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Index on Self Censorship?

Sunday 20 December 2009, by siawi2


By Faisal | Published: December 19, 2009

An internal debate at Index on Censorship has gone public. The new edition of the magazine carries an interview with Jytte Klausen about her book on the Danish cartoons controversy and the kerfuffle with Yale University Press which at the last minute refused to publish them. Jo Glanville (editor of Index on Censorship) wanted to publish one of the cartoons to illustrate the interview.

The board of IoE refused Glanville and decided not to publish. Here is one of the leading free speech organizations censoring itself on an issue over which it has been highly critical of other organizations. Kenan Malik, a Board member, was not present at the meeting when this matter was decided but, rightly, kicked up a stink when he found out what had gone on. He agreed not to resign so long as this did not remain simply an internal debate.

IoC published the interview with a statement from its Chairman of the Board, Jonathan Dimbleby:

Against that background, I consulted every colleague (including those who had not been able to attend the relevant board meeting). With the exception of two board members (one of whom was content to abide by the overwhelming majority view) my colleagues argued strongly against publication. To summarise our common view: re-publication of the cartoons would put at risk the security of our staff and others which, on balance, could not be justified on “freedom of expression†grounds alone. The idea that no one except a handful of like-minded anoraks would notice their appearance in Index seemed to us to be at best naïve.

Index is not a coterie of fundamentalists who enjoy preaching to the converted in a vacuum of purist invisibility. We have a greater vision and purpose, which is to reach out to those in the United Kingdom and elsewhere who are not yet aware of how vital freedom of expression is to an open society and how easily and rapidly it can be eroded.

Kenan Malik, the only Board member who argued against the Trustees of the IoC, had this to say:

Index on Censorship has in recent years chronicled many instances of what we’ve called “pre-emptive censorship†: the willingness to censor material because of fear either of causing offence or of unleashing violence. From the Deutsche Oper cancelling a production of Idomeneo to Random House dropping The Jewel of Medina to Yale University Press’s refusal to publish the cartoons in Jytte Klausen’s book, the list is depressingly long. It is a development that, writing in the magazine last year, I described as “the internalisation of the fatwa†.

It is both disturbing and distressing to find Index on Censorship itself now on that list. I profoundly disagree not just with the decision to censor the cartoons but also with the reasons for doing so: that publication may have endangered staff and was “unnecessary†and, indeed, would have been “gratuitous†.

The safety of Index’s staff is, of course, hugely important. But where was the threat? Index certainly received none because no one knew that we were going to publish. Nor is there any reason to believe that there would have been danger had the cartoons not been pre-emptively censored. Islamic scholar Reza Aslan, describing Yale’s original decision as “idiotic†, pointed out that he has “written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction†. And, as Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, observed in an article in the Guardian earlier this year critical of Random House, pre-emptive censorship often creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy†. In assuming that an “offensive†work will invite violence one both entrenches the idea that the work is offensive and helps create a culture that makes violence more likely.

The question, which Malik pointedly asks, is whether IoC now believe if Deutsche Oper, Random House, Yale University Press (and myriad others) were right to censor? Was this Index on Censorship scoring a surreal own-goal? Or does its Board have the right to decide for themselves not to become martyrs for Freedom of Expression for the benefit of the rest of us? Either way, reacting to a manufactured pre-emptive threat with self-censorship reeks of the smell of fear.

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