Contents – Complicity: Why and when we chose to censor ourselves and give away our privacy

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”With contributions from Ak Welsapar, Julian Baggini, Alison Flood, Jean-Paul Marthoz and Victoria Pavlova”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

The Spring 2020 issue of Index on Censorship magazine looks at our own role in free speech violations. In this issue we talk to Swedish people who are willingly having microchips inserted under their skin. Noelle Mateer writes about living in China as her neighbours, and her landlord, embraced video surveillance cameras. The historian Tom Holland highlights the best examples from the past of people willing to self-censor. Jemimah Steinfeld discusses holding back from difficult conversations at the dinner table, alongside interviewing Helen Lewis on one of the most heated conversations of today. And Steven Borowiec asks why a North Korean is protesting against the current South Korean government. Plus Mark Frary tests the popular apps to see how much data you are knowingly – or unknowingly – giving away.

In our In Focus section, we sit down with different generations of people from Turkey and China and discuss with them what they can and cannot talk about today compared to the past. We also look at how as world demand for cocaine grows, journalists in Colombia are increasingly under threat. Finally, is internet browsing biased against LBGTQ stories? A special Index investigation.

Our culture section contains an exclusive short story from Libyan writer Najwa Bin Shatwan about an author changing her story to people please, as well as stories from Argentina and Bangladesh.

Buy a copy of the magazine from our online store here.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Special Report”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Willingly watched by Noelle Mateer: Chinese people are installing their own video cameras as they believe losing privacy is a price they are willing to pay for enhanced safety

The big deal by Jean-Paul Marthoz: French journalists past and present have felt pressure to conform to the view of the tribe in their reporting

Don’t let them call the tune by Jeffrey Wasserstrom: A professor debates the moral questions about speaking at events sponsored by an organisation with links to the Chinese government

Chipping away at our privacy by Nathalie Rothschild: Swedes are having microchips inserted under their skin. What does that mean for their privacy?

There’s nothing wrong with being scared by Kirsten Han: As a journalist from Singapore grows up, her views on those who have self-censored change

How to ruin a good dinner party by Jemimah Steinfeld: We’re told not to discuss sex, politics and religion at the dinner table, but what happens to our free speech when we give in to that rule?

Sshh… No speaking out by Alison Flood: Historians Tom Holland, Mary Fulbrook, Serhii Plokhy and Daniel Beer discuss the people from the past who were guilty of complicity

Making foes out of friends by Steven Borowiec: North Korea’s grave human rights record is off the negotiation table in talks with South Korea. Why?

Nothing in life is free by Mark Frary: An investigation into how much information and privacy we are giving away on our phones

Not my turf by Jemimah Steinfeld: Helen Lewis argues that vitriol around the trans debate means only extreme voices are being heard

Stripsearch by Martin Rowson: You’ve just signed away your freedom to dream in private

Driven towards the exit by Victoria Pavlova: As Bulgarian media is bought up by those with ties to the government, journalists are being forced out of the industry

Shadowing the golden age of Soviet censorship by Ak Welsapar: The Turkmen author discusses those who got in bed with the old regime, and what’s happening now

Silent majority by Stefano Pozzebon: A culture of fear has taken over Venezuela, where people are facing prison for being critical

Academically challenged by Kaya Genç: A Turkish academic who worried about publicly criticising the government hit a tipping point once her name was faked on a petition

Unhealthy market by Charlotte Middlehurst: As coronavirus affects China’s economy, will a weaker market mean international companies have more power to stand up for freedom of expression?

