The week that tested the boundaries of free speech

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116027″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Irony – a situation in which something which was intended to have a particular result has the opposite or a very different one

Censored – suppressed, altered or deleted as objectionable

Words are important and while language is ever evolving some words have had the same meaning for decades, even centuries, and there are simply no excuses for misrepresenting them to try and fit your political worldview. Words have status, they have legal bearing and they are also a thing of beauty enabling us to communicate with each other.

This week we saw the ultimate unintentionally ironic political statement during the debate in the House of Representatives concerning Donald Trump’s second impeachment. Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman Republican congresswoman from Georgia, stood up to defend the rhetoric of the president, speaking from the US Capitol, from the chamber of Congress, the home of US democracy, on live television and while being live streamed around the world, with a face mask which read “CENSORED”.

Perhaps it was a veiled reference to Trump’s removal from Twitter? But at that very moment, the congresswoman herself, with her words and her world view being heard by literally millions of people and recorded for posterity in both the media and the Congressional Record, was not being censored. Her voice wasn’t being limited, she wasn’t being forced to restrict her language or caveat her political position. She is fortunate to live in a country where free speech is still both protected and valued. And to suggest otherwise undermines the global fight for the right to free speech in repressive regimes.

Senator Josh Hawley has had his book contract cancelled by Simon & Schuster. They said “[a]fter witnessing the disturbing, deadly insurrection that took place on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. We did not come to this decision lightly. As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints; at the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.”

Hawley is claiming that he is being cancelled, that his constitutional right to free speech is being attacked and that he is suing. We know that because Hawley was featured in nearly every news outlet which covers the USA, both foreign and domestic. Hawley remains a senator, he has the right to speak to his nation in every sitting outlining his priorities and world view. His words were published this week in an op-ed in his local media. He hasn’t been silenced or cancelled, his lucrative book deal has. And even if that sets a bad precedent – a debate we will explore further at Index over the coming months – it is not the same thing.

Our right to free speech is precious. It is something that we need to cherish. Not abuse. And we need to be honest about when it is and is not being threatened. It is being threatened in Belarus, where our own correspondent Andrei Aliaksandrau has just been arrested by the regime. It is under threat in Egypt where according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights 60,000 political prisoners are incarcerated. It is nonexistent in Xinjiang province, China, where millions of Uighurs have been sent to re-education camps. It is not being threatened in the USA – it may be being challenged but these words mean different things.

I believe passionately about our right to free speech. I think everybody has the right to speak, to argue their position, to tell their stories. But there is a difference from having the right to speak and the right to be heard. Simply put you don’t have the latter, it is not a universal right, which can be unjust and for some incredibly damaging but it’s the reality we live in.

This brings me to the other controversy of the week, which warrants a great deal of debate and conversation. Something Index is going to launch in the coming weeks – the suspension of Trump from his social media accounts. Most online platforms are corporate entities, who balance responsibilities to defend free speech and to protect their users. They have a duty of care to their customers as well as to their corporate reputations. They also facilitate a great deal of our national and personal conversations. And they have made the remarkable decision to remove the President of the United States from their sites. They had the right to do this, but the question is should they have removed him and more importantly who decided he shouldn’t be there?

It was not a decision that was taken lightly. “I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here. After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter. Was this correct?” wrote CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey.

In his thoughtful thread on the action he wrote: “Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”

As Dorsey himself acknowledges we need to explore what role these companies really play in our society. Are they merely platforms enabling us to engage within a framework they determine? Are they publishers responsible for every word on their sites? Do they govern the public space or merely facilitate it? And do we know what they are doing? Their actions can determine who speaks and who is heard. We need a really robust conversation about where the red lines should be on online content and what is or isn’t acceptable. These questions have been circulating for a while but have never felt more crucial to be addressed than this week. These are the questions that will define our online presence in the years ahead, so we need answers now.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][/vc_column][/vc_row]

If Trump loses we must make sure his assault on the media is not lasting


Donald Trump taking questions at a press conference on Covid-19. Credit: WikiCommons

By this time next week, we will hopefully (subject to the courts, likely delays and the impact of Covid) know who the future leader of the USA will be. In an election that feels like it has been raging from the moment that Donald J Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, it will be a relief when it is finally over.

