Banned books and other forms of censorship

On the banning of books, censorship and other freedom of access issues

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

News from IFEX

It is difficult to keep up with all the stories of censorship and the banning of literature around the world, which in itself is rather depressing. What I offer here is only the tip of the iceberg. There are organizations which provide more comprehensive coverage than I can possibly do with this modest blog. One of the most notable is the International Freedom of Expression eXchange, IFEX, which is a clearing house for reports from various human rights groups around the world. Here are some stories from its website just for today:

- Nepal: "Journalists flee workplaces following threats, various journalists attacked, two issued death threats as social agitation continues; FNJ denounces indifference of authorities.."

- Côte d'Ivoire - "Newspaper journalist held for five days by Abidjan gendarmes.."

- Thailand: "Newspaper office hit by two small bombs.."

- Sri Lanka: "Internet access and 8,000 telephone lines blocked in Jaffna Peninsula.."

- Colombia: "Newspaper in Barranquilla forbidden to report on case of alleged municipal corruption and paramilitary ties.."

- Peru: "Mayor's assistant threatens to kill journalist and his family for critical reporting on city's administration.."

Finally, there is the arrest of the Uzbekistan human rights activist, which I discuss in more detail in the entry below.

Uzbekistan arrests human rights activist

Umida Niazova, 32, a human rights activist with Veritas and translator for Human Rights Watch, was arrested Jan. 22 near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, in what appears to be retaliation for her human rights work. According to HRW, she now faces "charges of bringing 'extremist' literature across the border (article 246 of the Uzbek criminal code, which is punishable by five to 10 years of imprisonment) and illegal border crossing (article 223, which is punishable by a fine or up to five to 10 years). It is not clear that actions allegedly committed by Niazova form the basis of these charges." Her laptop computer has also been confiscated.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Iraq librarians carry on amidst violence

The British Library has posted at its website the diary (Nov. 2006-Jan. 2007) of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, describing the perilous violence he and his colleagues have had to endure while while trying to keep the library and archive open. At the webpage there is also a message of support from Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library:

"I am not sure that anyone here can possibly appreciate just how perilous and intolerable a situation you and your colleagues were operating under in the interest of keeping the National Library and Archive open. The thoughts and prayers of everyone here at the British Library go out to you and all your colleagues at this very difficult time. Your safety must be absolutely paramount. We hope that the situation will soon improve and that you will be able to continue your important mission. I hope this message of support from the British Library might in some way sustain you during these dark times."

Venezuela television station to close

Venezuela president Hugo Chavez has announced that the leading independent television station in the country will not have its license renewed, and hence will be closed in May. Chavez accused the station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), of spreading disinformation and broadcasting soap operas which violate the government restrictions under its 2004 media law against sex and violence. "It's hard to imagine a more obvious case of censorship," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch. "President Chavez decided to punish the television channel because he doesn't approve its editorial line." Although there are still other opposition media in the country, RCTV was the largest private television station on the country and most widely viewed; its closure will likely cripple the expression of opposition or independent views in the country. Chicago Tribune reporter Richard Marx contrasted RCTV with state-sponsored media:

"Programming on the state's longtime flagship station, Venezolana de Television, often resembles a giant campaign ad for Chavez and his populist policies. One spot broadcast last week equated capitalism with misery and hate, while praising socialism as embodying equality and collectivism."

Friday, January 26, 2007

Government secrecy vs. free press

The First Amendment Center has released an interesting report on historic and current tensions in the United States between the perceived need for government secrecy and freedom of the press. As summarized in a press release, "The report surveys the limits on what public employees can legally tell the press and public, discusses criminal punishment for publication of classified material, and considers the 'who is a journalist?' question in terms of who might be protected from government subpoenas by a so-called 'shield law.'" The report is titled, Government Secrecy vs. Freedom of the Press, by Geoffrey R. Stone, a University of Chicago law professor.

North Korea protests internet censorship

North Korea has protested the blocking of about 30 of its internet websites in South Korea, including its official news agency, KCNA, reports Jurist Legal News and Research. The protest certainly has an ironic twist, given that North Korea is the most closed society on the planet, ranked at the very bottom in the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders. Nevertheless, it is a valid objection on free speech grounds. Furthermore, allowing access to official propaganda websites from North Korea is not likely to stir popular upheaval in South Korea.

EU official urges criminalizing holocaust denial

European Union Freedom, Security and Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini has urged the 27 EU nations to adopt laws criminalizing denials of the Holocaust and incitement of hatred and racial violence. Jurist Legal News and Research reports:

"Frattini said that proposed minimum prison sentences for individuals who deny the Holocaust or incite racial violence or hatred would not contravene the European Convention of Human Rights [text]. Germany has already announced its intent to pursue the proposal [JURIST report], which has previously been blocked due to freedom of expression concerns, as part of its platform [PDF test in German] for the 2007 EU presidency [official website]. Several EU countries have taken steps to criminalize Holocaust denial at the national level - the Italian cabinet approved a draft bill [JURIST report] to that effect Thursday, and it is currently illegal to deny the Holocaust in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Spain."

My opinion: it is a very bad idea to make it a crime to deny any historical fact, no matter how absurd or malicious may be the denial. It does indeed curb freedom of speech.

Ban on global warming film lifted

The Federal Way school district in Washington state has lifted a two-week ban on the showing of Al Gore's documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, but with the proviso that if the film is shown opposing views on global warming must also be presented. The controversy began when the district distributed a newsletter notifying teachers about free copies of the film for use in classrooms, but some parents objected.

A seventh grade science teacher of this district was informed by her principal that she would receive a disciplinary letter for attempting to show this film. She was told she was not following school board rules that require her to seek written permission to present "controversial" materials in class, according to an article by Blaine Harden of the Washington Post.

Associated Press reports that in Yakima, "members of Eisenhower High School's Environmental Club had planned last week to show the film after school, but the school's principal put the brakes on the screening when she heard about the plans."

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bahrain: Two convicted for disseminating "subversive" literature

Two individuals in Bahrain face sentencing of up to seven years imprisonment for downloading with intent to distribute literture calling for a boycott of the country's upcoming election. International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) reports:

On November 16, 2006, Dr M. Al Sahlawi (Dentist, age 35) and Mr. H. Al Hebshi (Insurance sales executive, age 32) were arrested by Bahraini authorities after being found in possession of a publication deemed by the authorities to be "subversive literature". This publication, downloaded from the Internet, called on Bahrainis to boycott the parliamentary elections held in November 2006.

Dr. Al Sahlawi and Mr. Al Hebshi had arranged for 1500 copies of the publication to be made and they intended to share it with others. Their expression of support for the ideas contained in the publication was deemed by the Bahraini Public Prosecution to be "favouring and promoting regime change by illegal means, without legitimate reason" and "spreading news and false provocative rumors, which would cause disruptions of public security and damage general interest".

As such, the two men face charges of crimes related to State Security under the Bahraini Penal Code no. 15 of 1976. (The Code has been severely criticized by human rights organizations for the excessive power it grants the government to suppress any dissent).

The Public Prosecutor set forth the charges on the basis of Articles 160, 161 and 168 of the Penal Code, which prescribe prison sentences for possessing or disseminating thoughts and ideas that could "damage public interest". If convicted, Dr. Al Sahlawi and Mr. Al Hebshi could be imprisoned for up to seven years for intending to express themselves and taking steps to disseminate this information to others.

China restricts prime-time television programming

China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has ordered that only "ethically inspiring" television programs may be broadcast during the prime time hours. The restrictions are to go into effect in February and last at least eight months. According to China's press agency, Xinhua, "SARFT has instituted a four-level censorship system for home-made TV series. Before being screened, homemade TV series must be vetted by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and by the SARFT."

The Xinhua report says the restrictions have been imposed with an eye toward the upcoming Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, scheduled to take place later this year. It also notes that SARFT "has previously imposed several restrictions on TV programs, including a ban on foreign cartoons during prime time from last September, and a crackdown on 'vulgar reality shows' earlier this month."

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Turkish Armenian writer killed in Instanbul

Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was shot and killed Friday in Istanbul. Dink, age 53, was editor of the a pro-democracy journal, Agos. He had been convicted of violating the infamous Article 301 of Turkey's criminal code, which prohibits insulting Turkish identity, for his writings on Turkey's killing of approximately one million Armenians in the early 20th century. He had been sentenced to six months in prison but the sentence was overturned. He was awaiting retrial at the time of his death. For a detailed account of his life see the Guardian (UK); see also David Durant's Heretical Librarian.

China bans eight books

China's General Administration of Press and Publications has banned eight books by intellectuals and writers reflecting on sensitive historical events over the past six decades. As summarized by yesterday's South China Morning Post, the banned books include:

  • Cang Sang by Xiao Jian tells the story of a man in northern Shaanxi from the 1911 Revolution to the Great Leap Forward.
  • I Object: The Road to Politics by a People's Congress Member by journalist Zhu Ling tells of the 12-year struggle of activist Yao Lifa to run for a seat in the local legislature.
  • Past Stories of Peking Opera Stars by Zhang Yihe is an account of the lives and deaths of seven Peking Opera artists.
  • The Family History of an Ordinary Chinese by Guo Ya describes the experiences of a normal Chinese family during the war of liberation, the Cultural Revolution and other eras.
  • The Other Stories of History: My Days at the Supplement Division of the People's Daily by Yuan Ying is a memoir of time working for the People's Daily.
  • Era of History edited by Kuang Chen is a historic series on major events from the 1950s to the 1980s.
  • This is How it by Hu Fayun tells the story of a woman who fell in love with the internet at the cost of her relationship with a vice-mayor during the Sars outbreak.
  • The Press by Zhu Huaxiang uses fictional characters to tell of the intrigues and behind-the-news stories of China's media industry.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Human Rights Watch annual report released

Human Rights Watch has issued its annual report on worldwide human rights conditions. The report includes country-by-country reports, as well as discussion of general worldwide issues. The introduction by HRW director Kenneth Roth criticized the U.S. government's "use of detention without trial and interrogation by torture." Roth urged the European Union to take up the leadership role in advancing human rights, but also criticized the EU for its weak response to some serious violations of human rights. He also singled out for criticism Russia and China for their repressive policies, and "Sudan’s criminal campaign in Darfur."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Cuban writers protest return of censor

Cuban intellectuals have protested the return of a hardline official resposible for Stalinist like cultural policies during the 1970s. The official is "Luis Pavon Tamayo, who as head of the National Culture Council from 1971 to 1976 led witch-hunts against writers and artists not toeing the party line on proletarian revolution," reports Reuters. Pavon was interviewed on a Jan. 5 television program "featuring guests who have made important contributions to Cuban culture, but no mention was made of his role in censoring writers."