When silence is not enough by Julian Baggini: The philosopher ponders the dilemma of when you have to speak out and when it is OK not to[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”In Focus”][vc_column_text]Generations apart by Kaya Genç and Karoline Kan: We sat down with Turkish and Chinese families to hear whether things really are that different between the generations when it comes to free speech

Crossing the line by Stephen Woodman: Cartels trading in cocaine are taking violent action to stop journalists reporting on them

A slap in the face by Alessio Perrone: Meet the Italian journalist who has had to fight over 126 lawsuits all aimed at silencing her

Con (census) by Jessica Ní Mhainín: Turns out national censuses are controversial, especially in the countries where information is most tightly controlled

The documentary Bolsonaro doesn’t want made by Rachael Jolley: Brazil’s president has pulled the plug on funding for the TV series Transversais. Why? We speak to the director and publish extracts from its pitch

Queer erasure by Andy Lee Roth and April Anderson: Internet browsing can be biased against LGBTQ people, new exclusive research shows[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Culture”][vc_column_text]Up in smoke by Félix Bruzzone: A semi-autobiographical story from the son of two of Argentina’s disappeared

Between the gavel and the anvil by Najwa Bin Shatwan: A new short story about a Libyan author who starts changing her story to please neighbours

We could all disappear by Neamat Imam: The Bangladesh novelist on why his next book is about a famous writer who disappeared in the 1970s[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Index around the world”][vc_column_text]Demand points of view by Orna Herr: A new Index initiative has allowed people to debate about all of the issues we’re otherwise avoiding[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Endnote”][vc_column_text]Ticking the boxes by Jemimah Steinfeld: Voter turnout has never felt more important and has led to many new organisations setting out to encourage this. But they face many obstacles[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe”][vc_column_text]In print, online, in your mailbox, on your iPad.

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SUBSCRIBE NOW[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Read”][vc_column_text]The playwright Arthur Miller wrote an essay for Index in 1978 entitled The Sin of Power. We reproduce it for the first time on our website and theatre director Nicholas Hytner responds to it in the magazine

READ HERE[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Listen”][vc_column_text]In the Index on Censorship autumn 2019 podcast, we focus on how travel restrictions at borders are limiting the flow of free thought and ideas. Lewis Jennings and Sally Gimson talk to trans woman and activist Peppermint; San Diego photojournalist Ariana Drehsler and Index’s South Korean correspondent Steven Borowiec

LISTEN HERE[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Stifling free speech online in the war on fake news

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”97329″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”right”][vc_column_text]“Fake news”. The phrase emerged only a matter of years ago to become familiar to everybody. The moral panic around fake news has grown so rapidly that it became a common talking point. In its short life it has been dubbed the Collins Dictionary’s word of 2017 and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists say it was one of the driving factors that made them set their symbolic Doomsday Clock to two minutes from midnight in 2019. It is a talking point on the lips of academics, media pundits and politicians.

For many, it is feared that “fake news” could lead to the end of democratic society, clouding our ability to think critically about important issues. Yet the febrile atmosphere surrounding it has led to legislation around the world which could potentially harm free expression far more than the conspiracy theories being peddled.

In Russia and Singapore politicians have taken steps to legislate against the risk of “fake news” online. A report published in April 2019 by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport could lead to stronger restrictions on free expression on the internet in the UK.

The Online Harms White Paper proposes ways in which the government can combat what are deemed to be harmful online activities. However, while some the harmful activities specified — such as terrorism and child abuse — fall within the government’s scope, the paper also declares various unclearly defined practices such as “disinformation” as under scrutiny.

Internet regulation would be enforced by a new independent regulatory body, similar to Ofcom, which currently regulates broadcasts on UK television and radio. Websites would be expected to conform to the regulations set by the body.

According to Jeremy Wright, the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the intention is that this body will have “sufficient teeth to hold companies to account when they are judged to have breached their statutory duty of care”.

“This will include the power to issue remedial notices and substantial fines,” he says, “and we will consult on even more stringent sanctions, including senior management liability and the blocking of websites.​”

According to Sharon White, the chief executive of the UK’s media regulatory body Ofcom, the term “fake news” is problematic because it “is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition. The term has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader.”  The UK government prefers to use the term “disinformation”, which it defines as “information which is created or disseminated with the deliberate intent to mislead; this could be to cause harm, or for personal, political or financial gain”.

However, the difficulty of proving that false information was published with an intention to cause harm could potentially affect websites which publish honestly held opinions or satirical content.

