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Censorship in Shades of Black and Gray

John Kampfner, the head of the London-based Index on Censorship, discusses the threats to free expression in the world, from the dictator's muzzle to the playwright's pen.

The London-based Index on Censorship wanders the world in defense of freedom of expression, from repressive regimes where its contacts can't even name themselves publicly to courtrooms where Twittering wags face hard time. Founded to uphold basic freedom for writers being squashed by the then-Warsaw Pact nations, Index has evolved into a sprightly academic journal, a savvy website and a campaigner against abuses everywhere.

But John Kampfner, its chief executive since 2008, doesn't see these issues in the stark black and whites of so many campaigners for human rights, but more in grays, a monochromatic kaleidoscope in which there's no agreement whether free speech is a right at all, much less an inalienable one. He explained his approach and the good work on Index during a recent visit to Miller-McCune's office in California.

Before joining the Index on Censorship, Kampfner edited Britain's premier political magazine, the New Statesman from 2005-08, and has worked as a foreign correspondent, commentator, documentarian and author. His 2009 book, Freedom For Sale, reviews the trade-offs societies make in exchange for security or prosperity, a theme inspired by his hometown of Singapore. What exactly is Index on Censorship?

John Kampfner: Here is our mission statement: "Through our website, magazine, events and global projects, Index on Censorship is the principal place for intelligent, incisive work on free expression in the United Kingdom and worldwide."

So what that means in plain English is that we shine a light on all issues of censorship, and self-censorship, and free expression — and abuses and lack of free expression — wherever it occurs and in whatever form it occurs.

Breaking it down, I would put that very crudely into two categories. There is what I call black-and-white censorship or abuses of free expression, usually found in dictatorships or authoritarian countries or other countries where civil society is weak. That is the killing, or maiming, physical harming, false imprisonment or harassment of anyone seeking to hold truth to power. That could be a journalist, a blogger, an oppositionist, an activist, or an NGO, or a lawyer. Those are crude forms of intimidation or wrongful punishment or the like.

Then there's what I call the shades of gray areas, where modern society is struggling to cope with free expression and competing factors. And that could be anything around offense, around sensitivities such as race hate, religious hate, gender issues or that sort of thing. It could be issues of libel and defamation, it could be issues of privacy. It could be other dilemmas such as secrecy and national security and the integrity of the state, such as official secrets. It's all these issues, and it's also the issue of oxygen of publicity for extremist organizations or organizations that incite people to actions against minorities or anything else like that. These are the really difficult issues where there is no single opinion and where we seek to navigate and sometimes to mediate — but always with a presumption to free expression as an inalienable right.

M-M: Index was founded in 1972, during the Cold War. How has it changed, if it has changed, between then and 2010?

JK: Its core principles remain exactly the same — fighting censorship, fighting abuses — although the world that we inhabited in 1972, or that Index and similar organizations inhabited in 1972, was almost exclusively in the category of black-and-white issues of censorship as I described in my previous answer. There were countries that, to put it simply, promoted free speech, and countries that acted against it.

Where the modern version of Index has a new role, and I think a very challenging and difficult role, is in this new context, which I call the shades of gray. It pretty much did not exist back in 1972, when Index was founded mainly as an organization protesting against injustice in the Soviet space.


A lot of issues, such as the fatwa against The Satanic Verses, were defining issues of this current generation. That was almost the first such example of the new era. But in many ways, I feel it's a much tougher challenge, and it's a much more exciting challenge, one that makes us relevant to the lives of ordinary people in all societies where people are grappling with free expression issues.

John Kampfner

John Kampfner

For example, millions of people around the world were interested in the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, but they were not, unless you lived in Burma, affected by it. [But] issues about what you can say in a book, or in a theater, and what you can say in a phone-in chat show radio program, or what teenagers can or should say in a schoolyard, these are also free-expression issues. What rock bands or rappers can say in their lyrics, what comedians can and should say — these are all free-expression issues. And these are all shades of gray. And they're all very relevant to the here and now.

M-M: Would you argue that you or Index are extremists for free expression? Where would you place yourself on the spectrum?

JK: I certainly wouldn't argue that we're extremists in any shape or form. I would revile hugely from such a tag. We are passionate in the causes we espouse. We would not, however, even call ourselves free-speech fundamentalists, because once you accept that old cliché that you cannot shout fire in a crowded theater, then you are already navigating through difficult terrain. Now within our office, and among our stakeholders and our wider family, so to speak, there are different interpretations of how far the right to free expression trumps other concerns. I think everyone individually has their own different borderline — and those borderlines are constantly shifting.

