Image via Asia House

Freedom of expression, upheld, at least in theory, in constitutions around the globe, is routinely cited as the artist’s right in the face of accusations that his or her commentaries affront the status quo. But running alongside this liberty is the freedom to oppose, to challenge words or productions as incendiary, blasphemous, dangerous, or plain offensive. It is where these rights intersect that the issue of censorship comes up: where one interpretation of the world is silenced by government, civil pressures, or by the artists’ own uneasy task of navigating the blurry lines of what is and is not deemed acceptable to express.

Over the course of these past few years in Asia, the constraining power of these blurred lines has been made abundantly clear with a string of imprisonments, media blackouts, governmental sanctions, and civil protests. In China, artist Ai Weiwei, described by state media as a “deviant,” has cycled in and out of jail, and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who won the award in 2010 for his “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights,” serves as a political prisoner in Jinzhou. Indian writer Rohinton Mistry has abandoned his home country, and last year Salman Rushdie withdrew from the Jaipur Literary Festival following threats of assassination and arrest.

Former BBC correspondent Frances Harrison speaks of encountering censorship in the form of a “red line that you couldn’t cross.” In the discussion that follows, she says, “None of us knew where it was; it changed all the time, and that was a form of psychological control.” John Kampfner, former chief executive at the Index on Censorship, describes a corollary of “out of bounds” markers. “You’ll know when you’ve hit the ball out. It just sort of disappears. You know when you’ve done wrong. But it’s never entirely clear. Just always, if in doubt, stay on the other side of the line.”

Organized in reaction to the pressures that kept Rushdie from attending the Jaipur event, BBC news presenter Mishal Husain led a panel on the subject of censorship and expression at the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature in London this past May. Husain says that in the course of her everyday work she contends with “the sensitivities and limits to freedom of expression that are out there,” and recalls coming off air from her program, which is broadcast in South and East Asia, to learn from Twitter feeds how screens go blank in China during segments covering Ai Weiwei.

Speaking with writers whose works cross a spectrum of sensitivities, Husain orchestrates a discussion that illustrates how the bounds of the acceptable are elusive at best. She is joined by Harrison, author of the recent book, Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, which tells the story of the survivors of the 2009 war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil minority, one of the most violent conflicts of the twenty-first century, but about which little is known. Salil Tripathi, author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Manifestos for the 21st Century), argues that efforts to keep peace among religious and ethnic groups in the world’s most populous democracy threaten the free speech of artists and writers. Julia Farringdon, head of arts at the Index on Censorship, maintains that suppression between countries differs only by matters of degrees. And Kampfner, who now advises Google on freedom of expression, suggests that the unprecedented access to information worldwide is, paradoxically, matched by an unprecedented effort to constrain.

Conversation published courtesy of Asia House London

Mishal Husain: Frances, I wonder if I could start by asking you to discuss your perspective on freedom of speech and censorship in Sri Lanka.

Frances Harrison: From my perspective, and the perspective of my book, it’s really about stories that don’t get told in the mainstream media at the time that they’re unfolding. When I looked at the Sri Lankan war in 2009—the end of the war—I found that generally the media had reported it as: on the one hand the army says this, and on the other hand the rebels say this. And because the information from each side was so different and the differences were so extreme—between zero dead and possibly over 100,000 dead—I felt that this really wasn’t good enough, and it was necessary to go back and investigate. But it wasn’t possible at the time to do that research inside Sri Lanka, because the war zone area was completely closed off to outsiders. Even if it were open, I would have put so many people in danger by doing that. So I managed to track down people who’d started to come abroad, initially dual nationals, and then Sri Lankan Tamils who’d claimed asylum, and they led me from one to the other. I went across Europe and Australia and talked to people who’d arrived there, and was eventually able to piece together a story that shocked even me, despite being someone who knew the place well and had watched the war unfold.

Mishal Husain: As someone who spends a lot of time in my working day saying one side says this and the other side says that, I wonder, given how emotive the Sri Lankan conflict remains, if you felt like you had the full picture?

Francis Harrison: I think I got closer to the truth, about as close as you could, really, with the regime. I would’ve liked to talk to and include the stories of ordinary soldiers who fought against the Tigers because I know quite a lot of people were unhappy about their generals and their commanding officers, but it just wasn’t possible in this particular book. But I struggled very hard with some of the moral issues behind it, the balance of it, the rights and wrongs of the various incidents.