But we need to look beyond the campaign hype and explore the longer term impact of the relationship between the White House and the media, which has become a little fraught to say the least.

According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, Trump has undermined and attacked the media a total of 2434 times since he was confirmed as the Republican candidate in 2016. Indeed within just days of taking office, he took the opportunity to label journalists “the enemy of the American People” in words that many saw as echoing those of Stalin and the Nazis, as the great granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote in Index on Censorship magazine at the time.

For a country built on the premise of a free press and with free speech enshrined in law it’s an appalling indictment of the current state of acceptable political discourse in the USA.

The First Amendment is one of the most revered and easily understood of all the additions to the US Constitution. At its heart is the idea that each and every US citizen has an inalienable right to their own freedom of speech and assembly.  But it also confers the absolute protection for the press to report freely and as they see fit. It reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Of course when the Founding Fathers drafted this no one could have envisaged the role of social media and how, a president with a gripe, could use it to undermine the press and deliberately seek to use his power to target journalists who report on his activities in a way he does not agree with.

Ahead of the final presidential debate, Trump took to Twitter to denounce the moderator and renowned journalist Kristen Welker as “terrible & unfair, just like most of the Fake News reporters”.

Trump said to Jeff Mason, the highly respected Reuters journalist, on a visit to Arizona, “Let me tell you something: Joe Biden is a criminal, and he’s been a criminal for a long time. … And you’re a criminal, and the media, for not reporting it.”

Trump has declared that on 3 November “We’re not just running against Joe Biden. We’re running against the left-wing media…”

Trump is, of course, entitled to use his freedom of speech to criticise the press. But he has taken this a step beyond normal criticism of the media. From early in to his administration news organisations whose editorial line might not be favourable towards Trump have been barred from press briefings. And these interferences in normal due process have only accelerated, especially during the current pandemic, as our Covid media tracker highlights.

A malevolence has seeped into presidential communications that seeks to undermine and delegitimise reporters who produce editorial content that does not fit the White House narrative. And as we head to the election, it seems that the Trump administration increasingly wants to take aim at the First Amendment and double down on their attacks on the free press.

This month, in an unprecedented move, the head of the US Agency for Global Media  (a Trump appointment) has scrapped the ‘firewall’ that protected the editorial freedoms of Voice of America and other broadcasting agencies that receive public funding. The repeal memo claimed that the firewall was in conflict with the agency’s purpose to promote the interests of American overseas. Michael Pack, the CEO of the IS Agency, claimed that the agency “do not function as a traditional news or media agency and were never intended to do so.” He added: “For example, the Networks are to articulate the American perspective while countering international views that undermine American values and freedom, or that might aid our enemies’ messaging.”

The Agency for Global Media runs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia. Both are intended to provide independent news to audiences in countries where media freedoms are curtailed and yet now they may be used to produce nothing more than partisan propaganda for whoever wins the White House next week.

And as Index reported earlier this week, plans to change the I visa terms for foreign journalists operating in the USA have been suggested. If passed, these plans would represent a serious setback to media freedom.

None of this is even vaguely in keeping with the spirit of the First Amendment. It does little to support and promote the USA’s place in the world. Instead it undermines global free speech and as such shouldn’t be ignored by the wider global family.

On Tuesday we will hopefully find out what the USA’s long term priorities are. Be assured that we will be shining a light on whoever wins if they fail to protect our global freedom of speech and if they fail to promote and protect the media.

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Trump’s Supreme Court nominee: where does Coney Barrett stand on free speech?


The White House, WIkiCommons

After the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Donald Trump was quick to fill the hole left by her on the Supreme Court.

As he nominated Amy Coney Barrett for the role over the weekend, Trump called Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “a true American legend…a legal giant, and a pioneer for women”.

But what of Coney Barrett?

Announcing his choice for the vacant role, the president said Coney Barrett possessed “a towering intellect, sterling credentials, and unyielding loyalty to the constitution”.

As with any nominee to the Supreme Court, there has inevitably been a focus on Barrett’s stance on a multitude of issues, including particular scrutiny on key issues such as abortion and LGBT rights. However, Coney Barrett’s stance on matters of free speech has been difficult to determine.

As the Supreme Court acts as the USA’s highest court, its rulings on all matters, not just free speech, are vital. The highest court in the land has the final say and therefore, for Index, exactly where each judge stands on their own personal interpretation of the First Amendment is of paramount importance to judging the extent of the limitations to free speech.

