greats who helped start Index on Censorship were mentioned by the first editor, historian, biographer and fluent Russianspeaker, Michael Scammell: “One of the bonuses of doing this work has been the contact, and in some cases friendship, established with outstanding writers who have been in trouble: [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Djilas, [Václav] Havel, Stanislaw Baranczak, Wole Soyinka, [Eduardo] Galeano, Juan Carlos Onetti, and with the many distinguished writers who went out of their way to help: Heinrich Böll, Mario Vargas Llosa, Stephen Spender, Tom Stoppard, Philip Roth – and many others. There is a kind of global consciousness coming into existence, which Index has helped to foster and which is especially noticeable among writers. Fewer and fewer are prepared to stand aside and remain silent while their fellows are persecuted. The Holocaust and the Gulag have rubbed in the fact that silence can also be a crime.”
The magazine today is headed by editor Rachael Jolley, “I have been here nearly four years,” she says. “Previously I worked in journalism and for thinktanks. Before Index I was editorial director at a think-tank called British Future, I have also worked for the Fabian Society. I have done a variety of different jobs in journalism over the years, starting as a news reporter on the English Eastern Daily Press, writing for all sorts for the Evening Standard, Times, Guardian, Financial Times in London and as managing editor for Business Traveller magazine.”
The intellectual standards and background of many people who work in such organisations never stops surprising me, mainly because their wages are usually pitifully low.
“Censorship and freedom of expression challenges have morphed into different versions of the same idea over the past 40 years, but their intention is still the same, to stop some people’s voices being heard, to reduce challenge to governments and to leave people less well informed,” Jolley remarked for this column. “We now see use of digital tactics to achieve these things – using methods not invented in the 1970s and 1980s when Vaclav Havel, Arthur Miller and Solzhenitsyn were writing for Index on Censorship. Governments in Turkey and Mexico, for instance, have invested heavily in social media tools to try to dominate the Internet with their messages and drown those who disagree with them. We have seen the arrival of bots (Internet robots), which pretend to be real people. The aim is to discredit the reputations of journalists who are not toeing the line. And there are still physical and deadly attacks on journalists. Mexico last year had a terrifying number of journalists killed – more than in any year in the 21st century.”
She continued: “It is certainly quicker to get the news of any disaster, attack or killing across the world than it was 45 years ago. The amazing speed of an email has replaced the snail’s pace of the postal system. However, with all of those digital tools has come an opportunity for those with malice in their hearts to track and spy on those who bring that news, and potentially to threaten them more easily.”
Some of those who remember the samizdat days, Jolley remarked – when secret newspapers were printed in the Soviet Union – are now talking of returning to print as a safer means of distribution (it’s harder to track), as offline they feel more secure.
After a period of intense hope, it feels like we are in a season of pessimism, with threats of all kinds to freedom of expression coming from the unexpected to the expected regions of the world. We see repression in China, and attacks on the media in the United States.
“Our latest issue of the magazine spotlighted the erosion of the right to protest in English cities, where local councils are handing over public squares to private companies without worrying about retaining democratic rights. We recently saw the killing in Malta of Daphne Caruana Galizia with a car bomb, in a country that had been presumed to be safe. This week saw a second killing of a journalist in an EU country, this time in Slovakia. Jan Kuciak, who had been reporting on tax fraud among businessmen connected to the country’s ruling party, was shot dead at his home.”
Index’s own Mapping of Media Freedom project recently reported rising numbers of attacks on journalists covering protests in the 42 countries it covers. Reported attacks on the map grew from 50 in 2016 to 70 in the first nine months of 2017.
There is room for hope, of course. Those who believe in freedom of expression are fighting back, creatively, with online protests as well as those in the physical streets. In India women wearing cow masks argued that cows had more rights than women. The protest went viral (it couldn’t do that 45 years ago), and caught the world’s attention. In Hungary, the satirical minds at the Two-Tailed Dog Party (a group that uses comedy to make political points) drew public support and is now thinking of standing in this year’s elections.
With hindsight, it seems outrageous that in 1991,with the breakup of the Soviet Union, there were people who argued that “there is no more censorship.” Well, Index feels there still is, too much of it.