Mishal Husain: One of the things that really struck me about your book is that it deals with a time when there was essentially a media blackout on what was happening in Sri Lanka, when you’ve got all these Tamils, civilians, women, children, corralled into this area and no one really knows what’s going on there until it’s all over. It made me think, “How is it possible in this day and age to have a media black out?” It was pretty successful in that we really only had rumors of what was happening in there.

Frances Harrison: It was extremely successful. And I am sure other militaries will be looking at it and trying to learn from it. I think it was successful partly because Sri Lanka is an island, so you didn’t have the outpouring of refugees across national borders that you have now in Syria, with stories of suffering and tragedy. But at the same time, the Tamil Tigers had satellite phones and they had Internet. People could communicate with the outside world, there was a UN satellite observing the area and taking photographs, but the information still didn’t get out. It’s extraordinary that this can happen in this day and age. You assume that with technology information flows properly, but not necessarily.

There is not a single country in the world where the right to express yourself and the right to information does not come up against either other rights or governmental, state, or power activities.

Mishal Husain: John, you’ve looked at freedom of expression issues in many countries over a period of many years in your time at Index, and I think one of the basic things to grapple with is that we live in an age of so much information, and yet so often it feels like we as societies are more intolerant, more touchy. There isn’t necessarily a correlation between having more information and being more open as a result.

John Kampfner: You’re absolutely right. You could actually argue that it’s the other way around. Freedom of expression problems, or censorship, are universal. There is not a single country in the world where the right to information and the right to express yourself does not come up against either other rights or against governmental, state, or power activities. And often the worst perpetrators in terms of setting precedents and providing fig leaves for really bad governments are Western governments.

I was doing work in January on a series of laws and amendments pertaining to Internet law, and they are truly terrible and dangerous in so many ways. Whenever international organizations or other governments complain about them, a country like Russia can simply turn around and say, well you’re doing something similar yourself, whether it’s surveillance, or data retention, or anything else like that.

So, any country, particularly an old, established country with a democratic hinterland, initiates legislation or activities such as, for example, when the Prime Minister during the London riots said, out of frustration and despair, if only we could switch off direct messaging, you needed to really get a grip on it. But again, it was manna from heaven. The Iranian government, I think, turned around and said, we’re happy to send human rights advisors, to help you in your dilemma, your difficulty. [Laughs.] That’s a long-winded way of saying that there are—

Mishal Husain: No one should feel safe.

John Kampfner: [Laughs.] No one should feel safe. So much of what I do now revolves around the Internet. There was a naive dream twenty years ago that it was going to be this brave new world of free expression and transnational communication, and for the first decade or so there was a sense that things were changing. But national governments and old-fashioned institutions have caught up very fast, whether it’s physical preventive tools—denials of service or whatever else—whether it’s using tools for surveillance or tracking, or increasing the sophisticated use of social media, to put up contrary messages.

Mishal Husain: Salil, what led you to write your book?

Salil Tripathi: A sense of complacency. I grew up in India, and when you grow up in India you take for granted that it’s a democratic country. You have free speech in the constitution, you have newspapers, which are largely free, and you felt that everything was fine—until you started to look beneath the surface. The whole assumption tends to be that there was this period between 1975 and 1977 when India had the Emergency and that otherwise India was doing very well, thank you; our writers don’t get beaten, don’t go to jail, and so on. And that sort of an assumption was spectacularly wrong, because there are two threats in India. There is the threat of the government, and there is the threat that you have from the “non-government,” and by that I don’t mean NGOs [laughter], I mean vigilantes, who decide what you can and cannot say and read.

It’s particularly appropriate that we’re meeting in this setting, because the series for which I wrote this book was published by Index on Censorship with Seagull Books in India. It was about different faiths, and how the assumption that certain faiths are more tolerant than others and therefore more prone to freedom was basically being challenged. We didn’t spare anybody in the series. I took on Hinduism, Kamila Shamsie took on Islam, someone else took on Judaism, and another person wrote about Christianity—equal opportunity offenders, as it were [laughs]. One of the first things that struck me was M.F. Husain, the painter; he was a practicing Muslim, and he took to Indian art. He depended on German expressionism as one of his sources of inspiration, and decided to do what people tend to do: to look at motifs within India. One of the most visible motifs in India is Hindu gods and goddesses, and he started drawing them, often in the nude, because Hindu gods and goddesses are often in the nude. It’s not something surprising or remarkable. Sometimes they are partly clad but they are often scantily dressed. So he started painting them. And some people got very upset about it in the mid-nineties and started filing lawsuits against him.

