Threats to the open book
Old colleagues meet again after 15 years to discuss new and old threats to the free word. Chris Keulemans reports from a conference on free expression to mark the Amsterdam World Book Capital / International Publishers Association 2008 IPA Freedom to Publish Prize In the autumn of 1993, representatives of Index on Censorship, Article XIX, […]
28 Oct 08

amsterdam-20081Old colleagues meet again after 15 years to discuss new and old threats to the free word. Chris Keulemans reports from a conference on free expression to mark the Amsterdam World Book Capital / International Publishers Association 2008 IPA Freedom to Publish Prize

In the autumn of 1993, representatives of Index on Censorship, Article XIX, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the PEN Writers in Prison Committee met in De Balie, a centre of culture and politics in Amsterdam, to discuss the post-1989 challenges to freedom of expression faced by the world.

Fifteen years later, the same organisations were represented in the same conference hall. And again, freedom of expression was under threat –– this time in the post-9/11 world.

The basic issue was at stake again, but there was a new urgency to the questions. Amsterdam World Book Capital had sensed the necessity and timed its symposium to coincide with the annual announcement of the International Publishers Association (IPA) Freedom to Publish Prize for a publisher who had distinguished himself as a guardian of dissent.

The result: three fascinating days of thinking out loud about new challenges to freedom of expression. Was it justified to talk about neo-censorship, new forms of censorship that differ from the conventional muzzling of press and publishing by dictatorial states? And if so, how could writers, editors and publishers act against it?

The answer lay somewhere among the memorable characters we witnessed during the symposium. On the one hand, there were IPA laureates Ragip Zarakolu (Belge publishing house, Turkey) and Shahla Lahiji (Roshangaran publishing house, Iran), both members of the nobility of the publishing trade, who have always responded to new bans on their work by simply publishing even more books.

On the other hand, there was the 18-year-old sound technician in China, who had worked for Dutch television reporter Gijs Rademaker last summer. We were shown some of the reports he assisted on but, as Rademaker pointed out, he himself will probably not be ble to access his own work on the Internet.

Fifteen years ago, censorship was often about books, newspapers and magazines. Today, it’s about all kinds of media, and the censors are everywhere, even within ourselves. Defenders of the freedom of expression are fighting a new war, in a wide variety of arenas, but in essence, their weapons have not changed. The basic principles remain the same, and how to use them in this dizzying age of neo-censorship was the main question at stake.

The basic themes were laid out during the IPA Freedom to Publish Award ceremony in the Portuguese synagogue, beneath the old wooden ceiling and the candles, with the fading sunlight streaming in through the high windows.

The host, Dutch journalist Frénk van der Linden, started out by quoting Amos Oz: ‘Whenever a politician uses the word security, I immediately feel insecure.’

He went on to introduce a politician wise enough not to misuse this word: Job Cohen, Mayor of Amsterdam. The mayor underlined the value of this event, ‘now that the freedom to publish and to express oneself are under attack worldwide –– not just in police states, but in the democratic world as well.’

He was followed by key note speaker William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a man with an admirable curiosity for the culture and the religion that led someone to shoot him in the back. He concentrated on three dominant trends responsible for shaping much of today’s neo-censorship: anti-terrorist laws that affect infinitely more people than they aim to target; the safeguarding of cultural values by communities and governments that feel their identity is being threatened; and the self-censorship that results from the fear of insulting others.

For the next two days the symposium moved to De Balie and two characteristics of the freedom of expression community appeared to have survived the past fifteen years fully intact.

The collective code that no member of this community will accept any limits to the freedom of expression, ever; as a matter of principle, it is an absolute human right and we will not allow ourselves to even question its universal value.

William Nygaard exemplified this unwavering conviction when asked by Dutch author Naema Tahir if he would, knowing now what he didn’t know then, publish The Satanic Verses again today. She had barely finished her question before the answer came: a categorical yes. Not a moment of doubt, no trace of lingering second thoughts.

And maybe as a result of this vital dogma, almost everyone present demonstrated a commitment to one’s own freedom of expression agenda so fierce that it turned, at times, into an insensitivity to that of others. This was most clearly illustrated by Kees Schaepman, a highly respectable veteran of traditional journalism.

