Human rights in changing times
In a speech to Amnesty Internationals national conference John Kampfner talks self-censorship, Nick Griffin and why free speech means fighting for the rights of people whose views you find obnoxious
12 Apr 10

In a speech to Amnesty International’s national conference John Kampfner talks self-censorship, Nick Griffin and why free speech means fighting for the rights of people whose views you find obnoxious

Freedom of conscience and freedom of expression: the first you do, the second we do. They are two sides of the same coin, with many common factors. That is why I’m so delighted to be here, to praise Amnesty, to support it, and yes also to challenge it.

But before talking of present and future challenges, I’ll make a quick dip into the past. In the current issue of the Index on Censorship magazine, we have a wonderful piece from Michael Scammell, who was charged by Stephen Spender with the task of getting the organisation off the ground just a tad short of 40 years ago. Spender decided to call the new organisation Writers and Scholars International, with deliberate overlaps to Amnesty International. Amnesty’s director, Martin Ennals, was on the interview committee which gave Scammell the job. Scammell describes being given a lift by Ennals. He wrote:

He had one of those streamlined black Citroen sedans with pillowy suspension that rose and fell with each bump in the road and lurched round corners, and we discussed a proposal by the board to make WSI a subsidiary of Amnesty. Among other things it would help WSI’s precarious financial situation, but I quickly grasped between lurches that Martin was uncomfortable at the thought of having such a cuckoo in the nest, and I was equally unhappy at the idea of being the cuckoo. Well before we reached our destination, the idea was jettisoned by joint consent.

On such bumps in the road are important decisions made! Both organisations went their own way. Amnesty’s illustrious history is well known to you. Index has also had a rich history, albeit on a smaller scale, publishing some of the great writers of the age, from Solzehnitsyn, to Nadine Gordimer, to Vaclav Havel, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and many unsung heroes of free expression.

After more than 20 years in journalism, I was keen for a change. One of the frustrations of that profession is that you spend all your time writing or broadcasting about what others do, rather than doing it yourself. I relished the chance to help overhaul an organisation that had somewhat lost its way. The editorial work, which led to the quarterly magazine winning the Amnesty award in 2008, was impeded by poor administration, and by a lack of a clear mission. I saw the task as straightforward: to make Index, through its magazine, website, international projects and arts and youth programmes, THE place for people around the world to turn to for incisive information and advocacy about free expression and censorship issues.

The most important breakthrough has been the libel reform campaign which we launched with English PEN in November (before joining forces with Sense About Science in December). Over the last four months, we have set the agenda, highlighting the extent to which England possesses the most iniquitous libel laws of the developed world. London has become the town called sue, where the rich and powerful from any country use our courts to chill free speech by threatening costly defamation actions, not just on journalists and their like, but on scientists, academics and yes on NGOs. I’m constantly alarmed by the number of reports issued by NGOs around the world that are filtered through lawyers, and subsequently toned down, for fear of the writ.

It took the litigant law firms months to fight back, suggesting improbably that libel tourism was a figment of our imagination. They argued that super-injunctions were part of a body of law of which the UK should be proud. We’re still at the start of our fight, but I’m pleased to say that all three main political parties will pledge in their manifestos a serious commitment to libel reform. And if they renege, we will pursue them. Our campaign has already secured over 49,500 signatures, and I’m delighted that Amnesty has joined the throng.

Of course there is no absolute right and wrong on this issue. The question of free expression comes up against the equally compelling need to protect reputation. We are not seeking to abolish libel, but to make it fairer for all. And what of privacy? Again in the current issue of the magazine, we have a fascinating piece arguing that the internet and social networking sites have become not just galvanising and emancipating forces as they have, say, in Iran. They have also become vital tools for the authorities to snoop and to hunt people down, not just in autocracies but in notional democracies as well.