This is one of the great relics of the Raj India—the Indian Penal Code—where anyone who is offended by something that somebody says can use the code, under Section 153, and say “he’s offended me so he should go to jail, and the artwork should be taken away.” And it may have served its purpose, I have no idea, but it continues to make life quite difficult for artists. Husain’s galleries have been ransacked, his art has been defaced, and sadly, a couple of his canvases, which were going to be shown here in 2006, were defaced. Who did it? Nobody knows. But at that time there was a move to prevent his retrospective from being held in London and the exhibition had to be canceled.

Mishal Husain: The irony of it all is that M.F. Husain—he died about a year ago—was India’s Picasso. His work was selling for millions, and he is celebrated as the greatest artist that India’s ever produced, all while he was going through this. Julia, you’re just back from Burma. How much change did you feel in terms of artistic expression? What can people say now that they couldn’t say two and a half years ago?

Julia Farrington: I think the space for freedom of expression has opened up enormously. In fact, artists are always very actively part of the freedom of expression picture in Burma, and they’re very often also writers and activists. The change started in 2011 with the amnesty on political prisoners, and with people like Zarganar, a very famous comedian and filmmaker, who is extraordinary popular. He was imprisoned in 2009 and he got out in 2011. This was his third time in prison, and when he came out, he presented the Art of Freedom Film Festival, which was the first festival showing uncensored films in recent history in Burma. His most recent work as a comedian, significantly, was March 27th, exactly twenty-five years after he lost his license to perform in 1988. He performed a six-hour marathon comedy with a troupe of other comedians, with singers, with dancers. It was an all-singing, all-dancing event, in which he laid into everybody: Aung San Suu Kyi came under fire, the performing president came under fire, democracy came under fire. He said, “Freedom is great, we’ve all got freedom now, we’re free to piss in the street, we’re free to sell our shit.” He wasn’t presenting a romantic version of freedom. He laid into political protests. There’s this one scene with lots of people circulating with blank placards, and they were saying, “Join our cause, join our cause,” and then asking, “What cause, what cause?” It was pointing out that there’s this freedom, but what are people actually saying?

One of Zarganar’s improvisations was an attack on former senior general, Than Shwe’s grandson, who is an extremely unpopular, aggressive figure. The bass drum player in the traditional music ensemble had the same name as Than Shwe’s grandson, and Zarganar riffed on this. He said, “Come and attack this guy, you have my permission, show how much you hate this guy, show how angry you are,” putting himself in extreme danger. With the film festival, Zarganar signaled that you can now speak openly about freedom of expression. And with the comedy event, he really signaled that you can lay into the political scene with no holds barred. They are allowing criticism of the government in a way that would have been unheard of previously.

Mishal Husain: Salil, in your book, you’re looking at offenses perceived by Hindus. One group learns from another group’s intolerance. Muslims getting worked up about blasphemy is a big issue in many countries, and you make the point that actually lots of Hindus learn from that, “We can be equally offended and people should take us just as seriously.

Salil Tripathi: The phrase is competitive intolerance in India. [Laughs.] And there is something to it, because if you really trace back—one could look at Hindu intolerance much earlier—if you want to do a neat slice, a Hollywood version of the whole story, then it does start in 1989 with the ban of The Satanic Verses. Now everybody knows the whole Salman Rushdie saga; it became important in the Jaipur Literary Festival. India didn’t ban the book; India didn’t ban the production of the book; India didn’t ban anything except the import of the edition. So essentially it sent a message very quickly to local publishers, including Penguin India, which was supposed to publish it, not to do it. So because that happened, people say that Muslims can get The Satanic Verses banned—

Mishal Husain: It was a response to the protest that began very quickly in India.

Salil Tripathi: The first one started in Kashmir in October of 1988 and the ban came within days of that. The Kashmir protest essentially started because a magazine I used to work at, India Today, carried an extract from the novel, and had a long piece on it. There was a Muslim member of Parliament who said, “This is so bad and so filthy I wouldn’t want anybody to read it, therefore it should be banned. I’ve not read it of course, but nor should anybody else.” [Laughs.] That’s what he said, and that’s how it started. Christians, managed to get a Malayalam play, called Christuvinte Aaram Thirumurivu, which basically translates to the “Sixth Wound of Christ,” banned. There were some other faiths also making demands, so the Hindus probably started asking, “Why not us?” And why is this Muslim painter painting our revered gods and goddesses in the nude? It should be stopped.

