“There is no book so dangerous that it should not be available in a library”

This week is Banned Books Week. It should come as no surprise that the topics of censorship, banned books and cancelled authors are a regular theme of discussion at Index on Censorship. In fact we are the UK partner of the global coalition against banned books. The banning of books has repeatedly proven to be a key tool in the arsenal of tyrants and repressive regimes. Control of information and the need for one dominant narrative always leads despots to ban and even burn books. It’s been true throughout history and as much as that concerns me (and it does – a lot) – what worries me more is how pervasive the banning of books is becoming across more democratic countries and what that means for enlightened societies and their peoples.

I truly struggle to comprehend the rationale behind the banning of a specific text or author.

Words can be challenging, thought-provoking and yes, of course, they can even be hateful and inciting. But the answer, surely, is to argue back, to find different authors, to debate and win an argument – not to ban, not to cancel and definitely not to remove from the shelves of our libraries.

The editor in chief of Index, Jemimah Steinfeld, asked the team to write about their favourite banned books as part of the campaign. And as you will have seen I wrote about Judy Blume, one of my favourite authors as a child, I find it ludicrous that anyone would seek to ban books which help young people come to understand their own sexuality or their personal relationships with faith.

But I could have written about a dozen other authors whose words have shaped my worldview but yet inspired such hate and fear that others have sought to ban them. The works of George Orwell were key to helping me develop my own politics – 1984 and Animal Farm confirmed my lifelong commitment to social democratic politics and inspired my personal political campaigns against those on the extremes. Yet these works have been banned repeatedly and not just in repressive regimes but also in some US school districts, unbelievably for being pro-Communist (it really would help if people read the books before they sought to ban them…)

And as a Jewish European woman my politics are grounded, for better or worse, in understanding the horrors of the Shoah. As a student of history I, of course, believe that we must understand our history so that we aren’t destined to repeat it. So the banning of Anne Frank’s diary and the graphic novel Maus by Art Spielgelman, is completely beyond my comprehension. The crucial importance of both of these books isn’t just the subject matter – but the fact that they bring the horrors of a very dark period of our history to life in a format which is accessible to all – including young people. What is there to ban?  Unless your real goal is to rewrite Jewish and European history?

Books are the light, they drive challenge and change. They feed our minds and ensure that societies move on and develop. They educate, inform and entertain, even when they are wrong. There are books that I have considered to be of no value, books which I have considered to contain dangerous views and books which I consider to be hateful. But there is no book so dangerous that I don’t think it should be available in an academic library, available to study.

And if you believe on freedom of speech – then that’s the least you should believe too.