Issues such as privacy are what I call the shades of grey. In freedom of expression, as in freedom of conscience, these shades of grey pose increasingly difficult challenges. Each of our organisations has to make difficult decisions that some find tough. I did not particularly enjoy, for example, touring TV studios arguing for the right of Nick Griffin to appear on the BBC’s Question Time. But free speech also means fighting for the rights of the person whose views you find most obnoxious. Where does that leave cultural and other sensitivities? In need of respect, for sure, but not through censorship. I remember just over a year ago chairing a session organised by the Arts Council on cultural self-censorship. I was truly shocked when a theatre manager in the Midlands told me he regularly consulted a focus group of local stakeholders to see if there was anything in his forthcoming programme that might possibly cause offence. Apparently his case was not unique. That way madness lies, and a terrible, and hard to recover, loss of freedom. I would also that the liberal left, to which I belong, has the greatest difficulty with accepting free speech. Just think of the First Amendment, of an absolute right to expression and association – curtailed only in extremis – and that is surely a guarantor of ultimately a more mature society.

Of course, we at Index, as you at Amnesty, focus on the black and white, the unarguable instances of repression – the journalist dead in the stairwell, the activist dumped in a ditch, the opposition politician imprisoned, the prisoner tortured. As a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union, in the former GDR and elsewhere, I saw many such cases. Sadly in several places they continue. We must continue this work with as much tenacity as ever. But for every Burma, every North Korea, for every out and out totalitarian regime, there are countries and societies whose restrictions on freedom are more variegated.

It is for good reason that you have chosen as your theme for this year’s conference ‘Human Rights in Changing Times’. Abuses of civil liberties are as strong now as they have ever been. But the context is changing. The 21st century challenge of authoritarian countries is quite distinct from the 20th century challenge of totalitarianism. And that is what led me to write my latest book, Freedom For Sale. One question encapsulated so many of the concerns I had been having about the state of global politics and economics, about the state of civil liberties, and perhaps most importantly about the state of us, the people. And the question was this: why is it that so many people around the world appear willing to give up freedoms in return for either security or prosperity? I call it the pact or trade-off.

Freedom For Sale

My book focused on eight countries. The choices of destination might seem arbitrary to some, but there was method in the selection. Singapore, China, Russia, the UAE, India, Italy, UK and US. Why?

In each country the pact varies; citizens hand over different freedoms in accordance with their own customs and priorities. In some it is press freedom; in some it is the right to vote out their government; in some it is an impartial judiciary; in others it is the ability to get on with their lives without being spied upon. In many it is a combination of these and more. In the global order of the past two decades, the alliance of political leaders, business and the middle classes has been the key. The arrangement is built on a clear, but usually discreet set of understandings. What matters in all these societies is that the number of people who benefit from this economic deal has gradually increased – at least until the global financial crisis – and that the state has remained flexible enough to meet their various needs.

These needs could be summarised as: property rights, contract law, environmental protection, lifestyle choices, right to travel. The pre-eminent freedom in this era of globalised glut has been financial – the right to earn money – and keep it.

These are private freedoms, the freedom to lead your atomised existence without undue constraint. In countries where until recently many private freedoms did not exist these are not to be scoffed at. The deal is straightforward and seductive – I, the individual, won’t mess with you, the state. In return, you lead me to get on with my life unimpeded.

The tragedy is that private freedoms have usurped public freedoms – the freedom to speak out, to agitate; to be active in the public realm. In clever authoritarian regimes, repression is now highly selective, confined to those who openly challenged the status quo. The number of people who fall into that category is actually very few – journalists who criticise the state or publish information that cast the powerful in a negative light; lawyers who defended these agitators; and politicians and others who publicly go out of their way to “cause trouble”. After all, how many members of the public, going about their daily lives, wish to challenge the structures of power? One can more easily than one realises be lulled into thinking that one is sufficiently free.

My first stop and the model for my thesis was Singapore, the state in which I was born, and which has long intrigued me. I am constantly struck by the number of people there I know – well travelled with long stints at Western universities – who are keen to defend a system that requires an almost complete abrogation of freedom of expression in return for a very good material life. On independence from Britain, Singapore had the same per capita GDP as Ghana. In the past forty years it has grown to become one of the world’s economic miracles, an island of stability in a region of upheaval. I look at the vicious defamation culture, in which the authorities prosecute local citizens and foreigners alike for the slightest criticism; I assess an electoral system in which constituencies are rigged. And as Amnesty reminds us, Singapore has the highest per capita execution rate of any country. Yet the achievements are striking. Previously fractious ethnic groups –Chinese, Malays and Indians – live in relative harmony; through remarkable social housing and public services, most of the population is well catered for. The pivot is a middle class that, with some exceptions, is comfortable with a pact in which their private space is unimpeded, as long as they do not interfere with the public realm.

