Vidal-Hall on 14 years at Index exposing censorship happening under our nose


Judith Vidal-Hall at the 2017 Freedom of Expression Awards. Credit: Dimitri Lauder/Index on Censorship

“The invasion of privacy is the reverse side of censorship. If you don’t feel that your privacy is immune, you’re not going to speak out, you’re going to hold your tongue. Or not talk about certain things. So it has this strange underbelly of censorship,” said Judith Vidal-Hall, former editor of Index on Censorship from 1993 to 2007. I meet Vidal-Hall on a sunny afternoon at a river-side cafe in West London to discuss her experiences of editing the magazine. We’re chatting about the internet and the privacy concerns that come with it, a concern that went from almost non-existent to ubiquitous during her time as editor. 

“One of the greatest threats to free expression at the moment is privacy,” she added. 

Vidal-Hall worked at Index at one of the most pivotal eras in recent world history. In 1993 the Twin Towers still stood, the world wide web was in its infancy and South African apartheid continued to be enforced. By 2007 the political and social landscape had become almost unrecognisable.  

Under Vidal-Hall’s stewardship, Index navigated this global metamorphosis, identifying those in power who obscured the truth, those who were being shut out of the narrative, and gave the “voiceless a voice”.

How did Vidal-Hall find herself editing the magazine in 1993?

“It’s quite a long story, it’s a bit of a saga,” she told me over sausage rolls and tea. And a bit of a saga it really is. Returning to the UK in 1976 after a couple years of travelling, Vidal-Hall approached the Guardian, on behalf of a Bangladeshi friend, to start the Guardian Third World Review. It was, she said, “an absolutely pioneering supplement where third world people told their own stories”.

She remembers a Guardian journalist at the time asking her: “Don’t you think we treat the third world fairly?”. “That’s not the point.” she had replied. “You’re keeping their voices out…I didn’t use the word at the time I don’t think, but they’re censored. You keep them out.

Without skipping a beat, she added: “We then started a magazine called South.” South: The Voice of the Third World, was a monthly magazine which was about including other voices. South closed its doors in 1989 and, Vidal-Hall chuckled, “my husband buggered off at the same time so I was left with no husband, no income”. 

Shortly after, she received a call from Philip Spender, who was running Index, asking for a reference for Andrew Graham-Yooll, who had been an editor at South. Graham-Yooll became the editor of Index, and it was he who brought Vidal-Hall into the fold.

It was not the best time for Index. Many of Index’s funders had seen it as “a Cold War weapon” and, believing communism to be over with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they had withdrawn their funding. By the early 1990s Index was “basically bankrupt”.

Inside the axis of evil, the spring 2003 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

Inside the axis of evil, the spring 2003 issue of Index on Censorship magazine

Enter the Fritt Ord Foundation, a group of Norwegian newspaper owners “ashamed of the takeover of their media by the Nazis in the [19]40s, and they had made a resolution, never again to work for anyone but themselves and to support independent media.”

And so in 1993, supported by funds from the Fritt Ord Foundation, Index was relaunched with Vidal-Hall as the editor, who had some big plans.

“One was to make it an attractive, readable magazine.” 

Next: “I wanted it to be much more diverse…it did have a sort of Cold War focus and I wanted to bring in a much more global focus.”

“The third thing I wanted was to get rid of the idea that censorship was what they did out there, not what we did. They censor, we don’t. So I wanted to make it universal, the concept of censorship.”

I discuss with Vidall-Hall an Index article from 2002 by Noam Chomsky, Confronting the Monster. In this article Chomsky, writing in the wake of 9/11, examines how the West considers only actions taken by the enemy to be war crimes, while believing their own actions are always justified. 

“He was so much my hero,” Vidal-Hall said on hearing Chomsky’s name. 

“The them and us, it’s a good way to put it [referencing Chomsky’s article]. They do it, we don’t. And I wanted to break that, so that was my main [aim], to make Index inclusive not only of all genders, colours etc and creeds, don’t forget creeds, but also to make it inclusive of us, as guilty as them in a different way.”

Underexposed, the November 1999 edition of Index on Censorship magazine.

Underexposed, the November 1999 edition of Index on Censorship magazine, which was Vidal-Hall’s favourite to work on

As we discuss Chomksy’s article, I ask what was the most important global event that happened while Vidal-Hall was at Index. 