Mishal Husain: So would they not have gone after a Hindu painter? If you are going to be offended by scantily clad gods and goddesses, you’re going to be offended regardless of who did it.

Salil Tripathi: Yes, but Husain was a tempting target because he was Muslim, because he was very popular, and because he was idealized by the so-called secular India. And he often sided with the government version of secularism the way it is presented in India. He made some spectacularly bad political choices in his life. He defended the Emergency, for example, in his artwork. He was himself not necessarily a great champion of freedom of expression, but so what? He still had the right to do those paintings.

Mishal Husain: Julia, given your perspective on similar issues around the world, are there particular countries that you think are hotspots?

Julia Farrington: I think that on the whole the causes and sources of censorship actually tend to be roughly the same, and that it’s really a matter of degree. Fear of causing offense to religions, the power of the corporate, the funding relationship, the press outrage—all the things that actually control artists—tend to be pretty much globally recognized. As Burma has had the lid lifted, the consensus was immediately to fill in that space. And people are concerned with public censorship; suddenly everybody has a voice, and is trying to negotiate what can be said.

On one end you have people who think… the responsibility is to respect moral standards in society and to work within them. Whereas on the other end of the spectrum you have people who believe that artists should attack and challenge any and every taboo.

In the olden days the poet would write poems and send them off to the censor, and the censor would judge what was morally acceptable or politically acceptable; now, the artist has that responsibility and that judgment. And actually, what is deemed to be the artist’s responsibility is such a broad spectrum. On one end you have people who think that you have artistic rights and responsibilities, and the responsibility is to respect moral standards in society and to work within them. On the other end of the spectrum, you have people who believe that artists should attack and challenge any and every taboo.

Frances Harrison: I worked in Iran as a journalist for three years, and there was this concept of the red line that you couldn’t cross. But none of us knew where it was, and it changed all the time, and that was a form of psychological control.

Mishal Husain: You made your own judgments.

Frances Harrison: Yes, it was very difficult when I first arrived. People said, “Oh yes, of course, that’s far too risky, of course you wouldn’t do that,” and you’d ask, well, why? It didn’t make any sense at all. You sort of learned it from experience and assumed that if you stayed on this side of the red line you’d be ok. But the red line would move. It was basically a way of controlling journalists and writers, and making sure that they were extra cautious and self-censored.

But in a way I disagree slightly with the causes of censorship you mentioned—in many of the countries I’ve worked in, it’s actually about killing journalists. I know an awful lot of dead reporters who worked for the BBC in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. When you look at Sri Lanka, there are probably about fifty journalists in exile now as a result of the last phase of the civil war. And you’re talking about a tiny country with a very small civil society group in Colombo. The ones who were all forced out, who received death threats, were the ones who were more liberal, more moderate, who questioned the war, who weren’t just straightforward propagandists. So they’re a huge loss. And sometimes that’s a deliberate pushing out of people. And it is often the deaths of journalists that make people want to flee.

Mishal Husain: And often it’s the ones who are broadcasting in the local language that are deemed the greatest threat.

John Kampfner: I want to go back to one point you were making about “red lines.” In Singapore, which deals with everything entirely litigiously and legalistically, they call them “out of bounds” markers, like in golf. It’s a golf phrase, this lovely, relaxed, comfortable idea that Singapore propagates. You’ll know when you’ve hit the ball out because it just sort of disappears. You know when you’ve done wrong. But it’s never entirely clear. Just always, if in doubt, stay on the other side of the line.

Mishal Husain: Frances, your book has been out for six months or so. Were you apprehensive at the time of writing it?

Frances Harrison: Not particularly, because I was in London. [Laughs.]

Mishal Husain: Is it a book you could have written if you were living there, or even going back and forth?

Frances Harrison: No. People are scared to take my book from Colombo to Jaffna or to the northern areas. They’re scared to take it on an airplane and be searched by soldiers or be seen with it. But it can be bought. It’s read in secret reading groups in Jaffna and in the war zone, in areas that were under Tiger control. And that shows you the difference within one island about how much freedom there is.

Mishal Husain: Salil, what about the balance India strikes—or perhaps doesn’t successfully strike—between being this flourishing democracy that is an example to the world in so many ways and some of the really ultra-conservative elements?