As I spent time at the National University, I was struck by the number of Chinese officials from the various regions who came to study the secrets of Singapore’s success. During a series of discussions in Beijing and in Shenzhen, the great economic powerhouse on the other side of the straits from Hong Kong, I saw how a similar economics over politics prioritisation is willingly entered into. Government and individuals are still snaking their way around the pact. Free expression is good when it comes to outing corrupt officials. It is bad when it comes to criticising senior party officials. It is tolerated in some contexts. It is clamped down on in others. The government is trying to manage and channel it, through a combination of technology, modern-day “spin” techniques and brute force. What I found most intriguing and unsettling was the extent to which many in the middle classes made clear they have no vested interest in granting the vote to hundreds of millions of poorer people with different political priorities. The lack of democracy is, for the moment at least, part of the deal. The government knows that the delivery of comforts to the private realm will determine its success. That is why during the financial crisis the notion of 8 per cent annual growth rate became talismanic. They had to achieve it, by whatever means.

I move on to Russia, which I have been visiting regularly for thirty years. I watched as my friends celebrated the failure of the coup of 1991 and the subsequent collapse of their autocratic system. They discovered new freedoms and revelled in them, before Boris Yeltsin consolidated his power by manipulating an election with the tacit approval of the West. Democracy became associated with chaos and sleaze. The ascent of Vladimir Putin in 2000 was in keeping with his time, his security clampdown coinciding with a surge of wealth thanks to the global price of oil and gas. As their country became richer and more assertive, my friends would recite a slogan of the only three Cs that were important to the New Russians – Chelsea, Courchevel and Cartier. While doughty journalists and human rights campaigners continued to ask questions, the vast majority acquiesced in the pact. These jet setters continued to fear that their fortunes and their properties could at any point be seized. That is why they took their money abroad. But they enjoyed the fruits of their private freedoms, and left the siloviki – the politicians who hailed from the security elite – to rule unimpeded.

The second part of my book is arguably more challenging. It looks at countries that profess adherence to democracy. I begin with India, which prides itself on having the world’s most populous multi-party system. As China’s economy soared ahead, parts of India’s corporate elite wondered whether their form of governance was an impediment to prosperity. India’s rich devised its own pact. It would provide for itself the basic services that the state had failed to deliver; it would make few demands. In return, it would require the government to leave it alone to make money, and to keep the poor away from its door. This arrangement was challenged less by the global economic crash, more by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in late 2008. For the first time, the affluent classes were caught up en masse in the violence that has long afflicted India. They demanded protection.

Of all countries, why choose Italy? It matters, not because of any geo-strategic relevance, but because it serves as an example of a sham democracy. In terms of its institutions, Italy fails on almost every count. The three checks on the executive – parliament, the media and the judiciary – have seen their independence and authority eroded. Corruption is rampant. And yet, three times its voters have chosen in Silvio Berlusconi a man noted for his financial irregularities, his affection for autocrats like Putin and his general vulgarity. He has outwitted his opponents with consummate ease, and is seeking to expand his powers. It is easy to dismiss Berlusconi and his antics. But his enduring popularity among a large swathe of the population highlights the extent to which notional democracies can thrive and even depend on the same exercise of arbitrary power that authoritarian states are criticised for.

In 1997, the accession of a centre-left government in the UK, which prided itself on its liberties, should have been an inspiring moment. Yet in a decade Britain has gone a long way to dismantling its liberties. It now possesses a fifth of the world’s closed-circuit television cameras; it has some of the world’s most punitive libel laws; surveillance, be it phone tapping or emailing snooping, is conducted not just by security services, but by public bodies and local authorities against people deemed to be indulging in anti-social behaviour. From ID cards to a national DNA database, to long periods of detention without charge, to public-order restrictions on protest, this government rewrote the relationship between state and individual.