The Institute for Free Speech – an organisation set up to “promote and defend the First Amendment” – recorded the actions of the initial candidates, for the position including the successful nominee Coney Barrett, in an attempt to gauge their overall position on free speech law. Coney Barrett does not have extensive records on dealing with cases concerning the First Amendment, but research done by IFS concludes that there are positive signs among what little cases there are.

Coney Barrett, currently judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, has been involved in a number of free speech cases since 2018. IFS reports that “Barrett may be willing to expand free speech protections in limited but nevertheless important contexts”.

But the 48-year-old’s record on dealing with whistle-blower cases has been mixed. In August this year, Coney Barrett’s court favoured the First Amendment and the right of a public employee to raise alarm. However, in the case of Kelvin Lett, a Chicago investigator who refused to change a police report under direction from his supervisor, Coney Barrett ruled: “Lett may have had a good reason to refuse to amend the report [but this] does not grant him a First Amendment cause of action.”

Coney Barrett has also faced scrutiny over her faith, with some questioning if her Catholic faith hinders her decisions. Pro-choice activists have consequently raised concerns over her views on abortion rights and whether she will curtail freedoms in that respect. That said, in an interview earlier this year, the judge stated: “I think one of the most important responsibilities of a judge is to put their personal preferences and beliefs aside. Our responsibility is to adhere to the rule of law.”

Conservative issues and tensions in the country have heightened since the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in May, after the killing of George Floyd. According to Fox News’ Harmeet Dhillon, there is clear friction “between government speech and the creation of public forums for expression” regarding the use of murals by BLM protestors.

Coney Barrett, a conservative herself, could well be ruling on this issue should it face the Supreme Court. The Washington Post has been clear to the point out that the death of Bader Ginsburg was a clear opportunity for conservatives to “cement their dominance” with a 6-3 majority on the court.

While Coney Barrett herself insists that personal beliefs should be kept aside, the majority may prompt conservatives to bring back more contentious issues to the court. The Post said: “The court’s conservative wing has outvoted liberals to carve out religious exemptions from federal laws; to strike down campaign-finance regulations as violations of the First Amendment; and to allow gerrymanders under the view there was no way to determine when a partisan legislature had gone too far.”

The jury, it seems, is still out, which is worrying for us at Index. The question of her commitment to the First Amendment and what it protects for freedoms more generally is of critical importance. Of course it comes at a crucial time, after years of a Trump administration in which freedoms, in particular of the media, have been chipped away.[/vc_column_text][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”5641″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Contents: The Big Noise: How Macho Leaders Hide their Weakness by Stifling Dissent, Debate and Democracy

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”With contributions from Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Miriam Grace Go, Tammy Lai-ming Ho, Karoline Kan, Rob Sears, Jonathan Tel and Caroline Lees”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

The Winter 2019 issue of Index on Censorship magazine looks at the current pack of macho leaders and how their egos are destroying our freedoms. In this issue Rappler news editor Miriam Grace Go writes about how the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, tries to position himself as the man by being as foul-mouthed as possible. Indian journalist Somak Goshal reports on how Narenda Modi presents an image of being both the guy next door, as well as a tough guy – and he’s got a large following to ensure his message gets across, come what may. The historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom considers exactly who the real Chinese leader Xi Jinping is – a man of poetry or military might? And Stefano Pozzebon talks to journalists in Brazil who are right in the firing line of Jair Bolsonaro’s vicious attacks on the media. Meanwhile Mark Frary talks about the tools that autocrats are using to crush dissent and Caroline Lees looks at the smears that are becoming commonplace as a tactic to silence journalists. Plus a very special spoof on all of this from bestselling comedic writer Rob Sears.

In our In Focus section, we interview Jamie Barton, who headlined this year’s Last Night at the Proms, an article that fits nicely with another piece on a new orchestra in Yemen from Laura Silvia Battaglia.

In our culture section we publish a poem from Hong Kong writer Tammy Lai-ming Ho, which addresses the current protests engulfing the city, plus two short stories written exclusively for the magazine by Kaya Genç and Jonathan Tel. There’s also a graphic novel straight out of Mexico.

