Walls of silence still standing: Communism has collapsed, but censorship in its countless forms still demands our constant vigilance, argues Ursula Owen

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The Independent Online
AS YOU read this, on World Press Freedom Day, people in more than 50 countries can be imprisoned without charge or trial for saying what they believe in, or for being who they are. Torture is used in interrogation in more than 60 counties. In Algeria recently, five writers and journalists have been murdered to suppress opinions of which their critics disapprove. I have learnt many surprising things since I became editor of Index on Censorship, but perhaps the greatest surprise is how often I'm asked if there is still a role for the magazine in a post-Communist world.

Index on Censorship was founded in 1972 in the knowledge that freedom of expression is not self-perpetuating, but has to be maintained through constant vigilance. In founding the magazine, the poet and critic Stephen Spender was responding to an appeal from Pavel Litvinov, a young dissident Soviet physicist, that the West should protest against show trials of writers in Moscow.

In 1948 the Polish writer Jerzy Stempowski, reflecting on a kind of moral paralysis in the depths of the Cold War, wrote: 'News about executions and torture was accepted - especially in the West - with either disbelief or calm objectivity suitable for natural phenomena.'

To anyone working in the human rights field today, his statement sounds utterly familiar, for two reasons. Although this generation of Western Europeans has not itself been traumatised by direct or close exposure to horrors, it does have a daily diet on television of other people's horrors, and one result may be something like aid fatigue in its reaction to human rights violations.

But there is also the nave, though understandable, euphoria that followed 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and Communism collapsed in Europe: two generations had grown up in the shadow of the nuclear stand-off, and wanted to feel liberated into a brave new world. And yet, less than five years later, it seems extraordinary that we were ever tempted to think that things were going to be so different, so new and wonderful, that institutions like Index on Censorship might no longer be needed.

It was, after all, that same year that two cw-1fatwas were issued - one against Salman Rushdie, with the effect of a death sentence, the other in Egypt, where Naguib Mahfouz was excommunicated and called upon to repent having written his novel Gablawi's Children.

Anyone reading through issues of Index after 1989 will find, only too easily, hundreds more examples of the censorship of writers and journalists in every continent and a majority of countries in the world. Seventy-five journalists were killed in 1993 and the PEN Writers in Prison Committee works on behalf of more than 700 writers in 95 countries attacked or imprisoned mostly for what they write. The closely packed pages of 'Index Index', our running chronicle of censorship worldwide, provide abundant information that the whole range of tried and tested techniques, from assassination and imprisonment to the old blue pencil, are alive and well.

To pick almost at random from 26 pages of violations, the current file records the murder of a Brazilian newspaper owner involved in the critical investigation of local politicians; the sacking of 129 television journalists on programmes critical of the government in Hungary just before the elections; the imprisonment of two Chilean magazine editors for attacking the Supreme Court, and of the editor-in- chief of the Salam newspaper in Iran; closure of the Kosovo Academy of Arts and Sciences by Serbian officials; and the banning of an opposition magazine in Burundi - not to mention what has been turned up in our own Scott inquiry about the use of Public Interest Immunity certificates, and its implications for the right to know.

In 1993 there emerged a grim new trend. Last year was especially notable for the increasing number of disappearances and political assassinations. 'The contempt of governments for the rights of their citizens seems never to have been higher,' Caroline Moorehead, the human rights writer, observes. Still the old scourges - famine, illiteracy, poverty, war - in which censorship is always implicated, flourish. Indeed it has become clearer that censorship, and its soulmate, official lying, often helps to create them. 'The media have succeeded in legalising lies,' says author and journalist Dubravka Ugresic of her native Croatia. 'Lies have developed into a war strategy, and as such have rapidly become morally acceptable.'

But there are new sources of censorship. With the spread of authoritarian nationalism, there are at least 48 ethnic conflicts simmering, each involving silencing and censorship at many levels. Fundamentalisms of every variety - Islamic, Jewish, Christian - have evolved their own thought police. And there are the implications for free expression in the concentraton of media ownership, restricted access to technology and other hazards of the unmediated market economy.

The amplified power of the modern media is one ambiguity that any magazine dealing with free speech in the Nineties has to face. In fact, many of the most difficult debates about censorship, long postponed or evaded, are now unavoidable. There is the argument about racial hatred, for example. There are almost daily reports on the rise of the new right. The temptation to assert identity by intolerance of 'others' has led to xenophobia, racism and renewed anti-Semitism.

The conviction that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right is challenged not only, as the philosopher Ronald Dworkin says, 'by freedom's oldest enemies, but also by new enemies who claim to speak for justice, not tyranny' - who argue for censorship or restriction of absolute freedom of speech in the name of other values, including that of freedom from racial hatred.

There are many more such difficult issues: arguments about the relationship between screen and real-life violence; about the dangers of the international 'mass marketing' of news and opinion that consigns large, unprofitable areas of the world and their interests to outer darkness; arguments about the causes and nature of self-censorship. Have cultural sanctions in Serbia and Iraq been effective, and to what end? Should pornography be banned, and in what circumstances? And always: who decides? Index will be extending its role to become an arena for these debates.

The level at which censorship operates is most revealing of the health of a country's democracy. Index will continue its monitoring of free speech violations, its tradition of news analysis, its publishing of banned fiction and poetry, of personal witness. It will report rather more than before on restrictions to freedom of expression in developed countries. But it will also make space for voices not usually heard. Technology, for instance, has been liberating at many levels, but those who have no access to it are arguably more inaudible than ever. Women still struggle to have their perspectives heard. And excessive reliance on the market, so oversold as the essential motor of democracy in the past 15 years, produces another version of silencing.

In a fluid and confusing world, Index is as central an enterprise as any I can think of. Complacency on the issue of free expression endangers first individuals, but ultimately the freedom of communities. We may think, as other generations have thought, that the most serious violations are not our immediate problem, are happening in 'far away countries of which we know little'. But even in our own backyard, the right to know (that inseparable corollary of free expression) is, to say the least, not in the best of shapes. And in the last years of the 20th century there is no escape from the global village; we ignore these matters at our peril. Unless we are vigilant, they will come to haunt us.

The writer is editor and chief executive of 'Index on Censorship'. The magazine is relaunched today and is available from bookshops at pounds 6.99, or phone 071-278 2313.

(Photograph omitted)