Monthly Discussion: Censorship part 2

We’re continuing our discussion of censorship this month with the next installment of a series on the history and modern expression of censorship. This series was written for us by Michelle A. Tisdel, Research Librarian at the National Library of Norway and Coordinator of Beacon for Freedom of Expression, an international bibliographic database about censorship and freedom of expression. You can find the first installment of this series here.

Words, ideas and expression: Objects of censorship

The focus of censorship is ideas in all of its forms. Article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The objects of censorship vary in form but are consistent in content. Opinion and expression are ideas and their carriers are virtually all forms of communication and expression. Literature, music, film, visual arts, and other forms of expression are the bearers of ideas, represent human effort and are thus extensions of individuals and groups. New forms of communication have created new objects of censorship. Over the past decade, censorship of the internet and more recently social media services has been on the rise. Internet filtering refers to limiting the content available on the internet, whereas blocking refers to limiting access to existing content on the internet. Today censorship applies to online content such as newspapers, blogs, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, in addition to printed books, newspapers, television and radio broadcasts. The object of censorship is still the word, ideas and information, no matter if the words are expressed as a novel, history text, news story, music, photographs, film or video.

Why glocality?

The flow of information and ideas across borders and regions is an important dimension of globalization. The global dimensions of information sharing, interpretation, and preservation are vast and complex. How fast information spreads within and across borders allows us to feel that the world has become smaller and that we are perhaps, more than before, living in a global community.

Local library collections are global in scope. This is an aspect of being integrated in global markets and global flows of knowledge and information sharing. Access to the internet, improvements in technology, increased travel and transnational networks have enriched library collections. In the midst of increased flows of information and the diversification of library collections, it is important to be aware of censorship.

Foreign literature, films and newspapers, among other materials are not only reflections of the global flow of information, but also reflect the global flow of people and transnational lives. As an U.S. citizen living and working at the National Library of Norway, transnationalism and global flows are a part of my daily professional and person life. Focusing on international censorship locally can create opportunities for dialogue and informal learning about similarities and differences between different countries and historical periods.

Information, ideas and the library

The library’s main tasks are preserving, archiving, and providing access to information. It is also a place where new knowledge emerges, making it a productive institution. This makes the library a symbol for the free flow of ideas and freedom of expression. The services of the library help to create informed citizens and thus the library is important to anti-censorship work. As Jeffrey Garrett notes in a review of books about the destruction of libraries –also referred bibliocide, bibliocaust or biblioclasm—the library is not only society’s “soft” symbolic infrastructure. The library is closely related to its content and services. As an institution dedicated to access to information, the library is an ideal institution for promoting censorship awareness and freedom of expression.

The increased speed and flow of information means that in many ways more knowledge is more globalized than before. That is, more knowledge is available to more people than in previous historical periods. Consequently, the censorship of information has also taken on a global aspect. This offers an extended role and challenge for the international librarian. In order to raise awareness about censorship and its glocality it is important to have access to relevant information about censorship in a global perspective.

Keeping in mind that glocality refers to local manifestations of global issues, we can think about censorship at home as well as abroad, what is similar and different. Knowing what has been censored at home—in one’s own country or region—is the first step. The second step is perhaps to become familiar with what has been censored in other places. Were specific novels, songs, movies or artists targeted in a particular region or historical period? We can stay alert for examples of censorship that start local and become glocal.

What are the glocal implications of censorship?

In the library, we have access to the world in one place, so to speak. More and more there are opportunities to read the same literature, see the same film and television programs and experience the same events. At the same time, having more access to information about the world highlights differences in the world more than before. Although we increasingly have access to similar cultural products and information, we often interpret and understand experiences from our local and national perspectives. Like ideas and values, books, films and other cultural expressions can create different reactions in different places. Thus, because there are varying limits and conditions for freedom of expression in different societies, there are different kinds of censorship and different censorship practices around the world.