For example, in the U.K., in the past couple of weeks, there have been two absolutely fascinating court and police cases around Twitter and two individuals who posted things on Twitter, one of whom was prosecuted and another who was arrested by the police. These were fascinating examples: Is a tweet actually a published item, should it therefore be regarded in exactly the same way as writing a book or writing a newspaper article? In both cases, these were really crass and stupid jokes which went wrong. But in our view, they were not relevant to the criminal justice system. But lawyers, journalists and ordinary members of the public would have different interpretations of these difficult issues.

I think that where your question was slightly leading was that in the United States, there is constitutionally, judicially and possibly societally a greater presumption toward free expression through the First Amendment than there is in the U.K. and most other societies. In the U.K., freedom of expression is one of competing rights, it is not an inalienable right. [Index] very much subscribes to the U.S.'s broad interpretation, through the First Amendment, that free expression is one of the most fundamental, inalienable rights.

M-M: You've said in the past that you don't "score" nations, but in that scoring sense, are you more concerned about nations with black-and-white abuses or about developed nations backsliding what they claim are their core beliefs?

JK: They are part of the same thing. They genuinely are. I'm not equating them, I'm not suggesting moral equivalence, but they are all part of the work that we do. One of the theses of my book was how we in the West, but also around the world, are increasingly willing to trade our liberties in return for either prosperity or security. We do so at our peril, but we do so increasingly casually. One of the things I was seeking to do was to differentiate between what I call 21st-century authoritarian state and 20th-century dictatorships. I would put Burma and North Korea very much in the category of old-fashioned, 20th-century dictatorships, where there is no subtlety. There are men in dark glasses on street corners and people get bundled away; it is a very old-fashioned rule by the barrel of a gun.

The more intriguing 21st-century authoritarian countries are seeking to trade certain liberties, what I call "private freedoms," which are distinctive from public freedoms. For example, if you live in Russia or China, as long as you don't "cause trouble," you have far greater private freedoms than you ever did during the Cold War: freedom to travel, to own property, to run your own business, to choose education for your children, to choose different forms of health care, whatever, freedoms that were previously denied. What is interesting is how those societies are navigating through an authoritarian mindset through free-expression issues.

For example, in China, there is a reasonable modicum of free expression around economic journalism and economic writing, and to a degree around cultural journalism and cultural writing. Where there is none, as you are completely aware, is on core political questions around the supremacy of the communist party or on exhortations to multi-party democracy, that sort of thing. The control of the international blogosphere in China is an authoritarian one, but it is not a complete one. So there is constant navigating, turning the tap on, turning the tap off. It's what I call the Singapore model, writ large.

Across the world, from the darkest dictatorial countries through to the authoritarian ones, all the way through Western countries, there are all manner of different approaches towards free expression. For example, Britain had among the world's worst dictatorial, draconian libel laws. However, we are less strict on issues of privacy. If you look at France, they have quite draconian laws on privacy, and how you're not supposed to invade the privacy of public figures or individuals, but they have more relaxed defamation laws. In other countries, laws are stronger on outlawing race or racial offense through the written or spoken word than others. So, there isn't a one-size-fits-all template for any country, whatever its system.

M-M: If the world's population was given a straight up or down vote on the Singapore model, in your heart of hearts, do you think they would vote for that model?

JK: You've gone straight to the crux of the dilemma that I posit in my book. I would love to say to you that no, they wouldn't, but I'm not as confident of this as I might be.

M-M: I think in the United States, in the wake of 9/11, we would flock to the Singaporean model, although we'd have to have it renamed; someone would have to do a little marketing.

JK: Absolutely. What's been explained to me, and what I find fascinating about the Singapore model, [is how] Singapore academics and people who are extremely well educated and very, very well traveled, who have seen and lived through the many alternatives, proselytize for the model. Some of them argue, and I think completely speciously and erroneously, that there is a sort of genetic issues around paternalism and East Asian values, and all this stuff. I don't buy any of that for a minute. I think these issues are universal, and they are not regional specific or cultural or ethnic at all. Where I think it is interesting is in the level of comfort or stability that a country has previously experienced, which is the "freedom from" issue.

