The respected free speech organisation Index on Censorship has chosen to censor itself by declining to publish any of the notorious Danish cartoons of Muhammad to illustrate an interview conducted by Jo Glanville with professor Jytte Klausen, author of a scholarly monograph The Cartoons That Shook the World. Over Klausen's protests, her publisher, Yale University Press, published the book with no illustrations of Muhammad - and hence with none of the cartoons that are its subject matter.
Of course, self-censorship is not state censorship. Individuals or organisations may choose to exercise this kind of discretion for all sorts of reasons, and when they do so it is not the same as if state power forced them to do so, with orders backed by threats of prisons and policemen. The justifiable fear of being silenced and stigmatised by the might of the state is not directly in issue here. In each case, it is understandable to an extent that a relatively small organisation, with limited security resources, has acted out of fear for the safety of staff.
Understandable, but most unfortunate. It is very regrettable when academic organisations, such as Yale University Press, and free speech advocacy organisations, such as Index on Censorship, go down such a path. It all contributes to a climate in which some speech becomes out of bounds as a result of the intolerance of its opponents, a very small minority of whom are violent (like the murderer of Theo van Gogh ... in another episode where Index on Censorship failed to distinguish itself as a consistent defender of free speech).
For more discussion - all of it reasoned and thoughtful - see these pieces, by Sherry Jones and Kenan Malik respectively.
As Malik says of Index on Censorship (of which he is a board member): "After all, we cannot in good conscience criticise others for taking decisions that we ourselves have taken and for the same reasons." How can the organisation consistently criticise Yale University Press, and other organisations that have taken the cowardly path of self-censorship, when it has been just as remiss?
Index on Censorship describes itself in glowing terms:
Index on Censorship is Britain’s leading organisation promoting freedom of expression. With its global profile, its website provides up-to-the-minute news and information on free expression from around the world.
Perhaps so, but its credibility is badly damaged every time it takes a stand that undermines freedom of expression, as it has in this case ... and, as mentioned above, not for the first time. Is it worth persevering with this organisation if it can't develop more consistent principles or a bit more spine? Malik evidently thinks so, for now. But all the good will it has built up over the years is starting to leak away like water.