During the Blair years parliament passed 45 criminal justice laws – more than the total for the whole of the previous century – creating more than 3,000 new criminal offences. Abroad, the government colluded with the transport of terrorist suspects by the US to secret prisons, giving landing rights at British airports for “rendition” flights, while serious questions were raised about the UK’s role in torture. Ministers proudly brandished their authoritarian credentials, arguing that they are generally well received by the public. In many cases they are. I look at a government that confused the benign role of the state in producing a more equitable society with the malign role of the state in seeking to clamp down on public freedoms.

My last destination is the United States, where the pact has been played out most visibly. The chapter traces the effects on society, at home and abroad, of 9/11, the Iraq war and the abuses that surrounded the “war on terror”. The failure of Bush’s neo-conservative mission was the result not just of double standards but of a deeper confusion about “democracy promotion”. Was democracy an end in itself? Or was it a means to an end? Should multi-party elections be encouraged in states where the outcome might produce regimes hostile to the West and to the concept of liberal democracy? Domestically, Bush presided over a security clampdown that was rarely challenged by mainstream politicians or public opinion. The US media showed itself to be supine, failing to hold power to account on many of the gravest issues. To what extent would the arrival of Obama reverse the democratic erosion at home, and America’s loss of democratic credibility abroad? Certainly, the nature of his election victory provided a much-needed boost to the credentials of America’s constitutional democracy. Yet the cruel irony was that a new administration, in which many around the world had pinned their faith, began its work just at a time of eroding American power.

Throughout my travels, I did not seek to compare countries. What I tried to do is to show that we all trade different freedoms, to a greater or lesser extent as we worship on the altar of wealth. We do so at our peril. Citizens in both systems have colluded but in the West we colluded more. We had the choice to demand more, to rebalance the pact between liberty, security and prosperity, but for as long as the going was good we chose not to exercise it.

The events of the past decade have surely undermined the claim that the enrichment of a country or the growth of a middle class provides an impulse towards greater liberty. Free or freer markets do not necessarily lead to free or freer societies, as was the template devised by Reagan and Thatcher, to be adopted across mainstream politics. Barrington Moore’s theories of “no bourgeoisie, no democracy” have surely been refuted by the past twenty years of materialist aspiration. During this period, people in all countries found a way to disengage from the political process while living in comfort.

Over the past 20 years of global glut we, the people allowed the notion of democracy to mutate into something it should never have become — a vehicle to deliver consumption. Consumerism provided the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain.

My discoveries are discomforting but it is more useful to understand than to judge. It has always been the instinct of the politician to seek power and to hold on to it, by fair means or foul. Less understood are the reasons why so many of us – in authoritarian and democratic states alike – succumb, and why so few of us ask why we do it.

And this is part of the challenge for NGOs. How do we respond to the uncomfortable truth that many people around the world, from here to afar, simply do not care about the human rights we battle for? We need to think hard about these shades of grey; even if the grey is very dark it is not black.

Consumerism and technology have worked in perfect harmony. In many ways the internet is the clever authoritarian’s friend. It enables the state to capture data, tap into the thinking and anticipate the actions of those it deems who cause trouble, who step into the public realm. It also allows individuals to let off steam from the loneliness of their computer screen, knowing that only the most organised oppositionists can galvanise significant support. All the while, Western firms have exported the technology that enables censorship. That is why Google’s withdrawal from China is so significant.

I want to leave you on a more upbeat note, with the thoughts of Maziar Bahari, the Iranian journalist arrested after the clampdown last summer, and who through the lobbying of an alliance of NGOs and news organisations was released. In his keynote speech to Index’s annual Free Expression this year, Maziar spoke of the authorities’ fears of the free flow of information, as evinced during the Twitter explosion in his country during the brief pro-democracy demonstrations.Supporting the free flow of information to and from Iran is investing in Iran’s future. It narrows the gap between Iranians and the rest of the world. It is the quickest shortcut to democracy for Iranians, Bahari told us.

In the meantime Khamenei and the guards, as well as their stooge Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will try their best to suffocate the voices of dissent through brute force. Many lives will perish and be lost in the process. There will be periods of silence and days of turbulence. But in the end, as Prophet Mohammad said, “An infidel can rule a nation for a long time. But an oppressor will never succeed in doing so.”

John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship