“This government has implicitly and explicitly targeted minorities in other areas, like the Windrush scandal,” academic Michael Bankole told Index. “So, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a deliberate effort to erect barriers for minority voters when it comes to elections.”
Bankole, a Royal Holloway university lecturer specialising in race and British politics, was speaking to Index following the introduction of voter ID for England’s local elections in May 2023. Following this the Electoral Commission, the independent body which oversees elections in the UK, said that at least 3% of people didn’t vote because they lacked the necessary ID, and 14,000 people were turned away from polling stations for the same reason.
With low levels of proven electoral fraud in the UK, including no proven cases of in-person voter impersonation last year, questions have been raised about the introduction. This includes a potential impact on the ability of sections of society, including non-white voters, to cast their democratic vote, which is ultimately one of the most effective ways to have your voice heard.
Historically, non-white people have less access to some official forms of ID which are required for voting. For example, data from the Department of Transport showed that in 2021, 58% of the black population and 64% of the Asian population held a driving licence, compared to 79% of the white population.
Instead of focusing on voter ID at elections though, Bankole believes the focus should have been on why non-white voters have historically voted less overall. He said: “If we care about democracy, we want all members to participate in it, so it’s important to investigate why these groups are less likely to participate and what can be done to address that. That should’ve been the fundamental issue for the government to investigate.”
Following on from Bankole’s comments, the Electoral Commission’s interim report in June 2023 showed that 82% of Black and minority ethnic respondents (BME) were unaware of the need for voter ID in the recent elections compared to 93% of white respondents.
Looking over the pond to the USA, where encroaching voter ID laws have been enacted in individual states since 2006, academic studies have had time to focus on the effects. A study from 2018 argued that minorities in the USA are less likely to have valid forms of ID, with being born outside the USA and lower levels of education, income and home ownership as negatively affecting the chances of having valid ID. These issues generally affect minority voters more than white voters in the USA, where, as of 2023, 36 states require some form of ID to vote.
While academic studies have had time to focus on the effects of voter ID laws across the USA over the years, it’s not the case for the recent English elections. However, Democracy Volunteers, a group campaigning to improve the quality of democratic elections in the UK, deployed observers to 118 of the 230 councils holding elections and found that out of the 1.2% of voters they recorded as turned away for having no valid ID, 53% of these were recorded as “non-white passing” (described as such by the observers). In the 2021 census 18.3% of the residents of England and Wales described their ethnic group as something other than white. One of the observations from Democracy Volunteers’ report was that on a number of occasions people with valid ID from Commonwealth countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, were turned away for having invalid ID. If the information from the report is correct, there is an issue. Index reached out to Democracy Volunteers to discuss the findings but received no response.
There was also controversy regarding what forms of ID were accepted during the elections. The older person’s bus pass, the Freedom Pass and the London 60+ Oyster card were accepted as valid ID (the first two eligible from the age of 66, the latter 60). There was no equivalent valid ID available for younger people. Bankole believes this had a political purpose: “For young people with transport ID, it wasn’t allowed, whereas for older voters, who disproportionally vote for the Conservatives, it was. I think they were erecting barriers for people who don’t vote for them and targeting their base who do.”
To put figures into context, 64% of voters aged 65+ voted for the Conservative Party in the last general election.
Along with the above, just 20% of non-white votes were cast for the Conservative Party at the 2019 UK general election, which it won by a landslide. Index contacted the Electoral Commission to ask if the introduction of the voter ID laws for the English elections was a form of gerrymandering (as a former British government cabinet member suggested). Also, because the majority of BME votes were for either the Labour or Liberal Democrats parties in the last general election, if the ID introductions were a deliberate effort to erect barriers for minority voters.
As well as announcing their interim report mentioned above, the response was as follows: “In September, we will publish our full report on the May 2023 elections. This report will feature further data, including the reasons people were turned away, as well as turnout, postal voting and rejected ballots. It will also provide analysis of other aspects of the elections, including accessibility support that was provided for voters in polling stations…As we’re still collecting data there isn’t more we can say at this stage.”
The next UK general elections will be held by January 2025, with the London Mayoral elections to be held by May 2024. With general elections traditionally attracting a far higher turnout than local government elections, and the electorate in London being the most ethnically diverse in the UK, voter ID issues could affect a greater number of non-white voters in the future. Voter ID information, along with any changes, is something that Index will keep an eye on in the future as we believe any barriers put in place to vote should be as low as possible, to make sure freedom of speech and expression is protected.
