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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Index on Censorship censors itself

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.


Ophelia Benson said...

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.

I think even that is not all that understandable - for the simple reason that the fear for the safety of staff is purely notional. As Klausen points out in the interview, there is no threat - there have been no threatening emails or messages of any kind. There's not really all that much reason to think there would be violence if the cartoons were republished in an academic book. The violence was worked up in the first place, and violence can always be worked up, but there is no particular reason to think it would be in this instance. Original publication of cartoons in a newspaper is one thing and reportorial republication in books and discussions of books is another. YUP and Index in fact are creating risk in the very act of warning about it.

mace said...

It's amazing that these self-appointed champions of free speech didn't realise that the price of liberty is considerably more than just vigilance,it usually requires courage.
This development is really alarming,it can only encourage the religious gangsters that currently plague our society.
I don't think that whether or not the members of this organisation are actually in danger is the point,after all, danger is an occupational hazard for defenders of liberty.