Salil Tripathi: I certainly don’t think there’s ever a case for censorship to start with—certainly not in India. But having said that, what’s annoying and irritating but is getting worse is the trivialization of the debate. The trivial issues which are now elevated to a level that they become so important that the only response that the state has is to ban them. So you can argue and perhaps even build a case that if a novel like The Satanic Verses were to be published tomorrow, there would be so much mayhem on the streets that in a measure to prevent public disorder, it should be banned. I could understand an argument like this—though I wouldn’t necessarily defend it—in the case of a book or a film that is gratuitously insulting to any particular religion. But now, any group which feels that its interests are being damaged believes it has the authority to demand a writer, or an artist remove a page or change the content of their work.

Mishal Husain: Last year the big issue was Salman Rushdie not going to [the Jaipur Literary Festival]. But if you look at what happened this year, it was really sobering. Apparently at one point the police said that these events can only go ahead if you can guarantee that no one is going to be offended [laughs]. But you can’t possibly guarantee that it’s not going to happen.

Salil Tripathi: Kamila Shamsie and I wrote an article about it in The Guardian because we both chaired the “Writers at Risk” committee. The Hindu groups didn’t want Pakistani or Pakistani-British writers to come. Nadeem Aslam had his name on the list of writers who should not come. Mohsin Hamid should not come. Mohammad Hanif, who’s one of the most popular and entertaining writers in Pakistan… In the end they did manage to come, because this was a truly negligible organization which demanded it. But they are able to make these demands. And the response of the state, instead of saying that no, Article 19 of the Indian constitution says that a person has the right to say what he wants, they say no, there’s this Penal Code 295, which says that you cannot cause religious disharmony. That would be very bad, and therefore better not do it. When Rushdie managed to go to India a few months later, he said that if you don’t like a book then just shut it [laughs]. I think that’s very simple, isn’t it?

Mishal Husain: But Julia, it also shows how often governments are just frightened—there may be other reasons—but often, it’s just not worth it for them to wade in on the side of this right against any other right.

Julia Farrington: I think that’s true. I think that the case—and I’m going to talk about this country because I think it’s always important to position yourself in these debates—is that we’re not very good at making the case for difficult, challenging, controversial art. We had this big conference in London in January, and there were lots of people assembled who run all sorts of arts organizations around the country, and they were saying that we’ve lost our ability to make the case for disagreement, or for controversy and challenging work. We’re trying to negotiate the arts with our audience. We’ve kind of lost our faith in doing difficult work, that ability to make the case for things that are uncomfortable. And that freedom of expression is going to involve things that some people are not going to like.

We are all, in our different circumstances, histories and geographies, elevating the right to take offense into a human right.

There’s actually an opportunity in lots of these cases when the government could step in and say this is part of the whole deal of democracy, the whole deal of freedom of expression, which even many quite oppressive governments do have in their constitutions, including China. Freedom of expression is part of the constitution and yet state support of it is clearly lacking in places all over the world.

John Kampfner: Something more fundamental is going on—not just in Asia, it’s going on around the world. We are all, in our different circumstances, histories and geographies, elevating the right to take offense into a human right. And why are we doing this? We have all this information out there, we can find out far more things than we ever used to, we can communicate instantaneously with anyone around the world. Maybe it has something to do with the disorientation that people are feeling. There is a lot of disorientation around protection of minorities, and religious and racial protections. I’ve always taken the view on these issues that fundamentally it comes down to behavior and manners—it’s very old fashioned, very 1950s—but most of the time you don’t actually need legislation. You only need legislation in extremes. You look at the UK police responses to “offensive” tweets done by spotty fifteen-year-old boys, sitting in their bedrooms on their computers writing something which would have been the equivalent of sitting on a park bench with their mates saying something unsavory and offensive in the old offline world. They might have gotten a slap or had a little fight with their friends or somebody would have shouted at them. And the whole problem would have just happened through peer pressure, and sorted itself out in an organic way. Now you have police forces that knock on the door of these fifteen-year-olds at six in the morning and arrest them under violation of code this and code that. Very thankfully, the director of public prosecutions has come out with some better guidelines for how you deal with it. But I’m not convinced the government is leading on this. I thinks societies are leading on this, which is worrying.

Mishal Husain: And that’s wrong?

John Kampfner: Well, it’s judgmental to say it’s wrong. I say it’s worrying. And I think we need to work harder to try and find out why people are apparently craving this protection. Why can’t people…

Mishal Husain: Turn the other cheek?

John Kampfner: Turn the other cheek, have broader shoulders, and just simply say, “Yeah, ok, I didn’t like what you said, but let’s move on.”

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.