The football commentator’s well-worn cliché about the sport being a game of two halves usually refers to the action on the pitch. But in the build-up to the game between England and Iran at the 2022 FIFA World Cup earlier this week, it was the off-field actions of the teams which showed a divided response to events in the wider world.
Shortly before kick-off, it was decided by the English FA (among other European football governing bodies) that England’s Harry Kane would forgo wearing the OneLove captain’s armband, which displays a heart containing colours representative of all backgrounds and is part of a message promoting inclusion. The reason given by the FA was that “we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings.”
Then, just before the match, as the Iranian national anthem rang around the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, the Iranian players remained silent. Referencing the now-months long protests in Iran, which are pushing for regime change after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Tehran on 13 September 2022, Iranian captain Ehsan Hajsafi said that: “We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right. Our people are not happy. We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or must not respect them.”
The actions, or rather inactions, of the English FA and the Iranian footballers have had contrasting results. By aiming first but then relenting on the promise to have Kane wear the armband shows just what a failed empty gesture it was. A financial fine would have been accepted, but the fear of a single yellow card forced the FA’s hand (and that of other countries, such as Wales, Germany and the Netherlands). Were the teams and players ever really behind it if they could u-turn so quickly?
On the other hand, the silence of the Iranian footballers has shown the courage that a united action brings, not least given how much higher the risks – the repercussions the footballers may face on the return to their homeland, where they will have family and friends, are far more severe than a card brandished on the pitch.
That said we should be careful about where we lay blame in terms of not wearing the armband. It is understood that Kane still wanted to wear it, and even if he didn’t, is it fair to expect the England players to be politically active in the course of what essentially is their day job (as Julian Baggini argues in our last issue)?
The bigger fault lies squarely at the hands of FIFA for awarding the tournament to Qatar, as well as the governments and authorities around the world who have said very little about the country’s abuses since 2010. When news organisations have reported on abuses, especially on the Kafala system, which ensured an extremely cheap labour force was on hand to build the infrastructure for the World Cup, journalists were detained and threatened – again to very little public outcry. While minor changes have been made to improve the labour system, reports that at least 6,500 migrant workers still died since 2010 has again received far too little outrage.
Even during the immediate build up to, and including the tournament so far, FIFA appears happy to kowtow to Qatar’s last-minute demands. While the consumption of alcohol isn’t a free speech issue, FIFA’s agreement to Qatar’s last-minute ban on the sale of alcohol in stadiums is yet another sign that it is Qatar who are setting the rules. Also, despite assurances from FIFA, rainbow-coloured flags and attire were prohibited in spectator areas, as seen by the Welsh fans who had rainbow-coloured bucket fans confiscated before their opener against the USA. In a nation where homosexuality is still illegal these are hardly surprising actions but they show how arguments like “the World Cup will improve the rights situations in Qatar” was never a commitment taken seriously. The activist Peter Tatchell, an Index contributor who was himself detained following a protest to highlight LGBT rights in Qatar in October, puts it well: “#FIFA and #Qatar promised that LGBT+ fans & rainbow insignia would be allowed at #WorldCup. They have trashed that promise – and their reputations. But what did you expect from a sexist, homophobic & racist dictatorship?”
We at Index on Censorship love the fact that football is the world’s game, able to unite people across gender, race, religion and nationality. From Norway to Nigeria, it’s the universal language where a conversation about Manchester United or Lionel Messi can take place without knowledge of the native tongue. We have no issue with football and our Autumn issue showed its amazing power to transform lives. It’s for this reason that we remain angered that it is taking place in Qatar, who seem to be normalising their autocracy on a world stage. And it’s for this reason that we are angered that the simple threat of a yellow card has determined a retreat from taking a stand on such an important issue, even if that stand was small and largely symbolic. Iran might have lost against England on Monday but they proved to be the real winners when it came to courage and conviction.
England fans during Euro 2020. Kieran Cleeves/PA Wire/PA Images
In celebration of one of football’s biggest international tournaments, here is Index’s guide to the free speech Euros. Who comes out on top as the nation with the worst record on free speech?
It’s simple, the worst is ranked first.
We continue today with Group D, which plays the deciding matches of the group stages today.
