Trustees’ Award 2021

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=””][vc_column_text]Arif Ahmed is a free speech activist and a fellow of Gonville & Caius College at the University of Cambridge.

In March 2020, Ahmed proposed alterations to the Statement of Free Speech at Cambridge. The proposed amendments were created to make the legislation “clearer and more liberal.” He aimed to protect university campuses as places of innovation and invention. That requires protecting the right to freely and safely challenge received wisdom. 

The first amendment replaces the demand for “respect” for the opinions of others with “tolerance.” The second and third amendments preserve free speech of outside speakers and events. They also contain stringent requirements to cancel events and disinvite or censor speakers.

A vote was held for the proposed amendments and they were officially passed in December 2020.

Ahmed continues to be an outspoken advocate for free speech on university campuses.


The Queen’s Speech is a systematic assault on free expression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116759″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]As a political obsessive, I love the Queen’s Speech in the British Parliament. It marks the beginning of the new parliamentary session. It is uniquely British with all the expected pomp and ceremony and a significant amount of pageantry. But most importantly it is a restatement of our democratic values and processes. It also sets the agenda for the year ahead and makes clear what the Government is prioritising. And unfortunately, this year there were significant concerns for those of us who care about free speech.

The Queen outlined the government’s agenda and on the face of it who could object to an Online Safety Bill or a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill or even a Counter State Threats Bill. But, as ever, the devil is in the detail and the detail for too many of the British government’s proposals seems to have many, what I can only hope are unintended, consequences.

The draft Online Safety Bill proposes not only the establishment of a new category of unlawful speech in the UK – legal but harmful – but it also proposes outsourcing the regulation of free speech in the UK to Silicon Valley. Most concerningly there is no provision outlined which will let us know how much content has been removed – or even what has been removed. On the face of it, that might not seem that important but how would a victim know if they were vulnerable?  How will police prosecute hate crime? And how we will be able to analyse how much of a threat to free speech this bill has become, if we have no idea of how much is deleted. The Government has suggested that they will fine companies for deleting too much content but there is no provision outlined which would allow them to assess the scale.

The Academic Freedom Bill will establish a ‘free speech champion’ to ensure that free speech protections are enacted on campus, but this week the Government couldn’t answer whether this would empower Holocaust deniers to speak on campus – or stop them. What’s likely to happen instead is that academic institutions will be so concerned about the fear of a fine or bad publicity that they will stop speakers attending campus full stop – the ultimate chilling effect.

These are just two examples of why Index has such significant concerns of the direction that government is taking on free speech.

To be clear, Index supports any and all efforts to protect our collective right to free speech across the globe and we expect the British government to take a global leadership role in defending Article 19. But what we’ve seen in this year’s Queen’s Speech does not give us hope – rather it seems to be a systematic assault on free expression by the British government, under the auspices of protecting free speech.

I am a former legislator; I know that you cannot, and you should not try to legislate culture or language – it will have the opposite effect. People won’t want to engage and our public spaces will become free of debate and challenge. We deserve so much better. Going forward we will seek to work with the British government to introduce additional protections for free speech, we must use our voice to protect yours.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The Government’s policy paper on higher education: free speech and academic freedom

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116270″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship was founded by writers and scholars, nearly half a century ago, in order to provide a bulwark against censorship. One of our founders, Stephen Spender, stated on our launch that: “The writers and scholars whom one relies on to support (Index) would obviously include those at universities. For the universities represent the developing international consciousness which depends so much on the free interchange of people, and of ideas.”

Which is why we are so intrigued by the Government’s publication of a policy paper outlining their plans to protect free speech and academic freedom on campus in England.  Index supports all efforts to protect academic freedom and will work with all stakeholders to protect this core right and while there is much to be applauded in the sentiments outlined, the devil, as always, is in the detail.

The policy paper does touch on one of the most dangerous threats to our collective academic freedom but it doesn’t suggest any policy prescriptions to address the influence of hostile nations in both limiting speech on campus and affecting the curriculum. In recent days, we have seen reports of academics being investigated for breaching national security laws because of their dealings with China. There have been ongoing reports of interference on campus both in terms of the curriculum and the work of student societies. This is where we need a strong government intervention – otherwise these hostile acts will continue unabated.

The Government has outlined seven specific policy proposals ranging from changing the onus on Higher Education providers to be proactive in their defence of academic freedom rather than passive, to the appointment of a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion who while working under the auspices of the Office for Students and will have the authority to act as an Ombudsman for complaints related to academic freedom.

