Many of the modern issues that Index on Censorship tackles are what I call the shades of grey. From Wikileaks to privacy to hate speech and phone hacking, free expression comes hurtling against other rights or perceived rights. Rarely do absolutes prevail in this more complex and technological world.
It was therefore salutary for me to be reminded of the black and white which still confronts us: journalists and activists murdered, imprisoned or threatened for trying to hold the powerful to account and expose wrongdoing.
The British theatre group IceandFire transport audiences into the worlds of five crusading reporters and photo-journalists as they risk their lives for the sake of their stories. Several of these real-life cases have been followed and documented by Index. One of them, Lal Wickrematunge, Editor of the Sri Lankan newspaper Sunday Leader was reportedly threatened by his country’s president by telephone only a week ago. His brother, Lasantha, was murdered by the authorities in 2009.
The travails of Lydia Cacho, one of the world’s most fearless journalists, were movingly portrayed. Only six weeks ago Cacho says she received anonymous death threats for her continued campaign to expose corruption and criminality, particularly the role of senior politicians in sex offences and trafficking. From the work of a brave Israeli journalist working inside the West Bank, to an American defying the US military’s largely successful attempts to sanitise the Iraq war, the play brings home not just the bravery, but also the doubts and dilemmas faced by a small but determined group of reporters. The episode most familiar to me personally was the newsroom at Novaya Gazeta, for long a beacon of fearless journalism in a Russia where the attacks on free speech have remained constant over the past 20 years, long after the collapse of Communism.
Within 20 metres of leaving the theatre, in Hackney in east London, I came across three riot police vans. It was, at first glance, a shock. The officers were lounging around, eating Macdonalds. The city was still reeling from riots and looting. Yet amid all the gloom and self-doubt that has beset Britons, and only a month after the height of the phone-hacking scandal, it was worth remembering that, there are still many countries grappling with troubles on an altogether different scale.
John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship