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The Right to Know: The experiment of Index on Censorship

M.L. Sondhi

Looking at the contemporary Third World, India is a unique example of the refusal of its people to accept the stifling of dissent.  During the freedom struggle and in the three decades and more of our free existence we have worked with various devices to overcome the assaults on human rights and freedom.  Today, the mutuality of interests with those who wish to resist propaganda and tyranny, requires that concerned citizens should have a worldwide perspective on both the prospect and responsibility for safeguarding the “right to know”.  Nothing is more noteworthy than the historical experience of thirteen years of the London - based journal “Index on Censorship”.  There are always questions raised and misgivings felt about any venture which claims to challenge the misuse of power and privilege throughout the world.  Amnesty International claims to be non-partisan in representing the interests of political sufferers, but those who find its interference intolerable often accuse it of serving some hidden hand.  Although frequently misunderstood Amnesty has persevered in the assignments it has set itself and has helped to make the world a more humane place.  The Writers and Scholars International which is less well known than Amnesty has set itself a more ambitious task.  It embraces virtually the entire gamut of relations which are effected by the violation of intellectual freedom.  When it published its journal for the first time in May 1972, it was appropriately named Index on Censorship (when the Catholic Church was imposing its loyalty checks on European intellectuals it started the “Index Librorum Prohibitorum”.)    The Writers and Scholars International wanted a creative and positive involvement through a cross-cultural approach.  Index responded by providing a forum for problems faced by novelists, playwrights, literary critics, poets, academics and journalists in all the continents of the world.

In its first two years, Index had taken up cudgels on behalf of South Africans, Asians and Latin Americans and East Europeans who were declared personae non grata in their home countries.  The widely publicised discussions in the pages of Index attracted the attention of those concerned with freedom of expression not just for fulfilling curiosity but as means of widening educational opportunity for practical steps in the field of human rights.  While this excellent work was advancing, the Department of Education and Science in Britain, like its bureaucratic counterparts in other countries, found these developments somewhat disturbing.  The Writers and Scholars International had been set up as an Educational Trust, but could the activism of Index be strictly regarded as an educational activity?  A lot of legal quibbling followed.  The Government Department wanted that educational charities should be used for “educational” work and “advocacy” of any kind should be shunned.  The reply of Index was forthright: “It was, and remains, our belief that Index has at all times conformed to this legal definition and has always been educational in both the superficial and profound senses of that word; and we have refrained from advocacy as a deliberate act of policy, quite apart from any requirements of the law.”  To meet the bureaucratic requirements, Index was separated from the educational trust and given the legal form of a limited company, although such a venture could not make sense in commercial terms.  But such are the ways of Government everywhere.  

The plight of intellectuals in racialist South Africa has evoked passionate support from Index.  Several important writers speaking from their personal experiences have explained the cause of disaster that has overtaken the literary scene in South Africa.  Nadine Gordiner whose novel “Burger’s Daughter” was banned in South Africa as “a threat to state security” wrote “We shall not be rid of censorship until we are rid of apartheid”.  No other journal has projected as effectively the intellectual dimensions of the revolt in South Africa against the efforts of the racialists to turn back the clock of history.

After the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile by the military, Index was a valuable and authentic source which focussed attention on the effects of military dictatorship on the press and universities.  An English sociologist who was imprisoned by the Junta wrote an exposure for Index describing how Chile drifted into a nightmare with summary executions, torture, book-burnings, and the destruction of press freedom.  About the universities he wrote: “all Chile’s universities, state, church or private, have been declared ‘under reorganisation’.  The rectors have been forced to resign, and have been replaced by military delegates, and the governing bodies and principal administrative committees have been dissolved… At the University of Chile in Santiago, the departments of sociology, philosophy, journalism and psychology have been closed.  At the University of Concepcion 6,600 out of 18,600 students have been expelled.”  Index also published a list of 13 outstanding University professors who were under detention and thereby played some part in preventing further victimisation.

Index had maintained over the years a frontal attack on Human Rights violations in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe chiefly by giving dissident writers space in its pages.  This has been a heroic accomplishment taking into account the journal’s precarious financial health.  Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn (Soviet Union), Jaroslav Seifert and Vaclav Havel (Czechoslovakia) and Julian Stryjkowski (Poland) are among those whose anguishing questions Index has conveyed to its readers. 

Threats to intellectual freedom in Britain, France and United States have been explored with equal zeal.  In an early article the question was raised whether programme producers in the BBC enjoyed genuine independence from political influence in their coverage of politics and politicians.  A later article examined evidence on the restrictive effect of United States immigration laws on foreign writers and academics.

In more recent issues Index has turned its attention to the violation of intellectual freedom in Asia and the Middle East.  It published extracts from the prison autobiography of Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese Human Rights activist who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 1979 an appeal for justice from Liu Qing, editor of April Fifty Forum, a Human Rights activist who was arrested and sent to a labour camp was yet another moving document published in Index.  The coverage has included the experience of the Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer who was detained from 1965 to 1980, and the curtailment of academic freedom in Bangla Desh and Kenya.

To reach a wider audience among journalists and other media-men, Index has built up a Briefing service which provides a serious appraisal of government censorship and other curbs on freedom of expression.

Although public opinion in India supports freedom of the press, journalistic practice is almost entirely indifferent to the systematic and comparative consideration of the methods of safeguarding the “right to know”.  Index has blazed a trail on how “freedom of expression” should be thoroughly researched if it is to be safeguarded in the face of ominous trends in the world.  Tom Stoppard has described Index as the “politically disinterested monitor of political repression the world over”, while the well known writer and journalist Andreas Kung calls it “an indispensable source of information and an invaluable alarm-clock where freedom of information is under threat”.  Index’s present editor George Theiner belongs to that rare group of persons with whom it is an article of faith to work for “the unhampered circulation of ideas among all nations and within each nation” as the charter of the International PEN envisages.  John Milton said long ago: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”  The experiment of Index on Censorship would have pleased the Poet for every issue carries convictions matching his own.

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