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]

Interview with Nadine Strossen: “People should feel free to engage in respectful but robust and highly critical debate”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship’s editor in chief Rachael Jolley speaks with Professor Nadine Strossen of New York Law School and a former head of the American Civil Liberties Union. Strossen is one of 150 writers and academics who have signed a letter to Harpers magazine saying that the free exchange of information and ideas is becoming more constricted.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=””][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

International community rallies in support of Hungary’s Central European University


As a new law passed by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s government threatens the existence of Central European University in Budapest, 70,000 people marched in protest in the capital to save it as part of the #IStandWithCEU campaign.

Among those offering supportto protect the academic freedom of one of central Europe’s most prominent graduate universities, either by writing letters or demonstrating, include more than 20 Nobel Laureates including Mario Vargas Llosa, hundreds of academics worldwide, the European Commission, the UN, the governments of France and Germany, 11 US Senators, Noam Chomsky and Kofi Annan.

Whilst the amendment, which will effectively force CEU to shut, has been signed into statute by Hungarian president Janos Ader, the university hopes to challenge the law in the Hungary’s Constitutional Court.

In a video released on 20 April, Michael Ignatieff, president and rector of CEU, said: “Three weeks ago this university was attacked by a government who tabled legislation that would effectively shut us down. We fought back and the reception around the world has been just magnificent.”

He added: “Academic freedom is one of the values we just can’t compromise.”

Orsolya Lehotai, a masters student at CEU and one of the organisers of the street protest movement Freedom for Education, told Index that initially the small group of students had hoped to “mimic democratic society” and stop the law passing in its original form.

“So far in the seven years of the Orbán government, whenever there was big opposition to something, people have taken to the streets and this has actually changed legislation, so we decided it would show a little power if we were to have people in the streets about this,” Lehotai said. “Back then [at the first protest] we were unsure when the parliamentary debate was to happen but we had had news that it was to happen on a fast-track, which to us was outrageous.”

Despite the protests and international criticism, the Hungarian government said that the law is designed to correct “irregularities” in the way some foreign institutions run campuses. Government officials maintain that the legislation is not politically motivated. 

Áron Tábor is a Fulbright scholar and another CEU student who has taken to the streets. He spoke to Index about the absurdity of the Hungarian government’s stance: “This is one university, where the language is instruction is English and the programs run according to the American system.The government says that CEU is a ‘phantom university’, or even a ‘mailbox university’, which doesn’t do any real teaching, but only issues American degrees from a distance. This is a ridiculous claim.”

Gergő Brückner, a journalist at described the political paranoia that lies behind the new laws: “One important thing to know is that Fidesz doesn’t like anything that is not part of their own Fidesz system. You can be a famous filmmaker, a university researcher or an Olympic medal winner but you must, for them, be the part of the national circle of Fidesz.”

“If you are an independent and well-funded American university – then you are not controlled, and you can easily be portrayed as a kind of enemy,” he added.

Since its establishment in 1991, CEU has made no secret of its commitment to freedom of expression. It was founded by a group of intellectuals including George Soros, who has been much criticised by Orbán.

The university was designed to reinforce democratic ideals in an area of the world just emerging from communist control. This ethos continues: in February the annual president’s lecture at CEU was given by the University of Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash who spoke on the topic of “Free Speech and the Defense of an Open Society”.

When the law comes into force, requirements for foreign higher education institutions to have a campus in their home country mean that it will be impossible for CEU to continue operating.

Similarly, requiring a bilateral agreement between the government of the country involved, and the Hungarian government is a huge obstacle, as in CEU’s case this would be the USA but the US federal government has made it clear that it is not within their competence to negotiate this.

More generally, the ability of the Hungarian government to block any agreement raises worrying possibilities, too. Professor Jan Kubik told Index: “A democratic government has no business in the area of education, particularly higher education, except for providing funds for it. When a government tries to play an arbiter, dictating who does and who does not have the right to teach that is a sure sign of authoritarian tendency.”

Kubik, director of University College London’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, along with over a thousand other international academics, has strongly criticised the new legislation, and his department is holding a rally in London on April 26.

He has also signed an open letter published in the Financial Times.

He said: “Any governmental attempt to close down a university is always very troubling. An attack on a university in a country that has already been travelling on a path towards de-democratisation for a while is alarming.

“Universities are like canaries of freedom and independence of the public sphere. Their death or weakening signals trouble for this sphere, a sphere that is indispensable for democracy.”

With the international condemnation of the Lex CEU amendment and a likely protracted legal battle ahead, what Kubik called “a magnificent institution of higher learning, as devoted to the freedom of intellectual inquiry and high ethical standards as any of the best universities in the world” is not expected to shut its doors this year.

Meanwhile, those fighting for fundamental freedoms in Hungary will continue to challenge Orbán. European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans said, CEU has been a “pearl in the crown” of central Europe that he would “continue to fight for”, and for as long as global opinion remains so loudly behind CEU, Orbán will find it an institution difficult to silence. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1493126838618-e2c5cf5d-d00a-0″ taxonomies=”2942″][/vc_column][/vc_row]