Fundamentally the majority of these proposals are actually tweaks to the current legislative framework which already applies to English Universities, with the exception of the new appointment of a Free Speech Champion. In a positive light this could therefore be seen as an effort to simplify the current legal framework in order for people to better understand their rights and therefore they will feel empowered to demand genuine academic freedom.

However, our fear is that this isn’t the case. The Government have recognised that there is a problem on campus which is having a chilling effect in specific specialisms and leading to intolerance rather than debate at some of our academic institutions. This is however a cultural problem and you simply can’t legislate for cultural change – you need the carrot as well as the stick and this is missing from the policy paper.

It is also somewhat Orwellian to appoint a government Champion to determine what is and what is not free speech.

Fundamentally, Index welcomes this renewed commitment to academic freedom and will work with all stakeholders to try and ensure this works – even the new Free Speech Champion…  We just wonder if the Government may have been wiser to focus its efforts on ensuring that external pressures from hostile governments were being robustly resisted.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”8843″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Under cover of Covid, too many people have stopped paying attention

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116129″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]The last 12 months have been difficult for everyone. Whilst many of us have lost loved ones and tried to cope with the impact of lockdowns, social restrictions, closed businesses, redundancies, reduced wages, home schooling and the fear of illness, others have sought to exploit the situation – hoping that the world wouldn’t notice.

Our theme for the winter edition of Index on Censorship magazine was Masked by Covid – the underreported stories of 2020 which had been drowned out by the global public health emergency. There were simply too many for one edition of the magazine.

The news cycle has been dominated by Covid, Trump and Brexit with little else being able to break through. This in itself provided the ideal opportunity for leaders of repressive regimes to move against their citizens with impunity; after all the world wasn’t watching. But when you add the ‘legitimacy’ of emergency regulations to the mix under the guise of protecting the population against Covid, the perfect storm for repression and tyranny has been created.

When the virus spread last spring, Index started covering how it was affecting free speech around the world through a project called Disease Control. Documenting new legislation which closed local newspapers, new regulations which restricted or delayed access to government information, limitations on the free press, the end of the right to protest in numerous countries and arrests of political activists in dozens of countries.

As we all now await to be vaccinated and long for a return to normal, you would hope that maybe the dictators and authoritarian leaders, around the globe, would mitigate their actions knowing that the world might start to pay attention. Unsurprisingly that isn’t proving to be the case.

Only this week we have seen the Polish Government ban abortion, the Greek government propose a new university police force to deal with ‘trouble makers’ on campus and, in Russia, the coronavirus restrictions have been used as a cover to arrest Alexei Navalny’s allies – in the wake of his detention and the subsequent protests.

And it hasn’t just been Covid that has provided cover for oppression. In Turkey, on 27 December – when many of us were more focused on Netflix then the news – the government passed a new piece of anti-terrorism legislation, Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. I think most of us would welcome legislation that sought to stop the proliferation of WMDs.

Whilst this legislation has ostensibly been introduced to meet a United Nations Security Council counterterrorism resolution, unfortunately this new law actually goes well beyond that. It is an unfettered attack on civil society organisations across Turkey – with a clear emphasis on undermining those organisations which seek to protect minorities, especially the Kurdish population.

The legislation enables the Interior Ministry to replace board members of NGOs with state-appointed trustees. They can also suspend all operations and activities of an NGO if members are being prosecuted on terrorism charges – this would seem completely reasonable in many nation states, but as over 300,000 people are arrested for being a member of a terrorist group in Turkey every year, the definition of terrorist isn’t quite the global standard.

The legislation also gives the Governor’s office the right to undertake annual inspections of NGOs adding a new admin burden, international NGOs are also covered by new provisions and unsurprisingly financial assets and online donations to individual campaigns can be blocked by the government to “prevent terrorist financing and money laundering”.

Erdogan has just doubled down as an authoritarian leader and did so without global condemnation or even notice. It simply isn’t good enough…

All of these actions, and the many others from Hong Kong to Uganda, seek to cause division, undermine hope in the domestic population and entrench control. The world is getting smaller, technology means that we can know what is happening, as it happens, in every corner of the world. But too many people have stopped paying attention.

For Index it means that we have to double down and keep finding new ways to tell people’s stories so no one can claim ignorance.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]