During the panel on censorship and national security, he was seated next to Egbert Dommering, a professor of information law, who offered a crystal clear summary of neo-censorship on the Internet and the victims it creates among servers and search engines – a technological reality which influences, overtakes and overshadows more conventional forms of censorship.

Schaepman, apparently unable to focus on these new developments, however clearly they threaten his trade, simply did not respond. The censors he knew required all his energy. In response to those less familiar he drew a blank.

Dommering demonstrated how we live in a new technological reality, where technology when available is used – and very often with no transparency, proportionality or due process. His analysis was then confirmed by a short history of librarians liable to becoming an extension of censorship, from hidden little book burnings in cellar furnaces in the sixties to casual Internet filtering on the public desktops of today.

This history was brought to us by Paul Sturges, who proved to be not only a gifted storyteller but also a champion of libraries as a stronghold of freedom of expression.

Dutch writer Abdelkader Benali was another gifted storyteller. While he cruised through his anecdotes about double standards from Amsterdam to Damascus, Ragip Zarakolu and his wife couldn’t keep themselves from giggling like school kids at his pranks, but William Nygaard frowned.

You could see him thinking: this young man is obviously talented, but also frightfully easygoing about the threats to freedom of expression in the Islamic world. Where Benali dismissed the hotheaded protesters against cartoons and films as just so many crackpots, Nygaard’s worries that something more serious is going on were confirmed by Boris Dittrich of Human Rights Watch.

He described the current lobby of the Organisation of Islamic Countries in the Human Rights Council, claiming that freedom of expression cannot be a universal right, as aspects of it are not compatible with their religious culture.

What followed was a wide-ranging series of statements on freedom of expression in the post-9/11 war on terror, its Big Brother policy, the backlash in Islamic states and the ensuing confusion in the West between what is legally permitted and what should be morally acceptable.

Nelleke Noordervliet, the reigning queen of Dutch literature, described her freedom concisely by saying that she can choose not to speak out, whenever speaking out might do more damage than good. Impossible for our gaze not to wander to Ragip Zarakolu and Shahla Lahiji, who seem to have no choice but to speak out and to keep speaking out.

Kenan Malik, the British essayist, equally eloquent and soft-spoken, took the opposite position. Now that Rushdie’s critics have lost the battle but won the war, he said, book burners have come to appear as the defenders of minority rights. This paradoxical situation convinced him that in order to be a decent, society-serving citizen he had no choice but to offend.

He offered a lucid explanation. Fifteen years ago, in his society, identity used to be defined politically. Today, the defining elements are culture and faith. And where politics is about the exchange of views and the negotiation between them, culture and faith are regarded by those who believe to be non-negotiable.

This, Malik claimed, has paralyzed the left. It has given up on the defence of freedom of expression. Politically instilled fear of terror combined with the fear to insult the other’s sensitivity, have led to a multicultural censorship that undermines progressive movements within minorities and results in an auction of victimhood on the side of those who claim to be insulted in their faith and culture. Malik offered us a stark choice: we can live in a homogenous society or be prepared to be offended.

In the final panel, Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship and Sarah Whyatt of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, singling out religious defamation as one issue that needs to be approached urgently, set out their plans for the future in words that captured the atmosphere of this symposium.

The veterans of campaigns for human rights and freedom of expression, the thinking man’s publishers and the partisan journalists assembled here were clearly bursting with energy and ideas to overcome the current climate of fear, the new movements both in the West and the Islamic world that will not acknowledge the universal and unrestricted right to freedom of expression, and the technological greed that makes casual, uncontrollable censorship endemic.

In a world where new forms of censorship abound – soft censorship, self-censorship, post-9/11 censorship, commercial censorship and technological censorship –– new victims are in need of defence every day. The company came together in the call for the promotion of media and information literacy, because now more than ever, people need to understand what they are seeing and reading.

The symposium had proven its urgency. The nobility of the publishing trade summarized it all neatly. Shahla Lahiji recalled a time when we knew who the censor was. But today, she said, all of us, not just those in Iran, live in a society where you do not know what is forbidden and it’s impossible to tell where the red line is.

So the closing words of Ragip Zarakolu’s speech echoed a bitter necessity felt throughout the meeting hall: ‘You will hear more from us soon!’