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.

Will women benefit from fewer lads mags?

The Co-operative chain has told magazines such as Nuts and Zoo to clean up their act. Will women really benefit?

ladsmagsThe “Lose the Lads Mags” campaign claims to want freedom: freedom for supermarket employees against exposure to pornography at work, and for women against sexual objectification, which the campaigners claim encourages gendered violence. But by threatening to prosecute retailers under the Equality Act if they continue to stock the magazines, they are endorsing a kind of illiberal censorship that curtails free speech, press freedom, consumer choice, and, in a climate of incipient creeping fig-leafing, sexual expression itself.

It is hard to see just how curbing the sale of lads mags would tackle the endemic root of the coalition’s ire – female objectification, a phenomena that predates the publication of Nuts, Zoo et al by several thousand years. Yet the Lose the Lads mags campaigners claim that, in normalising sexual objectification, the magazines encourage violence against women, and vaguely states that there is ‘research’ (although it is not cited) to prove it.

One such source of research is Dr Peter Hegarty, Psychologist at Sussex university, who took part in a radio debate with me on the topic. Hegarty was a co-researcher in a 2011 study which found that participants presented with descriptions of women taken from lads’ mags, and comments about women made by convicted rapists could not distinguish the source of the quotes.

On this basis, Hegarty suggested, it is the tone of lads mags that it is the issue not the images themselves. Banning them on the basis that the cover content constitutes sexual harassment, as the Lose the lads Mags campaigners want to do, misses the scientific point and only further discredits their agenda..

What’s more, if lads magazines are ripe for prosecution then so, surely, are the tabloids and their daily diet of bikined and knicker-flashing celebs, also sold in mainstream supermarkets – particularly given the way they are displayed at prime eye-level position in their freestanding carousels in many outlets.

There could be ramifications for press freedom. If the Equality Act can be invoked by employees who feel sexually harassed by images of scantily clad women, could ethnic minority employees can sue supermarkets for forcing them to handle the Daily Mail on the basis that it publishes offensive attitudes towards immigrants, for example?

As fears about internet pornography and the sexualisation of children grow in the West, so come the protectionist and prohibitionist attempts to clamp down on sexual representation. Earlier this year, the EU Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee voted on a clause calling for the banning of all pornography in the media. The vote was split, but the censorious attitudes remain. Now that many liberal feminists have joined ranks with their radical cohorts, and the conservative right against sexual representation, a minority of those of us who believe sexual expression doesn’t have to be dehumanising or derogatory are left to defend sexual freedom for everyone.

What we need isn’t fewer lads mags, but a more diverse representation of sexuality, both male and female, and better education about the material already out there. When we consider that 42 per cent of 10 to 17 year olds have viewed internet porn in the last year, and have access to it in their own homes, on their smartphones and tablet devices, lads mags are surely an easy – and misplaced – target. Helping boys and young men to understand the difference between imagery and reality in relation to sex and women and so make informed, considered choices about the material they then consumed and their reaction to it is surely the sensible, sustainable answer.

When it comes to sexual representation, out of sight out of mind certainly doesn’t help. And no positive sexual revolution ever achieved change by cloaking what it feared.


Nichi Hodgson is a journalist and broadcaster. Her latest book is Bound To You