An ode to banned books

Beijing Coma – Ma Jian
In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics, when China was on a global charm offensive, Ma Jian’s book Beijing Coma was published. Through the central character Dai Wei, a protester who was shot in Tiananmen Square and fell into a deep coma, Ma presented the other side of the country, an insecure nation afraid of its past and struggling with its present. Ma stated that he wrote the book “to reclaim history from a totalitarian government whose role is to erase it”. I raced through it, went to several book talks he gave and, given the epic proportions of the novel, even enquired about buying the film rights. They were available but I was told that was because few studios would dare take on a work so confronting. To this day the book remains banned in China and no film of it has yet to be made. We are the worse off for that. Jemimah Steinfeld
Are you there God? It’s me Margaret – Judy Blume
As the only child of an amazing single parent, books were a core feature of my childhood. A trip to the library was a joy and visits to the bookshop were a special treat. Getting lost in the pages of a book every night was my happy place and my favourite author as a teenager was Judy Blume. Blume writes beautifully and takes the reader on a journey of exploration of a teenage mind – helping you realise you aren’t alone in being challenged by new experiences and feelings.  While from an Index perspective I should say that my favourite book was the one most banned – Forever (which I loved), my absolute favourite was actually Are you there God? It’s me Margaret. As the only Jewish kid at my school I related to Margaret’s internal conflict and her personal relationship with G-d. Blume remains a personal heroine and every effort to ban her books confirms why the work of Index on Censorship is so important. Ruth Anderson
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence
I had to read DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover at school. I hated it. But I did enjoy the ironies that the attempted prosecution of it for “obscenity” totally undermined the state of the obscenity laws at the time and the court case reaffirmed art’s freedom to say pretty much anything it liked, as long as it was judged to be of literary merit (whatever that means). Those who tried to suppress the book only succeeded in fanning the flames of public interest exponentially, beyond who might otherwise have read it without all the hoo-ha and salacious interest whipped up around it. Public interest was the other marker of whether the book should be permitted, so in bringing the prosecution it rather ensured the inevitable failure of the case. The trial has also been highlighted as the start of societal values changing and ushering in the more permissive 1960s. None of this impacted on DH Lawrence, since he’d been dead for 30 years. Publishers had self-censored by holding off publication until Penguin Books took the plunge and British society was probably never the same again. Now, if only a book could have such a societal impact in the 21st century… David Sewell
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
The Satanic Verses was the subject of a fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, which called for the assassination of its author, Salman Rushdie. The novel is Rushdie’s masterpiece: a comic take on the life of Muhammad that also wraps in the British Indian immigrant experience, Bollywood, Sikh separatism and Hinduism. Its ambition is vast and it deserves to be celebrated as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Its legacy will live well beyond the regime which forced its author into hiding. Martin Bright
Spycatcher –  Peter Wright
I was at university in London when Peter Wright’s Spycatcher was first published and Margaret Thatcher’s government banned it. Wright was a former assistant director of MI5, who was annoyed about the security service’s pension arrangements and decided to blow the whistle over its shadier activities in order to recoup some money for his retirement in Australia. In the 1980s, the workings of the security services were shrouded in secrecy and the book caused huge ripples with its stories of Soviet moles and the then advanced technologies that were being used to spy on Britain’s ‘enemies’. I still remember reading the first chapter and finding out that a nondescript building around the corner from my university department I passed every day was used by MI5 for its covert operations. As the book was not banned in Australia or Scotland, its contents gradually leaked and Thatcher’s government was forced to admit defeat and the book ban was dropped. Mark Stimpson
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Look on the shelves of certain school districts in Texas, Michigan and Florida and you’ll find an empty space where The Handmaid’s Tale used to be, after book challenges led to its removal. Atwood’s most famous book might have been published in 1985, but it still has the power to scare self-appointed censors today. The graphic novel, too, is just as excellent and just as hated by censors. In the dystopian Gilead patriarchal structures are taken to the absolute extreme. A woman’s body is not her own – she is judged by her capacity for baby-making. Even her vocabulary is closely monitored. But the way this society was created is even more concerning, with events in the novel inspired by real-world happenings. It’s a book worth reading again and again – it hit home differently when I was a wide-eyed student to how it does now that I’m a mother, and still sends the same chill in a 2023 context. Katie Dancey-Downs
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird explores complex themes of race, justice, and humanity, bringing a degree of warmth to heavy subject matter by using the perspective of child protagonist Scout Finch to invoke a sense of innocence, even while tackling difficult topics. Although the book is considered a modern classic, it has been subject to bans and challenges due to its use of profanity, racial slurs, and adult themes. The language and subject matter may make it an uncomfortable read for some, but the overriding message of tolerance and morality is both important and necessary. Daisy Ruddock
Animal Farm – George Orwell
There’s always a book you read that, when you reflect back on, has made an impression on your whole life. For me it was Animal Farm by George Orwell. I first read the book as a teenager and it made me think about the meaning behind the role of governments and the issues of right and wrong, greed and the corruption of power. When I watched the world news and saw the power and restrictions that states placed on their citizens, a book published in 1945 showed me how the world turns and how little change there can be without true democracy. Cathy Parry
His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman
The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman made its way to me through my grandmother. This was how I often got the books that have stuck with me nearly two decades later. I wonder whether she knew what she did would be so frowned upon by those in the US states who took offence to its apparent “anti-Christian” message? His Dark Materials is glorious collection of young adult books, which snuck in complex messages without patronising the readers. In fact, it challenges and provokes the readers in a manner that sent my teenage brain racing. Also how can you not love a polar bear wearing armour? Nik Williams
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Ireland that I was born into was a cold house for women. There was no access to abortion, no divorce and marital rape had only recently been outlawed. Since then, public opinion has been reshaped and laws have been liberalised, largely as a result of ordinary women speaking out about their personal experiences. That’s why The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is important. It’s a rare example of a canonical work about the life of a young woman as told in her own words. The semi-autobiographical novel, which was previously banned in Ireland and remains banned in some US states, is a coming-of-age story following a young woman at odds with 1950s US society. It challenges the conventional roles of women and explores the difficult, and still tabooed, subject of mental illness. Jessica Ní Mhainín

