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In the old days governments kept tabs on “intellectuals”, “subversives”, “enemies of the state” and others they didn’t like much by placing policemen in the shadows, across from their homes. These days writers and artists can find government spies inside their computers, reading their emails, and trying to track their movements via use of smart phones and credit cards.
Post-Soviet Union, after the fall of the Berlin wall, after the Bosnian war of the 1990s, and after South Africa’s apartheid, the world’s mood was positive. Censorship was out, and freedom was in.
But in the world of the new censors, governments continue to try to keep their critics in check, applying pressure in all its varied forms. Threatening, cajoling and propaganda are on one side of the corridor, while spying and censorship are on the other side at the Ministry of Silence. Old tactics, new techniques.
While advances in technology – the arrival and growth of email, the wider spread of the web, and access to computers – have aided individuals trying to avoid censorship, they have also offered more power to the authorities.
There are some clear examples to suggest that governments are making sure technology is on their side. The Chinese government has just introduced a new national security law to aid closer control of internet use. Virtual private networks have been used by citizens for years as tunnels through the Chinese government’s Great Firewall for years. So it is no wonder that China wanted to close them down, to keep information under control. In the last few months more people in China are finding their VPN is not working.
Meanwhile in South Korea, new legislation means telecommunication companies are forced to put software inside teenagers’ mobile phones to monitor and restrict their access to the internet.
Both these examples suggest that technological advances are giving all the winning censorship cards to the overlords.
Autumn 2015: Spies, secrets and lies
• Journalists in the former Yugoslavia on the legacy of the post-war period
But it is not as clear cut as that. People continually find new ways of tunnelling through firewalls, and getting messages out and in. As new apps are designed, other opportunities arise. For example, Telegram is an app, that allows the user to put a timer on each message, after which it detonates and disappears. New auto-encrypted email services, such as Mailpile, look set to take off. Now geeks among you may argue that they’ll be a record somewhere, but each advance is a way of making it more difficult to be intercepted. With more than six billion people now using mobile phones around the world, it should be easier than ever before to get the word out in some form, in some way.
When Writers and Scholars International, the parent group to Index, was formed in 1972, its founding committee wrote that it was paradoxical that “attempts to nullify the artist’s vision and to thwart the communication of ideas, appear to increase proportionally with the improvement in the media of communication”.
And so it continues.
When we cast our eyes back to the Soviet Union, when suppression of freedom was part of government normality, we see how it drove its vicious idealism through using subversion acts, sedition acts, and allegations of anti-patriotism, backed up with imprisonment, hard labour, internal deportation and enforced poverty. One of those thousands who suffered was the satirical writer Mikhail Zoshchenko, who was a Russian WWI hero who was later denounced in the Zhdanov decree of 1946. This condemned all artists whose work didn’t slavishly follow government lines. We publish a poetic tribute to Zoshchenko written by Lev Ozerov in this issue. The poem echoes some of the issues faced by writers in Russia today.
And so to Azerbaijan in 2015, a member of the Council of Europe (a body described by one of its founders as “the conscience of Europe”), where writers, artists, thinkers and campaigners are being imprisoned for having the temerity to advocate more freedom, or to articulate ideas that are different from those of their government. And where does Russia sit now? Journalists Helen Womack and Andrei Aliaksandrau write in this issue of new propaganda techniques and their fears that society no longer wants “true” journalism.
Plus ça change
When you compare one period with another, you find it is not as simple as it was bad then, or it is worse now. Methods are different, but the intention is the same. Both old censors and new censors operate in the hope that they can bring more silence. In Soviet times there was a bureau that gave newspapers a stamp of approval. Now in Russia journalists report that self-censorship is one of the greatest threats to the free flow of ideas and information. Others say the public’s appetite for investigative journalism that challenges the authorities has disappeared. Meanwhile Vladimir Putin’s government has introduced bills banning “propaganda” of homosexuality and promoting “extremism” or “harm to children”, which can be applied far and wide to censor articles or art that the government doesn’t like. So far, so familiar.
Censorship and threats to freedom of expression still come in many forms as they did in 1972. Murder and physical violence, as with the killings of bloggers in Bangladesh, tries to frighten other writers, scholars, artists and thinkers into silence, or exile. Imprisonment (for example, the six year and three month sentence of democracy campaigner Rasul Jafarov in Azerbaijan) attempts to enforces silence too. Instilling fear by breaking into individuals’ computers and tracking their movement (as one African writer reports to Index) leaves a frightening signal that the government knows what you do and who you speak with.