[/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]Will the real Xi Jinping please stand up by Jeffrey Wasserstrom: China’s most powerful leader since Mao wears many hats – some of them draconian

Challenging Orbán’s echo chamber by Viktória Serdült: Against the odds a new mayor from an opposition party has come to power in Budapest. We report on his promises to push back against Orbán

Taking on the lion by Stefano Pozzebon: With an aggressive former army captain as president, Brazilian journalists are having to employ bodyguards to keep safe. But they’re fighting back

Seven tips for crushing free speech in the 21st century by Rob Sears: Hey big guy, we know you’re the boss man, but here are some tips to really rule the roost

“Media must come together” by Rachael Jolley and Jan Fox: Interview with the New York Times’ lawyer on why the media needs to rally free speech. Plus Trump vs. former presidents, the ultimate machometer

Tools of the real technos by Mark Frary: The current autocrats have technology bent to their every whim. We’re vulnerable and exposed

Modi and his angry men by Somak Ghoshal: India’s men are responding with violence to Modi’s increasingly nationalist war cry

Global leaders smear their critics by Caroline Lees: Dissenters beware – these made-up charges are being used across borders to distract and destroy

Sexism is president’s power tool by Miriam Grace Go: Duterte is using violent language and threats against journalists, Rappler’s news editor explains

Stripsearch by Martin Rowson: Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro – macho or… nacho?

Sounds against silence by Kaya Genç: Far from a bad rap here as Turkey’s leading musicians use music to criticise the government

Un-mentionables by Orna Herr: The truths these world leaders really can’t handle

Salvini exploits “lack of trust” in Italian media by Alessio Perrone: The reputation of Italian media is poor, which plays straight into the hands of the far-right politician

Macho, macho man by Neema Komba: A toxic form of masculinity has infected politics in Tanzania. Democracy is on the line

Putin’s pushbacks by Andrey Arkhangelskiy: Russians signed up for prosperity not oppression. Is Putin failing to deliver his side of the deal?[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row disable_element=”yes”][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Global View”][vc_column_text]Trying to shut down women by Jodie Ginsberg: Women are being forced out of politics as a result of abuse. We need to rally behind them, for all our sakes[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”In Focus”][vc_column_text]Dirty industry, dirty tactics by Stephen Woodman: Miners in Brazil, Mexico and Peru are going to extremes to stop those who are trying to protest

Music to Yemen’s ears by Laura Silvia Battaglia: Could a new orchestra in Yemen signal the end of oppressive Houthi rule? These women hope so

Play on by Jemimah Steinfeld: The darling of the opera scene, Jamie Barton, and the woman behind a hit refugee orchestra, discuss taboo breaking on stage

The final chapter by Karoline Kan: The closing of Beijing’s iconic Bookworm has been met with cries of sadness around the world. Why?

Working it out by Steven Borowiec: An exclusive interview about workplace bullying with the Korean Air steward who was forced to kneel and apologise for not serving nuts correctly

Protest works by Rachael Jolley and Jemimah Steinfeld: Two activists on how their protest movements led to real political change in Hungary and Romania

It’s a little bit silent, this feeling inside by Silvia Nortes: Spain’s historic condemnation of suicide is contributing to a damaging culture of silence today[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Culture”][vc_column_text]Hong Kong writes by Tammy Lai-ming Ho: A Hong Kong poet talks to Index from the frontline of the protests about how her writing keeps her and others going. Also one of her poems published here

Writing to the challenge by Kaya Genç: Orna Herr speaks to the Turkish author about his new short story, written exclusively for the magazine, in which Turkish people get obsessed with raccoons

Playing the joker by Jonathan Tel: The award-winning writer tells Rachael Jolley about the power of subversive jokes. Plus an exclusive short story set in a Syrian prison

Going graphic by Andalusia Knoll Soloff and Marco Parra: Being a journalist in Mexico is often a deadly pursuit. But sometimes the horrors of this reality are only shown in cartoon for, as the journalist and illustrator show[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Index around the world”][vc_column_text]Governments seek to control reports by Orna Herr: Journalists are facing threats from all angles, including new terrorist legislation[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Endnote”][vc_column_text]Culture vultures by Jemimah Steinfeld: The extent of art censorship in democracies is far greaten than initially meets the eye, Index reveals[/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

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