Friday, 18 December 2009

Censorship row at Index on Censorship

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The campaigning magazine and organisation Index on Censorship, the most reliable and pugnacious monitor of abuses against freedom of expression, has become involved in an internal censorship row of its own. It came about when they published an interview in their December issue with Jytte Klausen, author of The Cartoons That Shook The World, about the fact that Yale, who published the book, declined to include the very cartoons the book was about. A clear and pretty stupid act of censorship which we, and Index, denounced.

Now a similar row has erupted inside Index over the decision taken by their board (with one dissension) not to republish any of the cartoons to accompany the interview with Klausen. Unusually Index have made this debate public - first by publishing a statement by chair Jonathan Dimbleby explaining why they did not include the cartoons (it comes down to staff safety) and second publishing a response from the dissenting member of the board (who was not at the meeting in question), Kenan Malik, deploring the decision.

Being the editor of a magazine that makes critical and satirical comments about many religions, and having written a book on the subject this year, I know too well what a thorny issue this is - staff safety does matter, as does the question of context. I can't say for sure what I - or my board - would do in these circumstances. But for a magazine whose very mission is to oppose censorship, who are publishing a piece precisely about the craven way in which Yale dropped the cartoons from a book where they would have clearly been relevant, on the basis of the possibility of a threat and no more (as Kenan points out), just seems... well very worrying. In particular it will provide grist to the mill of fuckwits who bang on about liberal double standards and cowardice (you can just feel the 'You couldn't make it up' headlines being mocked up by hacks countrywide) and threatens to damage the reputation of a very important organisation at a time when we need them most.

I wonder if the Index board read the statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship (they should have as it was cross posted on the Index site. Specifically this bit:
"The incident at Yale provides an opportunity to re-examine our commitment to free expression. When an [academic] institution of such standing asserts the need to suppress scholarly work because of a theoretical possibility of violence ['somewhere in the world'], it grants legitimacy to censorship and casts serious doubt on their, and our, commitment to freedom of expression in general, and academic freedom in particular."
This is precisely Kenan Malik's point and I wonder if in this case a different, dare one say braver, stand on this kind of issue wouldn't have provided a better example. If Index won't take a stand against implied threats for perfectly legitimate acts, who will?

I hope that it doesn't blow up and get ugly (though I fear it might), and I commend them for making this public.

(... although this is a serious matter I couldn't help but be amused by what Dimbleby implies in this sentence: "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." Which means that someone within Index tried to justify the publication of the cartoons on the basis that no one but a few anoraks (meaning their own readers) would notice.)


Anonymous said...

It is both tragic & farcical.
A proud Western liberal organisation has been
cowed by reactionary bullies representing a strand
of Islam that has held that religion & its followers/victims back 1,000 years.

If you're against censorship, don't practice it.

I seem to remember IAS has behaved like this before
in the face of "Palestinian" pressure, though I may be wrong

MouthAlmighty said...

"A proud Western liberal organisation has been
cowed by reactionary bullies representing a strand
of Islam that has held that religion & its followers/victims back 1,000 years."

I don't think that's actually the case here. It's much worse than that - this is an act of _self_ censorship. No warnings, no threats - just the 'potential' for such. Index should know better than most that when you start gagging yourself 'just in case' then the bullies' job is done.

Sherry Jones said...

That's right, the terrorists really ARE winning. If the New Humanist ever follows suit, we can all just go to Hell in a handbasket.

Very discouraging. But we have to keep fighting the good fight. See my blog post:

Sherry Jones
author, "The Jewel of Medina" and "The Sword of Medina"

Ophelia Benson said...

It's not even the terrorists who are winning in this instance, it's people who want to pre-empt the assorted rage boys by predicting violence and then not doing the thing which they predict might cause violence. At that rate we all might as well just give up the attempt to write anything whatsoever!

lijuan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DavidMWW said...

As a matter of interest, has the New Humanist ever published a Mohammed cartoon, either on this blog or in the print mag?

DavidMWW said...

(Serious question. You're not going to make me flip through all my back issues of NH or click back through this entire blog, are you?)

DavidMWW said...

I'll take that as a "no" then, shall I?