1984: A book that fits the times

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyaGg3Me38k&feature=youtu.be”][vc_column_text]Additional reporting by Mary Meisenzahl

Following similar events in the USA and Australia, the Orwell Foundation sponsored the first start-to-finish live reading of George Orwell’s 1984 in the UK on 6 June.

The Orwell Foundation hosted the 12-hour event at the University College London’s  Senate House, the inspiration for the book’s The Ministry of Truth. The reading was also live-streamed to libraries and theatres across the UK. The foundation celebrates Orwell’s writing and reporting.

Tuesday’s event included 68 individuals who read from 1984 throughout the day. The readers were invited based on their embodiment of an aspect of Orwell’s values such as giving a voice to the powerless, making difficult freedom of speech decisions, having their writing banned and/or oftentimes taking a witty or controversial stance. These individuals were journalists, academics, public figures, artists members of the public and members of Orwell’s family.

While the participants read from 1984, actors performed parts of the book. Audience members described the experience as “topical,” “immersive” and “unforgettable”.

Director of the Orwell Foundation, Jean Seaton explained: “In the era of ‘post-truth politics’ and when every personal gesture is subject to commercial surveillance and commodified as data, the book has new resonance.”

Click here to watch the full 1984 reading.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1496835496497-78ff0269-5a00-9″ taxonomies=”4479″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Risky business: Journalists around the world under direct attack


The truth is in danger. Working with reporters and writers around the world, Index continually hears first-hand stories of the pressures of reporting, and of how journalists are too afraid to write or broadcast because of what might happen next.

In 2016 journalists are high-profile targets. They are no longer the gatekeepers to media coverage and the consequences have been terrible. Their security has been stripped away. Factions such as the Taliban and IS have found their own ways to push out their news, creating and publishing their own “stories” on blogs, YouTube and other social media. They no longer have to speak to journalists to tell their stories to a wider public. This has weakened journalists’ “value”, and the need to protect them. In this our 250th issue, we remember the threats writers faced when our magazine was set up in 1972 and hear from our reporters around the world who have some incredible and frightened stories to tell about pressures on them today.

Around 2,241 journalists were killed between 1996 and 2015, according to statistics compiled by Cardiff University and the International News Safety Institute. And in Colombia during 2015 104 journalists were receiving state protection, after being threatened.

In Yemen, considered by the Committee to Protect Journalists to be one of the deadliest countries to report from, only the extremely brave dare to report. And that number is dwindling fast. Our contacts tell us that the pressure on local journalists not to do their job is incredible. Journalists are kidnapped and released at will. Reporters for independent media are monitored. Printed publications have closed down. And most recently 10 journalists were arrested by Houthi militias. In that environment what price the news? The price that many journalists pay is their lives or their freedom. And not just in Yemen.

Syria, Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq, all appear in the top 10 of league tables for danger to journalists. In just the last few weeks National Public Radio’s photojournalist David Gilkey and colleague Zabihullah Tamanna were killed in Afghanistan as they went about their work in collecting information, and researching stories to tell the public what is happening in that war-blasted nation. One of our writers for this issue was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in 1990s and remembers how different it was then. Reporters could walk down the street and meet with the Taliban without fearing for their lives. Those days have gone. Christina Lamb, from London’s Sunday Times, tells Index, that it can even be difficult to be seen in a public place now. She was recently asked to move on from a coffee shop because the owners were worried she was drawing attention to the premises just by being there.