1st Czech Republic
Thomas Schick’s stunner against Scotland may prove a useful distraction, but praising the Czech Republic’s record on freedom of expression is also something of a long shot.
One of their most revered figures, Václav Havel was a dissident writer and playwright turned president.
Grievances over free speech in the country exist with the smearing of journalists, as well as the influence of foreign powers within universities.
Chinese influence in western countries is growing and it is well known that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are trying to change the narrative both in their own state and abroad. It means that the cornerstones of free speech in any country, universities and academic freedom, are the first ports of call.
They do so either through the funding of projects or by setting up what is known as a “Confucius Institute”. These are in place, in theory, to build bridges between universities around the world and China, but are much criticised due to accusations of attempts to censor the teaching of Chinese ideals in a certain way. There are currently two Confucius Institutes in the Czech Republic.
Associate editor Sally Gimson noted one particular case in the latest edition of the magazine: “In the Czech Republic, the head of the King Charles University’s Centre for Security Policy was sacked after the media revealed he billed the Chinese embassy (as well as the university) to run conferences on China.”
The relationship between the current government and journalists is frayed, with President Miloš Zeman sewing seeds of Trump-like distrust of the media among his people. Zeman’s government has also cracked down on independent media. For example, no press accreditation has been given to Forum 24 since 2020, who were critical of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.
In 2018, Zeman was reported to have joked about the killing of journalists after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying “I love journalists, that’s why I may organise a special banquet for them this evening at the Saudi embassy.”
Taylor is a former lawyer working for the Monaco-based Dutch oil company SBM Offshore and revealed allegations of corruption in 2013. Bribes were exchanged in return for lucrative contracts.
He faces extradition to Monaco to be “interrogated”, from Croatia, where he has been detained since July 2020 after visiting on a family holiday.
In May, the Supreme Court of Croatia issued a judgement confirming the extradition. 40 NGOs, legal experts and campaigners signed an open letter to Croatian justice minister Ivan Malenica for the extradition to be stopped, with whom the decision now rests.
His treatment by the Croatian authorities has been poor. When Taylor raised concerns over his mental health with British diplomats, he was forcibly detained and forced to spend the night in a psychiatric hospital, where he was forcibly injected.
Though the media is considered to be highly polarised and severely reduced due to cut backs that arose because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is some hope for journalists and media in the country.
As the Croatia Journalists’ Association (HND) reported, nearly 1, 000 people protested in support of what was deemed to be by them as the unfair dismissal of the journalists Danijela Bašić Palković, Borka Petrović, and Zoran Angeleski from Croatian daily newspaper Glas Istre earlier this month, due to disagreeing with editorial policy.
Not exactly the tournament favourites, their head-to-head with England on the pitch proved to be close. Off the pitch, the two have similar records.
Despite close ties, criminal justice legislation is more of a devolved matter, but the recent Scottish Hate Crime Bill is cause for concern and its implementation just edges Scotland out over their friends a little further south.
The law was introduced, and passed in March 2021, with the intention of cracking down on hate speech. However, it was derided from the start by free speech groups who believe it would have a chilling effect on free speech. Perhaps most significantly, there is a threshold now in Scottish law that exists for charging people for “stirring up hatred”, but intent must be shown. Incitement in this regard is difficult to prove.
The original bill also spoke of a need to protect people from hate speech within their own homes. In The Times in November 2020, Ruth Smeeth said: “Common sense seems to have gone out of the window with regards to the Scottish hate crime bill. Let’s be clear, hate speech is appalling and if it’s inciting violence and illegal behaviour it should be banned. But this is now trying to regulate what people say to each other over dinner — it’s absurd.”
Despite acknowledgement of concerns regarding the threshold for what is accepted to be hate speech, amendments to the law did not go far enough.
It read, “When the bill was published last year, the police, the legal profession, academics, civil liberties groups and others cautioned that the offences could catch legitimate debate on a range of issues. The vague wording of the offences and a lack of adequate free speech protections could, they warned, place a chill on free expression in the arts, the media and the public square when it comes to discussions about contentious issues such as religion and trans rights.”
As well as this, during the Covid-19 pandemic and according to the Press and Journal, Scotland became the “first country in the world” to implement restrictions to freedom of information (FOI) access to journalists and keen public citizens.
FOI’s are a vital tool for journalists receiving data that is in the public interest to report, particularly in times of crisis, such as in a pandemic.
