We the screamers

In my work as a journalism lecturer, I am increasingly struck by the fact that many students don’t read books. By this I don’t mean they don’t read – they read all the time, constantly scrolling on their phones, laptops and devices. I mean physical books. As for newspapers: forget it. For this reason, I have taken to reading to them. I tell them to put their phones away (which some find almost impossible), to close their laptops and… listen. I don’t ask them to sit in a circle on the carpet, but it’s not far short of that… it is a moment for meditation, what some have come to call mindfulness.  I have read them all sorts of authors: Orwell, Conrad, the great Dutch journalist Geert Mak, Joan Didion. They wriggle and fidget, but in the end their breathing calms down, their faces relax, and they sit and listen.

And I am going to do the same with you today. You are all busy people so I won’t ask you to put away your phones and devices, but I will ask you to listen as I read to you from one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century, Arthur Koestler. Perhaps not so widely read today, Koestler was best known for his anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon, but was also a prolific journalist and essay writer. This essay, On Disbelieving Atrocities, is from a collection of essays called the Yogi and the Commissar, published in 1944. The essay itself was originally published in the New York Times under the title The Nightmare That is a Reality. He describes the “mania” he feels when telling the world about Nazi atrocities. “We, the screamers, have been at it now for about ten years,” he says. But the screamers are struggling to be heard. 

“We said that if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs. At present we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing, by hot steam, mass-electrocution and live burial of the total Jewish population of Europe. So far three million have died. It is the greatest mass-killing in recorded history; and it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch. I have photographs before me on the desk while I am writing this, and that accounts for my emotion and bitterness. People died to smuggle them out of Poland; they thought it was worthwhile. The facts have been published in pamphlets, White Books, newspapers, magazines and what not.

But the other day I met one of the best-known American journalists over here. He told me that in the course of some recent public opinion survey nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believed that the Nazis commit atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda lies, and that they didn’t believe a word of it. As to this country, I have been lecturing now for three years to the troops and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps, they don’t believe in the starved children of Greece, in the shot hostages of France, in the mass-graves of Poland; they have never heard of Lidice, Treblinka or Belzec; you can convince them for an hour, then they shake themselves, their mental self-defence begins to work and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex temporarily weakened by a shock.” 

Koestler’s words still have the power to shock 80 years later… 

I have been proud over the years to be something of a screamer — for the Observer, the New Statesman and most prominently as the journalist portrayed in the Hollywood film Official Secrets (dir. Gavin Hood 2019). 

I now work as editor-at-large for Index on Censorship, initially set up in 1972 to publish and promote the work of dissident writers from behind the Iron Curtain. There has never been more for us to scream about. The atrocity deniers are everywhere: suggesting that outrages committed by Iran, Russia, Belarus, China are mere Western propaganda. We saw it on October 7th and we see it in Gaza. 

My favourite screamer (and Koestler’s heir in some ways) is the journalist and academic Peter Pomerantsev. His second book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (2019), should be required reading on all journalism (and public relations) courses. Pomerantsev comes from the same tradition as Index — his parents were Soviet dissidents arrested for “distributing harmful literature”. He warns that Putin’s Russia has ushered in a new age of atrocity denial driven by the troll farms of St Petersburg. 

His family’s experience gives Pomerantsev a personal, visceral respect for objective truth, facts, reality. He tells the story of the legendary dissident publication The Chronicle of Current events. 

“The Chronicle was how Soviet dissidents documented suppressed facts about political arrests, interrogations, searches, trials, beatings, abuses in prison. Information was gathered via word of mouth or smuggled out of labour camps in tiny self-made polythene capsules that were swallowed and then shat out, their contents typed up and photographed in dark rooms. It was then passed from person to person, hidden in the pages of books and diplomatic pouches, until it could reach the West and be delivered to Amnesty International, or broadcast on the BBC World Service, Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.” (This Is Not Propaganda, p 2)

Where does this leave us? We who are committed to telling the truth. We who respect facts. Are we listening to the screamers?  