During Pavon's reign, many writers were imprisoned or hounded from their jobs, homosexuals were persecuted, Beatles music and miniskirts were banned, and officials would stop long-haired youth to cut their hair in public. Cuba's most celebrated playwright, Anton Arrufat, described how he lost his job and "was sent to work in a library basement for nine years tying parcels of books with rope." He was not allowed to publish for 14 years.

Writers who had later been rehabilitated led the protest, with what Reuters describes as an avalanche of internet messages. They met with Cuban Cuban Culture Minister Abel Prieto to raise their concerns but Prieto refused to apologize for the decision. Observers believe Pavon's reemergence may be an attempt by hardliners within the Cuban Communist Party to shore up their position at a time when the country is in transition with Castro's failing health.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Morocco journal banned, journalists tried

A Morroco journal has been banned, with its editor and one of its journalists fined and given suspended sentences. They are charged with insulting Islam for publishing a ten-page article about religious jokes. Holly Manges Jones of Jurist reports: "Journalist Sanaa al-Aji and Driss Ksikes, editor of Nichane [media website, in Arabic] weekly, were given suspended sentences of three years, fined $9,280 each, and are prohibited from engaging in any journalistic activity for two months. Prosecutors had asked the court to impose much harsher 3-5 year prison terms, but the pair said they still plan to appeal the sentences they did receive." Reporters without Borders and National Press Union of Morocco have protested the trial.

Nichane has posted at its website a petition for people to sign supporting its right to publish freely. It states:

We, the undersigned, strongly condemn the unlawful ban imposed on Nichane weekly and the legal proceedings started against the editor and a journalist working for the magazine after the publication of a special report on “jokes” in Morocco.

We maintain that the ban is illegal and, in view of its form and substance, reinforces the extra-judiciary repressive measures already in force. We further believe that the ban and the legal proceedings undermine the rights and liberties established by the international authorities and human rights principles.

While we express our full and wholehearted solidarity with Nichane and call for the annulment of the ban and the dropping of the charges against its journalists, we reiterate our plea for the amendment of liberticidal laws regarding freedom of the press and freedom of opinion and thought.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Iran intensifies book banning

Book censorship in Iran, a fact of life for the last 25 years, has drastically worsened under its current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, according to a Jan. 6 NPR report. The government is not raiding bookstores, but new books and older books seeking reprints must be approved by the Ministry of Culture. Thousands of books languish in a kind of censorship limbo, with officials neither saying whether they approve or disapprove. Thanks to David Durant of Heretical Librarian, who has written several entries on this topic.

"Gay" penguin book back on shelves for now

A book about two male penguins who raised a baby penguin will not face a formal review from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools of North Carolina, school officials said. The book, And Tango Makes Three, was based on a true story of two male penguins at New York City's Central Park Zoo, who paired up and hatched an adopted egg. It was removed from four elementary school libraries in the district following some parents protests. However the school district superintendent said procedure was not followed correctly, so the books are back on the shelves pending further protest.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Creationist book at Grand Canyon: group demands it be banned

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has asked new National Park Service Director Mary Bomar to remove the book Grand Canyon: a Different View from the Grand Canyon's South Rim store shelves. The book argues that the Grand Canyon was created a few thousand years ago, rather than five to six million years ago as commonly believed by geologists, with some rock layers dating to 1.7 billion years.

The book has been available at the store for the last three years. "We do not use the creationist text in our teaching, nor do we endorse its content. However, it is not our place to censor alternate beliefs," Park Service spokesman David Barna said.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Old classics eliminated at Virginia library

Not a censorship issue per se, but with similar effect: the Fairfax county library system in Virginia is eliminating thousands of classics and other revered literature to make way for more popular modern novels, computers, audiovisual areas, and individual study carrels in the libraries. Lisa Rein of the Washington Post (Jan. 3) reports:

"You can't find "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" at the Fairfax City Regional Library anymore. Or "The Education of Henry Adams" at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson's "Final Harvest"? Don't look to the Kingstowne branch.

"It's not that the books are checked out. They're just gone. No one was reading them, so librarians took them off the shelves and dumped them.

"Along with those classics, thousands of novels and nonfiction works have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.

"Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region's largest library system is taking turnover to a new level.

"Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system's return on its investment by each foot of space on the library bookshelves -- and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone -- even if they are classics..."

Thanks to Fred Stoss for posting a link to this article on the SRRT Action Council email forum of the American Library Association.