The plans came into effect as a result of emergency votes put through the Scottish Parliament by MSPs, arguing that the changes were necessary to ease the burden on public bodies.
The atmosphere around free speech and the media in the UK is deteriorating and there have been several alarming incidents in the past few years.
Attitudes around the media have worsened while populist politics has grown. Frequently, there have been arguments surrounding free speech and the so-called “culture war” where people have claimed they are being denied a platform to speak. In response, several government figures have responded with actions defending free speech.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has put forward proposals to protect free speech on academic campuses, by making universities liable for any breaches of free speech.
However, there are several other bills that are raising alarm.
Protests are integral to upholding democracy, but the proposed Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill aims to impose a start and finish time on protests and set noise limits on them. Not accounting for one of the basic principles of protests, that they are intentionally (and peacefully) disruptive. Those who partake in the desecration of memorials could receive up to ten years in prison. Essentially, the bill lowers the threshold for the police to intervene heavily with protests to break them up, even after accusations of heavy-handedness regarding recent protests, such as the Sarah Everard vigil in March 2021.
Police heavy handedness is of genuine concern. In February, photographer Andy Aitchison was arrested and his fingerprints taken after working at a protest outside the refugee camp at Napier Barracks, in Kent.
Index’s CEO Ruth Smeeth said at the time: “The British Government talks a good game on media freedom. They are launching a National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists. They are proposing legislation to protect free speech on campus. They have spoken out about Putin’s show trial of Navalny. Of Lukashenko’s repressive regime. Of the military coup in Myanmar. But what credibility do they have if they are enabling British journalists to be arrested on UK soil – for doing their job?”
Further problematic legislation lies with the proposed Online Safety Bill (also known as ‘online harms’), currently in its white paper stage.
Due to particular language included in the bill, namely “legal but harmful”, there would be inconsistency between what is illegal online, versus what would be legal offline and thus a lack of clarity in the law regarding free speech.
England (and Wales) is very much a country that feels as though it is standing on the precipice when it comes to freedom of expression. There is hope that problematic bills such as these will be reconsidered.
Playwright Javaad Alipoor told The Guardian that “the response to radicalism is to shut down debate for young people”. His play The Believers Are But Brothers will be performed at the Bush Theatre beginning 24 January 2018.
It’s easy to dismiss the importance of arts in a democracy; its social value is disregarded when it is seen as the province of the rich and privileged. Yet when we look to more authoritarian regimes across the globe Index is reminded constantly of the importance of the role of arts as a voice of dissent and the extraordinary amount of time that repressive states spend suppressing it. If the spoken or written word, if performance or image did not have power, then dictators wouldn’t spend so much time actively silencing and persecuting artists.
But let’s not just look to repressive regimes when we want to talk about censorship. Artists are often the canaries in the mine, a leading barometer of freedom in any country, with the ability to powerfully capture uncomfortable truths. The consequences are different here in the UK, we don’t imprison artists or worse, but ensuring the creation of work by artists who are by law, free to speak, means creating the environment in which risks can be taken.
Yet, in the UK in 2017, when arts have a critically, crucially important role to express and process the diverse and often divergent opinion and experience that coexist in our society, we have created a risk-averse culture. A raft of social, legal and political pressures threaten to limit the space available for expression. New legislation, lack of clarity around policing roles and responsibilities, fear of media backlash or social media storm, loss of funding, means that arts organisations are not always confident about taking the kinds of risks they would like – or indeed need – to make the best art. If only a few groups feel able to explore the most difficult subjects or give voice to underrepresented communities, then, when something goes wrong, it gets harder for the entire arts community to address sensitive issues.
In 2010, when I started in this work, freedom of expression was not a priority for the arts sector; it was assumed safe and left to fend for itself. This never works, as Michael Scammell, the first editor of Index reminds us: “Freedom of expression is not self-perpetuating…”.
When we asked a conference of theatre directors at the time which was more important: audience development or freedom of expression, 100% said the former. Audience development, as I understand it, is about bringing in new audiences, reaching out to find fresh creative voices and breaking the homogenous mould of arts audiences. Yet the call for inclusivity and equality of access has tended to be resolved around a desire to please and a fear of offending, leading to a loss of appetite for the unpopular expression and risk-taking, as identified in Index’s 2013 conference Taking the Offensive and numerous case studies as part of Index’s Art and the Law guides. And still the arts remain obstinately homogenous.