As a concept, “fake news” is frequently prone to bleeding beyond the boundaries of any attempt to define it. Indeed, for many politicians, that is not only the nature of the phrase but the entire point of it.

“Fake news” has become a tool for politicians to discredit voices which oppose them. Although the phrase may have been popularised by US President Donald Trump to attack his critics, the idea of “fake news” has since become adopted by authoritarian regimes worldwide as a justification to deliberately silence opposition.

As late US Senator John McCain wrote in a piece for The Washington Post: “the phrase ‘fake news’ — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.

“This assault on journalism and free speech proceeds apace in places such as Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, Venezuela and many others. Yet even more troubling is the growing number of attacks on press freedom in traditionally free and open societies, where censorship in the name of national security is becoming more common.”

In Singapore — a country ranked by Reporters Without Borders as 151 out of 180 nations for press freedom in 2019 — a bill was introduced to parliament ostensibly intended to combat fake news.

Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill would permit government ministers to order the correction or removal of online content which is deemed to be false. It is justified under very broad, tautological definitions which state amongst other things that “a falsehood is a statement of fact that is false or misleading”. On this basis, members of the Singaporean government could easily use this law to censor any articles, memes, videos, photographs or advertising that offends them personally, or is seen to impair the government’s authority.

In addition to more conventional definitions of public interest, the term is defined in the bill as including anything which “could be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.” The end result is that Singaporeans could potentially be charged not only for criticising their own government, but Singapore’s allies as well.

Marte Hellema, communications and media programme manager for the human rights organisation FORUM-ASIA explains her organisation’s concerns: “We are seriously concerned that the bill is primarily intended to repress freedom of expression and silence dissent in Singapore.”

Hellema pointed out that the law would be in clear violation of international human rights standards and criticised its use of vague terms and lack of definitions.

“Combined with intrusive measures such as the power to impose heavy penalties for violations and order internet services to disable content, authorities will have the ability to curtail the human rights and fundamental freedoms of anyone who criticises the government, particularly human rights defenders and media,” Hellema says.

In Russia, some of the most repressive legislation to come out of the wave of talk about “fake news” was signed into law earlier this year.

In March 2019, the Russian parliament passed two amendments to existing data legislation to combat fake news on the internet.

The laws censor online content which is deemed to be “fake news” according to the government, or which “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of the Russian Federation”.

Online news outlets and users which repeatedly run afoul of the laws will face fines of up to 1.5 million roubles (£17,803) for being seen to have published “unreliable” information.

Additionally, individuals who have been accused of specifically criticising the state, the law or the symbols which represent them risk further fines of 300,000 roubles (£3,560) or even prison sentences.

The move has been criticised by public figures and activists, who see the new laws as an attempt to stifle public criticism of the government and increase control over the internet. The policy is regarded as a continuation of previous legislation in Russia designed to suppress online anonymity and blacklist undesirable websites.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Salil Tripathi: As Singapore turns 50, is it on the cusp of becoming different?

Singapore’s founding father and long-serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. (Photo: "Lee Kuan Yew" by Robert D. Ward - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons )

Singapore’s founding father and long-serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died in March. (Photo: “Lee Kuan Yew” by Robert D. Ward – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Salil Tripathi has joined Index as an online columnist and will be contributing monthly

The golfing phrase “OB markers” has a special meaning in Singapore. Short-hand for what is “out-of-bound,” it lays out, informally, the limits of what can be said, and if you’ve lived long enough in Singapore, you are supposed to know what those markers are, and where they are.

Singapore has laws regulating speech, some of which are inherited from the British era, while others were refined to suit Singapore’s governance model, which many have described as soft authoritarianism, associated with Lee, who died in March at 91, led his People’s Action Party to successive electoral victories since independence in 1965, and the party has remained in power since. Goh Chok Tong succeeded Lee as prime minister in 1990, and Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been prime minister since 2004.