She says gathering around the television in the office to watch events on 9/11 unfolding live: “And that in some ways was the beginning of what I would call a series of events. It changed the balance, the perspective, relationships and priorities in the world. So, off the cuff, I would say that the sequence of events between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq…that was the changing moment.”

The conversation turns to media coverage of that time. How were the narratives controlled by the states in question? What did it mean for freedom of expression? 

“[In 2001-2003] people thought they had freedom of expression but they didn’t know the facts. And why didn’t we know the facts? We were lied to, there were no weapons of mass destruction.”

She added: “For me, and it’s very personal, what that invasion did was destroy a level of what seemed like stability in international relations. And I think the revelations of the inquiry into the lies that have been told was quite shocking… Are governments transparent? No! When they need to lie they will lie if it defends them.”

While the events of 2001 to 2003 were the most important during Vidal-Hall’s time as editor, her favourite issue predates them. It is a 1999 issue called Underexposed, which explored the censorship of photographs.  

“It was fascinating. I didn’t go to the office for days. I spent weeks searching [for images]…some of the ones I remember most clearly, visually, are the ones from the early 30s when Hitler was coming to power. The photos that were never published. I’ll give you one example. Never published in Germany! Photos of him. There’s this one photo where he’s being coached in sort of rhetoric and he didn’t want people to know that he was being coached.”

Vidal-Hall also reflects on interviews she conducted in the early 1990s, one with a key player in modern European far-right politics.

“When the [Berlin] Wall came down I went out to Hungary and various other places…I did some rather interesting interviews…One of them was with a man you might have heard of, Viktor Orban. I interviewed him back when the Wall had come down, communism had fallen and him and another young man whom I’m still in touch with, Peter Molnar, I interviewed them together. They were the founder of Fidesz, the party that has now gone extreme right. And Orban seems to have undergone a personality change.”

Meditating on far right politics in Europe today, Vidal-Hall said: “How much of it is our mistake in thinking that democracy can just be delivered to the door by Amazon in a parcel with a smile?”

This gloomy take is offset by Vidal-Hall’s praise for Index: “As a publication you are unique, there is nobody else who is doing what index is doing. And that is extraordinary, to remain so. I feel strongly about that.” 

The interview wraps up and I leave, my mind awash with the battles Index has won alongside all of those that we are still fighting today.  [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Index Index – International free speech round up 01/02/13

A US military judge has ruled the government must dismantle a monitoring system which allowed censors to suspend the broadcast of hearings for Guantanamo prisoners suspected of planning the 9/11 attacks. Army Colonel James Pohl said on 31 January it was “the last time” a third party could decide whether the hearings would be broadcast. The closed-circuit broadcast feed was stopped for a few minutes during a 28 January pre-trial hearing of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — alleged organiser of the 9/11 attacks — and four other defendants. It revealed for the first time that an unknown external force was listening in on the trial and censoring proceedings at will. The feed was cut when Mohammed’s lawyer David Nevin requested the preserve secret CIA prisons where the defendants had been held before being taken to Guantanamo. Pohl, who was unsure why the information was censored as it was public information, said he and the court security officer were the only ones allowed to halt the broadcast.

An investigation into protests in Burma in November 2012 has discovered that police forces used white phosphorus to disperse crowds, causing demonstrators severe burns. Police involvement left more than 100 Buddhist monks and other participants badly burned, injuries authorities  said were caused by tear gas and smoke grenades. An analysis in a Bangkok laboratory concluded that the canisters, which were collected by lawyers after the protests, contained traces of white phosphorus.

Protestors had staged an occupation at Letpaduang copper mine for 11 days before police broke up the crowd. The report will be sent to a government appointed panel fronted by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for review. White Phosphorus is typically used in war to create a smoke screen and its use against people has been disputed.

An Indian state has banned a film for 15 days following complaints that it was offensive to Muslims. Tamil Nadu state in southern India banned the action film Vishwaroopam — which was due to be released on 25 January — after concerns that protests outside cinemas could turn violent. Muslim groups said the film portrayed their faith in a negative light and were offended that the terrorist in the film was Muslim. Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram said the state didn’t have enough police to impose law and order outside the 500 cinemas it was set to play in. Film director and co-producer Kamal Haasan has appealed for the ban to be lifted in Tamil Nadu and is expected to hear a judgement by 6 February.