On the plane to Zurich, I was given my complimentary copies of Forbes and Vanity Fair and the answer was right there. Vanity Fair carried an article about Alexei Navalny, who grew to prominence through his exposure of corruption in Putin’s Russia, while the cover of Forbes was devoted to the Boeing whistleblower John Barnett. We perhaps need to start thinking about whistleblowers as corporate dissidents, as truthtellers, not subversives to be closed down. 

Because Navalny and Barnett are both, in their way, screamers.

This is the transcript of a speech made to a meeting of chief communications officers from leading global companies in Zurich

Evan Gershkovich: We must be as loud as possible

This Friday, 29 March, marks the one-year anniversary of Russia’s arrest and unlawful detention of my colleague, Evan Gershkovich, of The Wall Street Journal. That’s one year that Evan has been deprived of his basic rights and confined to a cell 23 hours a day, held on a charge of espionage which he, the US government and the Journal vehemently deny. One year that his parents and his sister have been deprived of their son and brother.  And one year since a mass chilling effect descended on the foreign press corps in Russia because of this brazen assault on the freedom of the press.

Evan’s detention is a singular outrage but also part of a much broader pattern. Last year and this year have been brutal for the safety of journalists working to get the facts from dangerous places across the globe, as chronicled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and others.

Even within Russia, Evan is not alone: Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was seized by Russian authorities on a trip to visit her mother and has been in prison since October. Paul Whelan, of course, has been detained there for five years.

After Evan’s arrest, many news outlets withdrew to cover Russia from Berlin, Warsaw and elsewhere given that Vladimir Putin’s regime has made what you and I understand to be fair and independent reporting effectively a crime.

So we are deprived of fact-based news from a country that is central in defining the future for the USA and other democracies. If we don’t stand up and protest against the silencing of the media on such a vital story, when will we decide the time is right to be loud?

We have been making noise for a year now, to ensure we are drawing as much attention as possible to Evan’s predicament and this broader outrage. We did so in part because journalists run at the story. But we also did so because, in the very early days after Evan’s arrest, we received advice from a trusted source that there will be times to be loud and times to be quiet and this was a time to be loud. Put another way, until there is reason to be quiet – which might suggest a sensitive breakthrough is near at hand – be loud.

We also didn’t have a choice. There may be times when quiet diplomacy can be effective to resolve such hostage issues. In our case, the Russian government had publicly accused our innocent colleague of spying, a message we had to counter as forcefully and as quickly as we could.

In that, as in so many other things over the course of the past year, we were greatly aided by outside help.

The White House, the State Department and the US Senate Intelligence Committee immediately made clear Evan – an accredited reporter in Russia – is not a spy. And in the days, weeks and months that followed, we have benefitted hugely from the interest and support of other news organisations, the international community of journalists and well-wishers the world over to keep awareness of Evan’s situation high.

We know that The Wall Street Journal won’t directly negotiate his release – that is the responsibility of governments. But we are convinced keeping Evan in the spotlight will help set the stage for successful negotiations at the right time. We hope that time is very soon.

Within the Journal, we have learned that being loud is a companywide effort. I don’t think there is a department at Dow Jones & Co., the Journal’s parent, that hasn’t in some way been involved.

The company’s leadership, legal team, the newsroom and communications department would be obvious. Less so, maybe, the marketing team, which we rely on to create ads that we and other newspapers have run on milestones such as 100 days of Evan’s incarceration. Or the advertising department, which has used barter ads to push Evan’s cause on social media. Or government affairs, which has launched a campaign of awareness on Capitol Hill in Washington. Or technology and circulation, which have built a page outside of our paywall on WSJ.com so readers can learn about Evan free of charge. Or our Standards team, which ensures that our advocacy work and our news reporting are kept appropriately apart. Or our individual reporters, who have taken it upon themselves to organise runs, swims, read-a-thons and letter-writing campaigns to highlight Evan’s work and interests.