The genius of the principle of OB markers lies in its ambiguity – the markers are not clearly defined; it is incumbent on the journalist to figure out what can and cannot be said; it keeps everyone guessing. The model has suited Singapore well for the past five decades. The local media, much of it owned by companies close to the government, has little problem with it. Many international publications have also complied with the system. (Most foreign correspondents based in Singapore have regional responsibilities, and South-East Asia does offer a range of interesting stories. Unlike those countries, Singapore’s post-independence history has been far less dramatic.)

Besides, when foreign publications published stories or commentaries critical of Singapore, they faced lawsuits. Far Eastern Economic Review, where I worked for some of my eight years there, was combative; it not only lost lawsuits and its circulation was restricted, as was the case with some other publications.

This year marks a watershed – the republic celebrates its 50th anniversary, but the joy is clouded by Lee’s passing. Many have credited him with building modern Singapore; those who lament Singapore’s stunted politics say it is the result of his style of governance.

Is Singapore on the cusp of becoming different?

In four recent cases Singaporeans have tested the limits of freedoms they can take for granted. A video, a film, a blog and a graphic novel have pushed at the boundaries of what can be said, and the government realises that it cannot simply ban these, because banning is no longer that simple, and Singaporeans today are better-educated and more demanding than in the past. Singaporeans no longer watch films only in theatres or on television, nor buy books only in shops, and nor do they consume news and opinions only through newspapers and magazines. Furthermore, better-educated, articulate Singaporeans want to be treated as thinking adults who can make up their own minds. How Singapore deals with this change will determine what kind of society Singapore will become.

Amos Yee is a teenager with an attitude. In a controversial video he posted online within days of Lee’s passing, he made highly critical and disparaging remarks about Lee. Yee is precocious and strident, and doesn’t fit the image of the shy, polite, obedient Singaporean with a neat hair-cut that the republic has tried so hard to groom. With an accent that sounds North American and a vocabulary that would make his grandparents cringe, he attacked Lee’s political legacy and economic record, pointing out economic disparities and the silencing of the opposition.

But he also criticised Christianity, and for that, Yee was arrested and charged with showing “intention of wounding” religious feelings. To be sure, many ruling party supporters were incensed over his political criticisms. One man made crude physical threats online. (Making violent online threats is a crime in Singapore). Another man slapped Yee when he was on his way to court (the man was subsequently arrested, tried, and jailed). Yee’s attitude did not help; his lawyer was exasperated by Yee’s recalcitrant behaviour (including flouting bail conditions), and it was hard to figure out if he should be tried as an adult – and punished accordingly – or sent for psychiatric evaluation. In the end, he was sentenced, but as he had spent more time in remand than his sentence, he was released. The Wall Street Journal wrote the case showed Singapore’s struggle to adapt its tradition of censorship to the realities of the digital era.

Yee presented a unique dilemma for Singapore. The government is used to respond robustly to critics who are political rivals, academics, or foreign journalists. It has sued opposition politicians, some have become unemployable, and some have had to leave the country, as their visas are not renewed. But here was a boy, not yet an adult; he was not old enough to be part of the mandatory military service; and he was being deliberately provocative. But how could a state go after a teenager who has acted like a brat?

Roy Ngerng

Roy Ngerng

Roy Ngerng is a blogger who has criticized the government’s handling of the mandatory Central Provident Fund in his blogs. As an activist, he has campaigned for greater equality through higher public spending. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sued Ngerng for defamation, and during his recent trial to assess damages, Lee’s lawyer Davinder Singh sought aggravated damages. Ngerng described himself as a man of limited means and argued his own case, and said he had apologized; Lee’s lawyers said the apology was not sincere enough. At one point, Ngerng broke down in the court. In another case, Tan Shou Chen, who acts in an ongoing show, LKY: The Musical wrote a blog where he claimed that the government had interfered with the script. The government denied it, and Tan took down his post. The show is running till 16 August.

Tan Pin Pin has made a film called To Singapore With Love, which showcases the lives of left-leaning dissidents who had challenged Lee in the 1960s. In the years leading up to Singapore’s independence, Lee had initially allied with the left, but later parted company. It was a period of regional turmoil, with the war raging in Vietnam and spreading to Indo-China, and there were real fears of Communism spreading across South-East Asia. These dissidents left Singapore and went into exile; a few have since died, and others are not allowed to return to Singapore. Tan’s film gives voice to those individuals, portraying them sympathetically as nationalists who saw Singapore’s future differently.

