On never being able to stop
Our outgoing CEO Ruth Anderson shares her thoughts as she hands over the freedom of expression baton
24 May 24

“The greatest of all human delusions is that there is a tangible goal, and not just direction towards an ideal aim. The idea that a goal can be attained perpetually frustrates human beings, who are disappointed at never getting there, never being able to stop.”

Stephen Spender, poet and co-founder of Index on Censorship

Sometimes it is wise to follow the advice of a great. I have spent my life striving for tangible, if all too regularly unachievable, goals and sometimes you do just need to stop—if only to reflect. For the last four years I have led Index on Censorship as we strived to protect and promote freedom of expression in an increasingly polarised world. However it is now my turn to stop—at least at Index.

This is my last weekly blog. As of today my brilliant successor Jemimah Steinfeld will be taking over the reins as CEO (which means we’re looking for a new editor).

My time at Index started during the pandemic when authoritarian regimes used the pretext of Covid-19 as an excuse to restrict access to a free media. We’ve seen Putin invade Ukraine, the people of Afghanistan abandoned to the Taliban, the increased repression in Hong Kong and the continuing rise of populist politics around the world. All of this as technology is changing faster than any of us can really comprehend and we are only now starting to appreciate how it can be used as a tool for dissent as well as repression.

At times the world has felt far, far too bleak. Our ability to directly help dissidents has always been limited to paying them for their work – but when you are publishing their fears and realities every day it can be beyond disheartening. Yet my amazing team have worked to support people in Egypt, Iran, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Belarus and a dozen other countries. It’s been a privilege to lead them, as they sought to protect others.

The joy of Index is that our supporters—well you—often rightly claim ownership of our work. Challenging us to do more. Before I leave I think it’s important for my successor that I explain why we do what we do. Our remit is promoting the work of dissidents; that means we touch on areas of media or academic or artistic freedom but when we do it should always be through the prism of censorship and repression. In the UK, the EU and the US we also engage on issues which we think undermine our ability to promote freedom of expression in countries where repression is the norm—we cannot forgo the moral high ground. And our rights are as important as anyone else’s.

This means that sometimes we won’t cover issues in the same depth that others do because we’re a small team. Index undoubtedly punches above its weight but there are less than a dozen of us, so we can’t cover everything. We also might not cover an issue because as important or as valid as it is, it might not be a matter of freedom of expression but rather underpinned by an alternative human right.

There is also the fact that some of the team travel – to the very places that we write about. So sometimes we don’t publish until they come home.  So occasionally you may need to indulge us.

Even with all of these constraints Index does exceptional work. I am so proud of the work we’ve done on SLAPPs, on digital rights and of course the work we do with dissidents. So thank you for your support in making it happen.

And while I am doing thank-yous, it would be remiss of me not to thank my amazing Chair, Trevor Philips, and our brilliant board of Trustees. With me, they have helped Index rebrand, relaunch and celebrate our 50th birthday. They have rebuilt the organisation into the force I believe it to be. Their commitment to Index has been unwavering and without them Index wouldn’t be here today. Simply put they are exceptional people and I am grateful to them.

Going forward Index has a huge work programme – freedom of expression will be challenged by AI, deepfakes, transnational repression and a shifting world order with nation states whose actions can mean it is no longer always clear who are goodies. This is all compounded by a public space that no longer encourages debate but rather seeks to silence the alternative view. Issues quickly become toxic and ideological purity is seemingly a prerequisite for engagement in any ‘controversial’ debate. This is at odds with the very basic tenets of freedom of expression – debate and engagement leads to change and enables societies to thrive and grow. We should always be prepared to protect the boundaries of our public space to protect speech – not hate speech – but genuine thought and considered debate. After all that is the basis for any strong democracy.

So as the UK heads towards a general election, my focus will be on the best bit of our democracy – the election campaign.

So thank you for your support, your views and most importantly your commitment to freedom of expression.

Here’s hoping – that as a third of the world heads to the polls this year – freedom of expression will end up as the protected and cherished human right that we all need it to be.

PS – Make sure you use your vote – if you have one!

PPS – Be kind to Jemimah,  she is going to be brilliant. 

By Ruth Anderson

CEO at Index On Censorship