Now if you are in Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, would you rather have stability or free speech? It's absolutely clear you go for the former, because there is no liberty where there is no basic security. If you can't walk the streets for fear of being chopped down by a machete, then free-speech issues are secondary. It is quite legitimate to say that the first role of the state is to provide the basic rudiments of security, stability, order and civil society. From that, these other freedoms stem. But our standards are not particularly high for that, and once we have achieved those things — and most countries have — then there is no hiding behind the essential needs of the public. But unfortunately, that's not the way that many people see it.

M-M: Would you say that your views, or the views of Index, have created enemies?

JK: Any organization that speaks out, that sees injustices in its own terms and seeks to address them, produces critics or adversaries. I'm not sure I would say there are any sort of blood-thirsty enemies towards. Obviously, in certain countries, it's very difficult for us to operate, and sometimes we have to work below the radar. One of our main concerns in dictatorial states is not to implicate our partners on the ground and get them into trouble.

Now our campaign, which has been extraordinarily successful, almost a model of NGOs operating collaboratively, to change the English libel laws, which will have a major effect on the United States and on all countries, that made us enemies. There are claimant lawyers and law firms in the U.K. and around the world who would love to continue defending oligarchs and others seeking to chill free speech. They don't like NGOs or other people they consider to be upstarts to be dominating the airwaves persuading politicians to change the law. If that's the case, then we're quite happy to be defined by that.

M-M: Tell me more about the libel reform campaign.

JK: It's the single most important project we've done over the last 12 months. Basically, we and our colleagues at English PEN, the U.K. branch of international PEN, and a mall NGO that deals with the free speech of scientists called Sense about Science, we came together to launch the Libel Reform Coalition on Nov. 10, 2009. Without sounding self-congratulatory, three NGOs have pretty much turned around one of the most hidebound bodies of law that exists in this country, and a body of law that has had pretty major international repercussions.

English libel law had some of the most restrictive law on what you could say, on defense of responsible journalism, the defense of fair comment. The cost regime was astronomical; if you were defending yourself, a claimant's law firm could basically string out the case for many years and basically destroy a small organization through cash flow. And even where you defended and you won, you would never recover full costs. So newspapers and magazines that absolutely were endorsed by the courts at the end of a long legal procedure often ended up nearly penniless out of pocket.

What tended to happen was two things. One, publishers — and not just publishers, it was individuals, bloggers, NGOs, soccer fan clubs, everybody — settled out of court. They apologized, even when they had nothing to apologize for, just because the cost of defending yourself would be prohibitive. So the vast majority of these cases never went to court.

At the same time, such was the reputation of English courts that the rich and the powerful around the world would use courts in London to sue other, third-country nationals in English courts. So you had bizarre cases. In one, a Ukrainian oligarch sued a Ukrainian blogger who wrote in Ukrainian in Ukraine. He was sued in an English court because the claimant happened to have a home in London and therefore he said he had a reputation to defend. "Libel tourism" was described by a U.K. parliamentary committee as a national humiliation. This pressure that we brought about we hope will mean England is no longer a laughingstock around the world.

M-M: What would you identify as the newest threats to free expression?

JK: A fascinating threat which is relatively new is the issue of artistic censorship and free expression, especially around issues of racial and religious offense. I was doing a seminar ... with theater directors, theater managers, visual arts companies, visual arts galleries, and they were telling me amazing stories of how they wouldn't show a particular piece of art, they would not commission a particular play, and in the case of a couple of plays in the U.K., they were actually taken off the stage in a few days because of public protests. In one case, the police actually ordered a play to be abandoned, citing public order issues. With local authorities here, and with police and public prosecutors around, [we're] trying to get some sort of modus operandi around how do you deal with these issues. If a local group complains it is being offended by a particular play, what tends to happen is that the local authority and the local police just act of their own volition. We want to set some sort of national standards to get some sense of accountability and transparency and consistency, again with a presumption toward free speech.

The other area that I would say is new is social networking. There are very clear and established laws, whether you like them or not, in most countries around old media. But pretty much every country's legal establishment struggles to cope with the Internet, and not just the Internet, but social networks. If you tweet something, or you put something up on your Facebook site, is it a published document in the same way a newspaper article is? And if it is, and currently courts seem to be interpreting it that way, will people realize that, and should that be the case?