Goncharuk -

Naomi Campbell has won damages after the Telegraph falsely claimed she organised elephant polo matches

On 31 January, a 15-year-old girl in Iceland won the right to keep her birth name, despite authorities saying it wasn’t feminine enough. Reykjavik District Court allowed Blaer Bjarkardottir to hold on to her first name Blaer, meaning light breeze — a name her mother Bjork Eidsdottir gave her from birth, apparently unaware the name was on the government banned list. Icelandic authorities had originally rejected the name for being too masculine, referring to her only as “girl” in communication with officials. Iceland has official rules for what name a baby can be given. Names are supposed to fit with Icelandic grammatical rules and the alphabet. The ruling means the name can now be taken by girls across Iceland.

Naomi Campbell has accepted damages from The Daily Telegraph after she was falsely accused of organising an elephant polo match in India for her partner’s birthday. The newspaper had printed a story on 3 November 2012, alleging that Campbell arranged the tournament in Jodhpur for Vladimir Doronin’s 50th birthday celebrations. The model accepted an apology from the Telegraph, as well as “substantial” damages — although the figure has not been disclosed. Campbell’s lawyer Gideon Benaim said at London’s High Court that the “unfounded” claims had caused a “storm” of publicity in India after media outlets across the country republished the story.

Letter from America: Assessing civil liberties a decade after 9/11

The last two weeks in America have been dominated by TV specials, seminars and remembrances assessing the lasting imprint of 11 Sept on everything from airport travel and religious tolerance to government architecture and public health. Clearly, much was changed on 11 September 12, 2001. But sometimes it takes a round-yeared anniversary — and its demand that we evaluate, poll and measure — to recognise the subtler changes in values such as free speech.

Here is one revealing data point: In its 2002 State of the First Amendment survey, conducted just months after 11 Sept, the First Amendment Center found that 49 per cent of Americans felt the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights it guarantees. Of that group, 55 percent said America should be monitoring religious groups, and in particular (47 per cent) Muslims.

In an event held this week to mark the 10th anniversary, a panel of scholars at the First Amendment Center noted that such rhetoric has cooled since then.

Americans may be more accepting of limits to civil liberties today than before 11 September — just as government institutions are certainly more willing to push the envelop on surveillance and detention — but we are, at least, not feeling as reactionary as we were on 12 September 2001. That’s something.

An anniversary poll conducted by the Pew Research Center produced similar conclusions. 40 per cent of Americans this year  said they believed the average American would have to give up some civil liberties to curb terrorism in America. Five years ago, 43 per cent of people believed that. 49 per cent did one year after the attacks — and a starling 55 per cent of people felt this way only weeks after the attacks.

A majority of people now also oppose government attempts to monitor everything from credit card purchases to phone calls and emails.

Attitudes towards Muslims may be the odd exception to this cooling-off, as anti-sharia and anti-mosque movements seem to have taken off on a political momentum of their own the last two years, untethered to 11 September. (Pew’s same poll found that Republicans and Democrats feel quite differently about the threat of rising domestic Muslim extremism, underscoring the topic’s potential to become a new cultural wedge.)

Public opinion about the value and vulnerability of civil liberties tells us much about what government can expect to get away with. But the anniversary also offers a separate opportunity for appraising exactly what government has done.

On the eve of the anniversary, the ACLU last week released a report warning that the US may be “enshrining a permanent state of emergency in which the nation’s core values are subordinated to ever-expanding claims of national security.” They warn of the endless “war on terror,” with its lack of accountability and suspect “counterterrorism” tactics. Religious and racial profiling and government surveillance have become commonplace in the US as a result.

Numerous other groups who feel this way likely will wait until next month to say so. They haven’t wanted to step on what was supposed to be a moment of solemn unity this past week. They’ll wait, instead, for the next landmark: The Patriot Act was signed into law 10 years ago on 26 October (and it was passed by Congress just a shocking six weeks after the attacks, with mind-boggling speed when one considers what it takes today to get an uncontroversial appropriations bill through the House and Senate).

That date, as much as 11 September, ushered in a new era for American civil liberties, enshrining much of the official reaction that might have also cooled with time. Many of the controversial bill’s provisions have since expired, but it’s equally a testament to how America has changed in 10 years that, whenever the act comes up for renewal, elected officials unflinchingly stamp their approval, despite howells from civil liberties advocates. 10 years later, they all still fear being seen as “soft on terror” (which, come to think of it, was never a common epithet before 11 September).

This is Emily Badger’s last Letter from America for Index on Censorship