Physical violence is not the only way the news is being suppressed. In Eritrea, journalists are being silenced by pressure from one of the most secretive governments in the world. Those that work for state media do so with the knowledge that if they take a step wrong, and write a story that the government doesn’t like, they could be arrested or tortured.

In many countries around the world, journalists have lost their status as observers and now come under direct attack. In the not-too-distant past journalists would be on frontlines, able to report on what was happening, without being directly targeted.

So despite what others have described as “the blizzard of news media” in the world, it is becoming frighteningly difficult to find out what is happening in places where those in power would rather you didn’t know. Governments and armed groups are becoming more sophisticated at manipulating public attitudes, using all the modern conveniences of a connected world. Governments not only try to control journalists, but sometimes do everything to discredit them.

As George Orwell said: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Telling the truth is now being viewed by the powerful as a form of protest and rebellion against their strength.

We are living in a historical moment where leaders and their followers see the freedom to report as something that should be smothered, and asphyxiated, held down until it dies.

What we have seen in Syria is a deliberate stifling of news, making conditions impossibly dangerous for international media to cover, making local news media fear for their lives if they cover stories that make some powerful people uncomfortable. The bravest of the brave carry on against all the odds. But the forces against them are ruthless.

As Simon Cottle, Richard Sambrook and Nick Mosdell write in their upcoming book, Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security: “The killing of journalists is clearly not only to shock but also to intimidate. As such it has become an effective way for groups and even governments to reduce scrutiny and accountability, and establish the space to pursue non-democratic means.”

In Turkey we are seeing the systematic crushing of the press by a government which appears to hate anyone who says anything it disagrees with, or reports on issues that it would rather were ignored. Journalists are under pressure, and so is the truth.

As our Turkey contributing editor Kaya Genç reports on page 64, many of Turkey’s most respected news outlets are closing down or being forced out of business. Secrets are no longer being aired and criticism is out of fashion. But mobs attacking newspaper buildings is not. Genç also believes that society is shifting and the public is being persuaded that they must pick sides, and that somehow media that publish stories they disagree with should not have a future.

That is not a future we would wish upon the world.

Order your full-colour print copy of our journalism in danger magazine special here, or take out a digital subscription from anywhere in the world via Exact Editions (just £18* for the year). Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship fight for free expression worldwide.

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Magazines are also on sale in bookshops, including at the BFI and MagCulture in London, Home in Manchester, Carlton Books in Glasgow and News from Nowhere in Liverpool as well as on Amazon and iTunes. MagCulture will ship anywhere in the world.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”From the Archives”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”94291″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03064228208533353″][vc_custom_heading text=”Afghanistan in 1978-81″ font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1080%2F03064228208533353|||”][vc_column_text]April 1982

Anthony Hyman looks at the changing fortunes of Afghan intellectuals over the past four or five years.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”94251″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03064228208533410″][vc_custom_heading text=”Colombia: a new beginning?” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1080%2F03064228208533410|||”][vc_column_text]August 1982

Gabriel García Márquez and others who faced brutal government repression following the 1982 election.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”93979″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03064228408533703″][vc_custom_heading text=”Repression in Iraq and Syria” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1080%2F03064228408533703|||”][vc_column_text]April 1983

An anonymous report from Amnesty point to torture, special courts and hundreds of executions in Iraq and Syria. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Danger in truth: truth in danger” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2F2016%2F05%2Fdanger-in-truth-truth-in-danger%2F|||”][vc_column_text]The summer 2016 issue of Index on Censorship magazine looks at why journalists around the world face increasing threats.

In the issue: articles by journalists Lindsey Hilsum and Jean-Paul Marthoz plus Stephen Grey. Special report on dangerous journalism, China’s most famous political cartoonist and the late Henning Mankell on colonialism in Africa.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”76282″ img_size=”medium” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2016/05/danger-in-truth-truth-in-danger/”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2Fsubscribe%2F|||”][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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