Yet we also realise all this has yet to pay the one dividend that matters: Evan’s safe return.

So on his one-year anniversary we also ask that you take the time to think of Evan, to talk about him, to amplify stories about him with the hashtag #IStandWithEvan, to explore his work at WSJ.com/evan, and to dig in with us so that the light we shine on Evan and the broader cause of press freedom is brighter than ever.

Rights are still under attack globally

There are times when it feels that the earth is shifting upon its axis. When the gravitational pull of events is so strong that our news curves towards it. Moments when even the light of truth gets sucked towards the darkness caused by war. Although some will try to look away, they soon discover that there is no way of doing so: the sorrow, the heartache and suffering forbids our humanity to ignore.

The current war in the Middle East is one such event. As it continues to rightly dominate global news, we need to ensure that tyrants aren’t ramping up their attacks on their citizens while the world is looking elsewhere. The role of Index on Censorship is to try and provide a telescope to the public so they can witness where their values are under attack. Failure to do so would only secure further silence for those campaigning for freedom of expression.

That’s why this week I want to highlight some of those stories you may not have heard, but so desperately need to be told.

Freedom of expression abuses continue in India. It has become clear that the Indian authorities are using counterterrorism law and financial regulations to silence journalists, human rights defenders, activists and critics of the government, including 12 international human rights groups. At the start of October, the authorities arrested the editor of NewsClick, Prabir Purkayastha and human resources chief Amit Chakravarty. This was quickly followed by the government raids on 46 journalists associated with the news outlet. A depressing spiral of acts are being committed by the Indian authorities and any criticism of the Modi government is met with the heaviest of action.

The bombing of Syrian cities by Russia continues as they seek to shore up the Assad regime. A two-year-old child was killed in a Russian air attack on a family home in the village of Jaftallak Haj Hamoud, north of Jisr al-Shughour, according to the Civil Defence organisation and confirmed by medics and local reports. In a nation where news is so tightly controlled it’s important that we share these stories, as the actions of Putin around the world only deliver misery.

Only a week after a huge earthquake, Afghanistan is now faced with another. The epicentre is thought to have been just outside Herat, ending hopes of further rescues and a humanitarian crisis will continue to deepen in a country where rights, freedoms and liberties have all but disappeared following the fall of Kabul. More than 90% of the people killed in the last earthquake were women and children with the death toll expected to be over 2,000 people.

India, Afghanistan, Syria: three nations who are faced with immense struggles. Some caused by natural disaster, others human-inflicted. But the commonality remains the same. Little or no freedom of expression in these nations hampers our ability to understand and help those in need.

Now more than ever these people need to be heard and Index will always speak up for those without a voice.

‘Thank Gary Lineker for being a true advocate for refugees’

Index is in contact with a number of Afghan journalists forced to flee their country after the Taliban takeover. In danger because they exercised their freedom of speech through their work, they are now all refugees. Below is a message we received from one of them, Afghan sports journalist Saeedullah Safi, following the recent Gary Lineker row:

As a sports journalist from Afghanistan, I have been following Gary Lineker’s work with great admiration, and I am writing this message to publicly express my gratitude for his efforts to support refugees.

Gary Lineker’s dedication towards providing facilities and support for refugees is truly commendable. His passion for advocating for their rights is an inspiration to all of us who share the same goal of creating a better world for everyone.

I personally know how difficult migration can be, as I have been stuck in Pakistan for a year after leaving Afghanistan to pursue my dreams in the hope to reach a final destination. Lineker’s work gives me hope that more people like him will continue to work toward creating a better future for refugees.

On a personal note, I am also a fan of Manchester United and I hope to one day cover them closely. On and off the field Lineker has made a tremendous impact on the world, and I am honoured to have the opportunity to publicly thank him.

Once again thank Gary Lineker for his incredible contributions and for being a true advocate for refugees.