Playwright, director Javaad Alipoor said in a recent interview with Index: “There is a whole discourse about risk [in the theatre industry] that we need to shift. We take risks all the time, but the way we are willing to do it is mega-racialised. Some people are a risk and some people aren’t a risk. I overheard some relatively sensible liberal people describing the appointment of Kwame Kwei-Armah [ newly appointed director of the Young Vic] as a bold move. I thought – it’s a good move. Here is an internationally successful guy, running an internationally successful theatre.”
Look at the two 2015 plays about radicalisation: Homegrown, commissioned by the National Youth Theatre (NYT) written and directed by Nadia Latif and Omar El Khairy, was cancelled; Another World – Losing our Children to Islamic State – by Gillian Slovo and developed by Nicolas Kent, commissioned by the National Theatre, was produced. Whatever else might have happened at NYT, the fact remains that Latif and El Khairy, two creatives from a Muslim background, and the 115 young people they were working with, were not allowed to speak, while two establishment figures were free to express their view of the same issue. This illustrates Alipoor’s point perfectly.
Add to this the role of the police in cancelling work, going all the way back to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti in Birmingham in 2004; more recently the removal of ISIS Threaten Sylvania on the advice of the police in 2015; the policing of the Boycott the Human Zoo picket that led to the cancellation of the Barbican production of Exhibit B in London; the banning of music performances by police in Leicester and Bristol at the behest of local Islamic leaders. All point to the uneasy relations between state, the arts sector and artistic expression about issues of race and religion. A policing pattern has emerged, in which it is easier to remove what is deemed to be provocative and so dispel or prevent protest, than manage the situation and allow the artwork to go ahead. The arts sector has been caught out each time.
This pattern of policing interferes with the fundamental right to freedom of expression, something Index has taken up with National Police Lead on Public Order. Index is now working with a Senior Police Trainer to develop better support for the arts sector. His team will contribute to our training programme next year, which will also feature an introduction to our guidance on the legal and rights framework for artists and arts organisations – see below.
We are living in a society and at a time, when the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of people is becoming unspeakable. Although it doesn’t appear to be the case that Prevent officers are checking out what is going on in our theatres and galleries, the impact of Prevent as a force for pervasive self-censorship across Muslim communities is massive and one of the main free speech issues of the day. This will of course influence what makes its way into our arts venues. Add to that other invasive state surveillance powers, the rolling back of human rights generally, the arts has an ever more important role to play to tackle these issues, to ask the most important questions, to challenge growing authoritarian tendencies; playing safe is not an option.
The sector plays a vital role in providing space for open debate, but as Svetlana Mintcheva, an international arts and censorship experts writes: “That role is threatened if those institutions fail to take on real controversies around difficult and emotionally charged subject matter because some of that subject matter may be offensive or even traumatic. Unless they are prepared to welcome genuine conflict and disagreement, cultural institutions will operate as echo chambers under the pall of a fearful consensus, rather than leaders in a vibrant and agonistic public sphere.”
These are some of the issues that we are grappling with in our training: Rights, Risks & Reputations – Challenging a Risk Averse Culture, aiming to give arts leaders the information they need to take difficult, risky decisions more confidently. They will complement the efforts that many organisations are making, and have been making for decades in some cases, to diversify, by reinforcing the importance of risk and controversy in achieving these aims. To this end, we will be taking a close look at the social importance of risk and controversy and the steps needed to reinforce appetite and capacity for risk-taking; how the powerful complementarity of the rights to freedom of expression and equality gives a useful framework for this work. Looking at issues that could lead to self-censorship – fear of causing offence and/or protest and confusion around new counter-terrorism legislation, we will dig into Index’s legal guides for arts on three legally protected areas of society: Counter-Terrorism, Race and Religion and Public Order; Public Order police trainers will present their perspective on how and when to work with the police around artwork that might generate protest in the public space; and there will be a module on ethical fundraising.
The second part of the Michael Scammells statement quoted above is “freedom of expression...has to be actively maintained by the vigilance of those that care about it”. Freedom of expression is an active stance full of challenges, just like equality – both need to be enacted, not left on the shelf in a policy document. Freedom of expression where everyone agrees is not worth the paper it is written on; it will always include the right to shock, insult and offend. And, coupled with equality, it changes whose stories, imagination, revelations and visions shock, insult and offend even as they inspire, inform and transform.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]