Also in this issue, veteran journalist Andrew Graham-Yool looks back at Argentina’s dictatorship of four decades ago, he argues that vicious attacks on journalists’ reputations are becoming more widespread and he identifies numerous threats on the horizon, from corporate control of journalistic stories to the power of the president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to identify journalists as enemies of the state.
Old censors and new censors have more in common than might divide them. Their intentions are the same, they just choose different weapons. Comparisons should make it clear, it remains ever vital to be vigilant for attacks on free expression, because they come from all angles.
Despite this, there is hope. In this issue of the magazine Jamie Bartlett writes of his optimism that when governments push their powers too far, the public pushes back hard, and gains ground once more. Another of our writers Jason DaPonte identifies innovators whose aim is to improve freedom of expression, bringing open-access software and encryption tools to the global public.
Don’t miss our excellent new creative writing, published for the first time in English, including Russian poetry, an extract of a Brazilian play, and a short story from Turkey.
As always the magazine brings you brilliant new writers and writing from around the world. Read on.
© Rachael Jolley
This article is part of the autumn issue of Index on Censorship magazine looking at comparisons between old censors and new censors. Copies can be purchased from Amazon, in some bookshops and online, more information here.
I’m on holiday in Ireland, and taking a break from standing up for people’s rights to misattribute quotes to Voltaire and Orwell. This is what people who normally go on about civil liberties battles do on holiday; we revel in the dark side, and engage in orgies of frightful behaviour. For two weeks in August, defence lawyers who normally fight the good fight lock people in cupboards and throw away the keys; anti-surveillance campaigners retreat to their hides high above the city, and just…watch. Digital rights folks take down physical notes of all your Facebook statuses. I once spent a delightful summer phoning people at random and then telling them to shut up when they answered the phone.
It’s a wonderful release, but for understandable reasons, we don’t talk about it. It’s the prime directive of the League of Sanctimony: what happens in those two weeks in August must remain hidden from the world.
Until now, that is. Having grappled with the crippling irony of concealing the truth from Index on Censorship readers, I have decided that you have a right to know about everything I would have banned without a second thought, if only during the last bit of August. In no particular order, here we go:
Newspaper holiday reading lists. Dear writer/reporter/critic: you’re either lying about all those books you’re going to get through during your delightful few weeks in Tuscany/Cornwall/west Cork/Thorpe Park, or you’re telling the truth and making me feel inadequate.
Rainy holidays: Yes, I know I shouldn’t really complain about going to Ireland and experiencing heavy precipitation. I don’t care. I’m doing it anyway.
People who can’t write (of whom there are many).
People who can write better than I can (of whom there are many).
People who think pointing out split infinitives makes them look clever. It doesn’t. Split infinitives are perfectly fine. Just don’t ask me why.
People who are good at explaining grammar and syntax. See above.
People who are good at explaining grammar and syntax but then end up allowing anything, cheerily proclaiming “The thing is, language is evolving all the time.” For God’s sake, make a commitment, man.
Really terrible internet memes. David Icke, former Coventry City goalkeeper turned conspiracy theory bother no 1, is the master of these. Look at this, for example. It’s just a picture of a man with snarky words written over it. That’s not a meme.
Any article in print or online which sets out to prove that a current conflict proves that the writer was correct in his or her position on a previous conflict. Thanks. Helpful.
LinkedIn. I still don’t understand. Still.
The word “Listicle”. What’s wrong with “list”? Or “article”? I could even be happy with “list article.”
Lists. Hang on…
Defensive articles about why one form of entertainment is EVERY BIT AS VALID as other forms of entertainment. Video games are video games. Comics are comics. Neither are novels. Move on.
Those public service “poems” on the London Underground. They have been sent to torment all right-thinking people. Read this, and despair for all of us.
I could go on, possibly forever. But it wouldn’t matter a damn. No one in their right mind would take me seriously. It’s just the furious venting of a cranky old man, shaking his fists at the clouds. And yet, every day, censors, religious or moral or autocratic, demand to be taken seriously.
They contend that they are uniquely qualified to say what others can and cannot see or hear or read. Worse, they tell us they are censoring for our protection. They can read a blasphemous book, or watch a pornographic film, and decide soberly what effect it will have on society. Whereas if the likes of you and I went near these things, the entire world would be transformed into something resembling Ken Russell’s The Devils in about 15 minutes. They think we’re impressionable. They think we’re gullible. They think we’re children.
As the holidays come to a close and we reluctantly switch our brains back on to face the coming winter, let’s not block out the calls for censorship: that, of course, would be hypocritical. But perhaps we can turn the tables on the cries of the censors, smile politely and continue about our grown-up business.