Singapore has banned the film from public screening because it “undermined national security”, but private screenings are allowed in Singapore. A week after its ban last September, more than a hundred Singaporeans took buses to Johor Baru, the Malaysian city across the causeway that links Singapore and Malaysia, and saw it there. Tan challenged the ban but she lost. The film has been shown at international festivals and while it can be bought online overseas, it cannot be shipped to a Singaporean address.

GN-CharlieChan-CVF-250Finally in June, Singapore’s National Arts Council withdrew its grant made to artist-illustrator Sonny Liew, who had published a graphic novel called The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. The council said the way the graphic novel retold Singapore’s history undermined public authority. Interestingly, it did not ban the book; the council wanted its money back. (The publisher complied; the graphic novel sold out instantly and reprints were ordered).

These cases show the constant tussle over where those OB markers lie in Singapore isn’t over. In the past, it was clear: there were bans, prosecutions, bankruptcies, fines and jail terms. In the post-LKY Singapore, rules are changing and those markers are shifting.

Singapore’s leaders lay great store in business school principles and terms, such as feedback loops. They will have to ensure that those loops are not shut, and listen to what Singaporeans are saying. That is possible in an environment where people are free to draw, write, and speak. There is an east Asian saying that “the bamboo shoot that grows tall gets chopped first.” Chopping that bamboo shoot is no longer an option. If the government listens more, Singapore will benefit. True, some teenagers will throw tantrums, but that’s part of growing up.

Index on Censorship magazine has been covering Singapore since 1975 when Simon Cassady reported on Lee Kuan Yew & the Singapore media: Purging the press.

This column was posted on 30 July 2015 at

Singapore: Blogger removes posts under threat from prime minister

Roy Ngerng has received a letter from

Roy Ngerng has received a letters from lawyers representing Singapore’s prime minister.

A Singaporean blogger has had to take down another four blog posts and a YouTube video after receiving another letter from the lawyer of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Roy Ngerng first received a letter from lawyer Davinder Singh on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week demanding that he take down and apologise for one blog post that had drawn parallels between Lee’s position as chairman of a sovereign wealth fund and the management of Singapore’s state pension fund and an ongoing trial into the misappropriation of funds by a megachurch.

Lee’s lawyer said that alleging that the he had misappropriated funds “constitutes a very serious libel”. On top of asking Ngerng to apologise, Lee also wanted to claim costs and damages.

Ngerng apologised for the article on Friday morning, admitting that the allegation was “false and completely without foundation”. He asked that Lee waive his demand for damages.

In response, Lee’s lawyers set a Monday evening deadline for Ngerng to respond with an offer of damages. If not, legal proceedings would be taken against him.

On Monday morning, another letter was received, taking issue with four blog posts and a video. Three of the blog posts raised questions over the way the state pension fund is managed, whereas the last blog post and video contained Ngerng’s response to Lee’s demand for damages.

Two of the articles had been published long before the first lawyer’s letter had arrived, one in July 2012 and one in May 2013.

“It is now clear from your client’s latest posts that your client’s apology and undertaking was not and never meant to be genuine,” Davinder Singh wrote to Ngerng’s lawyer M Ravi. He went on to say that Ngerng had “opportunistically” used the episode to “raise his public profile, garner support and sympathy, and renew his attack against our client”. This, Singh asserted, meant that Lee would be entitled to “aggravated damages”.

But Lee would be prepared not to claim these aggravated damages if Ngerng took down the four blog posts and video by Monday evening. Ngerng still has to make an offer of damages for the initial blog post that sparked this whole dispute.

In response, Ngerng’s lawyer M Ravi said that Ngerng would comply with Lee’s demand and take down the posts. He also asked that the deadline for an offer of damages be extended to Wednesday evening.

This article was posted on May 27, 2014 at