Salman Rushdie, image used under CC from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salman_Rushdie_in_New_York_City_2008.jpg

Salman Rushdie, image used under CC from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salman_Rushdie_in_New_York_City_2008.jpg

The Rushdie Affair

The Rushdie Affair is perhaps the most well-known example of the glocal implications of censorship. At the centre of the international controversy was Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie and his novel The Satanic Verses, published in September 1988 by Viking Penguin. In October 1988, the Indian Finance Ministry banned the novel. A few weeks later, the South African government also banned the book after protests from religious organizations. Religious organizations in the UK also wanted Rushdie to withdraw the book because of “objectionable passages”. In November of the same year Bangladesh and Sudan banned the book; Sri Lanka followed, banning the book in December. In January 1989 Muslim critics in Bradford, Yorkshire burned a copy of The Satanic Verses, drawing further worldwide attention to their dissatisfaction. Pakistan banned the novel in February 1989 and nearly a week later one person was killed and 100 injured in riots in Kashmir. When 2000 protesters charged the US Embassy in Islamabad, the police retaliated; five people were killed and more than 100 were injured. On February 14, 1989 Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa—a death sentence—for Rushdie and his publishers. Rushdie and is family went into hiding and were placed under armed protection. Around the world there were protests, reactions and even several deaths. In July 1991 Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the novel, was murdered in Tokyo. That same year Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was stabbed in Milan. Later in October 1993, William Nygaard, Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses was shot and his attackers never were identified.

The Rushdie Affair has become a symbol of global censorship and the global campaign against it. The case includes every conceivable form of censorship, direct, indirect, self-censorship, intimidation and violence. One book was the thread that joined together individuals, events, and different ideas across borders. Criticism of Rushdie was global; however there was also global support for the author. The International Rushdie Defence Committee was started in London, just a few days after the death order was issued in 1989, but within a short time, there were national committees in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United States. In many regions there were local effects of this global controversy. Nearly than 25 years later, the Rushdie Affair is still a symbol of censorship in a globalized world and, I argue, glocality or the local effects of global issues.

Sadly, there are many examples of censorship leading to severe persecution and forced exile. In 1994, just a few years into the Rushdie Affair, Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin went into hiding after widespread protests and receiving death threats because of her novel Lajja (Shame) (1993), which was later banned in Bangladesh and India.

Anti-censorship and freedom of expression

By adopting a global perspective one can work locally to raise awareness about censorship and freedom of expression as global issues. Global anti-censorship and freedom of expression organizations collect data, write policy documents, and offer support to national and regional organizations. Their work highlights the common challenges of censorship. I would like to mention two of notable organizations because they illustrate glocality in unique ways.

PEN International

PEN international, founded in 1921, promotes writing and freedom of expression. It is an organization for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors and novelists, and has more than 20,000 members in more than 100 countries. The international charter is implemented by the more than 100 national PEN centres around the world. PEN has been active on the international stage promoting censorship and as early as 1933 publicly opposed the burning of books in Germany under the Nazi regime. PEN campaigns for persecuted and imprisoned writers all over the world. “Whatever we do and wherever it takes place, we aim to connect the individual to the international, and to connect cultures and languages to readers and writers wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.” The organization’s structure and work illustrate glocality, connecting localities to global issues and processes.

International Cities of Refuge Network

ICORN, International Cities of Refuge Network, describes an association of cities around the world that provide a persecuted “guest writer” with a safe place to stay and work for a period of time. ICORN guest writers include poets, journalists, cartoonists and translators are from around the world, including Kenya, Yemen, Zimbabwe, Iran, Nagaland, India, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Serbia, Syria, China and Bangladesh, among other places. More than 40 cities in approximately 14 countries are in the network. According to ICORN, “The ICORN member cities and their guest writers connect in a global network of solidarity, creativity and mutual interaction.” The work of ICORN is an example of thinking globally and acting locally to address censorship and exile as a global issue. Just because a book, newspaper, website or musical artist, is available in your library does not mean that it is available in other parts of the world, in the country of publication or the author’s home country.

This is the second installment in our series on censorship. Below are our suggestions of questions you could discuss with your partner:

  • Does your library have a policy regarding censorship?
  • Do you feel libraries have a “glocal” obligation to highlight instances of censorship?
  • How would you feel about including something in your collection that you personally found offensive?
  • Have you previously encountered PEN or ICORN? What do you think of the work they do?

We hope this gives you plenty of material to discuss with your partner, and we encourage you to share your views in the comments below. If you’d like to take the discussion to Twitter remember to use the hashtag #InterLibNet. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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  1. Pingback: Censorship discussion with my ILN partner #InterlibNet | Karen's 23 Mobile Things

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