Crying 'freedom' from Islington

'Index on Censorship' has fought for free speech since 1968. Now it wants to become truly international. Nicole Veash talks to the editor
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In August 1968 Pavel Litvinov, a young Russian physicist, sent a letter to The Times asking the West to protest against dissident show trials.

This one letter, which the Soviet scientist later described as "a sealed bottle thrown overboard by a man on a sinking ship", prompted the formation of Index on Censorship magazine four years later.

When it was launched, by the poet Stephen Spender, the Communist bloc was iron-strong. Thought and word censorship were commonplace and Index was able to carve out a role as vigilant guardian of the written word.

Times change. The magazine, now published bi-monthly, still operates under the mantle of freedom of expression but it does so in a radically different world, as the editor, Ursula Owen, admits.

"Human rights are complicated stuff," she says. "In the past Index focused on eastern Europe, but after the fall of Communism we had to find a new role for ourselves."

The co-founder of the feminist publishing company Virago is talking on the eve of Unesco's World Press Freedom Day. Index always gets rolled out at this time of year, perhaps to placate fellow colleagues in the media. As long as we know that someone, somewhere, is doing something to safeguard press freedom, we can sit tight and sit back. However honourable its intentions, Index is a lone voice, an anomaly, a blip in the British media.

"We are seen as a British magazine by the rest of the world, but we aim to be international," says Owen.

And therein lies the nub. Index, a London-based magazine, wants to be international - after all, most serious freedom of speech issues occur abroad. The question for Owen and her staff of 14, is this: is Britain, and the British media, the right place for Index?

Yang Lian is sitting in a corner of Index's cramped Islington office. The 43-year-old Chinese writer-in-exile is ideal Index material.

"I was very happy when I found Index after eight years in exile," he says quietly, shaking his long, black hair as he speaks. "The magazine allows those who are silenced by their governments to speak out, and it serves as a reminder that they are supported by a much bigger world."

As Owen explains: "I think Index makes a difference to people in the developing world, and those like Lian. They respond to what we are, and it is comforting for them to feel they are being written about."

Each issue of the magazine has an "Index Index" column, which chronicles ways in which freedom of expression is being limited or denied to journalists. It is not a comprehensive review, but rather a reminder that in countries as far apart as Azerbaijan and Fiji journalists are being attacked, intimidated and imprisoned. It also provides moving testament to ways in which journalists can come under siege.

Index is sent hundreds of letters from journalists around the world in response to this column. In one, Kalid Mohammed, an Ethiopian journalist, writes in broken English: "I hope the future is the best for my friends at Index." With this hand-written letter he attaches a photograph of himself and journalist colleagues standing on a sandy African street holding copies of the magazine.

In an international sense, then, Index's position as a voice for the silenced is assured. At home, things are different.

"At the end of the Eighties the magazine seemed to lose its way," says Owen. "It is very easy when dealing with human rights issues to get lots of pious journalism, but that is something I am strongly against."

Although Owen has trebled sales to 10,000 per issue since taking charge in 1994, she admits that trying to persuade British reporters of the importance of journalists' rights in, say, Malawi, is difficult.

"Many in the West wanted to know about Russian dissidents because they were in tune with their intellectual heritage," she says. "But it is hard to interest people when they have no links to a particular country."

For British journalists, Index appears to be wanting. It is hard to garner interest in the plight of fellow international journalists - perhaps something to do with the navel-gazing attitude of the British media - and the magazine has little resonance for people working in this country.

Most would not expect to be gunned down or locked up without recourse to justice, for exposing dodgy governmental dealing. There is no obvious curb on our freedom to write more or less what we ought to be writing. We have other minor constraints: the lack of a Freedom of Information Act; section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act, which requires journalists to reveal their sources or face imprisonment; the domination of the media by companies such as News International. But, although important, these are by no means as serious as the threats Index has to deal with.

Owen's own analogy works best. "We are read by some media people in Islington," she says, "but we wouldn't be touched by those in Sutton.

"I've often thought about producing more editions based on British issues, like the one we did on Diana and privacy, but there are so many other pressing things to write about."

Index is small and marginal and, unsurprisingly, lacks cash. But its journalists pride themselves on talking to the silenced voices and getting to the stories behind the ones published in the mainstream media.

"The point is," says Owen, "to make people read us. We don't want to be talking solely to the converted.

"I hope we make a difference to British journalists, but I don't know whether we do. A number use us as a sounding-board for stories, so we have some effect.

"But in the end, if we are lone outsiders, that's fine by me."

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