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Defending essential freedoms

One of the pillars of a free society is the right to be able to say things other people disagree with. Yet, as Jodie Ginsberg tells Ray Snoddy, that basic right is constantly under threat, both from authoritarian leaders and increased regulation.

By Ray Snoddy

Defending essential freedoms
Jodie Ginsberg: “People should have the right to say things that shock and offend.”

Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship is, at 5 foot 2, happy to describe herself as “small but noisy” – rather like the organisation she runs.

“We are tiny but very noisy is how I would describe us, which is how most people I hope would see me too,” says Ginsberg, a former senior Reuters journalist.

Index has no choice but to be noisy if it wants to make an impact.

It has a staff of only twelve to do the best it can to protect freedom of expression around the world from the sort of dictatorships who harass and jail journalists, to stamping on any signs of backsliding in western democracies such as the UK.

Jodie Ginsberg and Index take a purist view of freedom of expression akin to the first amendment of the US constitution stating that Congress shall pass no law abridging freedom of expression or of the press.

“The line should be drawn at threats of violence or incitement to violence or where violence is extremely likely to be caused by the words involved,” says Ginsberg who has serious problems with vague concepts such as “hate speech” particularly if broadly drawn.

Too often, such laws can end up being targeted at the minorities they are meant to protect, she believes.

In particular, Ginsberg and Index respects the right to be rude, offensive and even obnoxious, as long as such opinions do not shade into threats of violence.

“People should have the right to say things that shock and offend,” notes Ginsberg who adds that Index very much agrees with the Handyside judgement of the European Court.

In the ruling in the case of Richard Handyside v the UK, the European Court concluded that freedom of expression did not just cover opinions that were harmless and inoffensive but also “to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”.

Jodie Ginsberg and Index take a purist view of freedom of expression akin to the first amendment of the US constitution.

Defending offending

Rather surprisingly, Ginsberg and Index has even defended the right of the YouTuber Count Dankula, who taught his dog to do the Nazi salute to the words “gas the Jews”, because no incitement to violence was involved.

“He is not encouraging other people to go out and do these things, he’s making a sick and bad taste joke. But we would defend his right to make those jokes even if we don’t agree with them,” Ginsberg explains.

She believes it is particularly difficult to defend freedom of expression at the moment because the phrase “free speech” has become something of a banner for the far right who use it to defend and excuse their viewpoints.

“This has tarnished the brand of free expression because it is increasingly seen as synonymous with far right speech rather than speech for all – that’s one of my major concerns,” the Index chief executive says.

Index on Censorship was set up in 1972 by the poet Stephen Spender, Oxford philosopher Stuart Hampshire, the then editor of the Observer David Astor and the writer and Soviet expert Edward Crankshaw.

In the early days, its inspiration came from publishing the works of Soviet dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the stories of the “disappeared” in Argentina and the case for the defence of Salman Rushdie.

For Ginsberg, the crucial personal call came in 2014. An Index trustee phoned and said that they needed a new chief executive but they had no money and they had just made a lot of people redundant and everyone is feeling a bit depressed but he thought she would love the job.

“I said no thank you very much,” said Ginsberg who joined Reuters after a post-graduate course at City University in London.

She was in South Africa for three years for the international news agency before becoming chief Ireland correspondent and later London bureau chief.

“Increasingly, I was a manager of large numbers of people frustrated at our inability to really dig into things,” says Ginsberg who left to work for Camfed, the international charity devoted to promoting girl’s education in Africa.

Working for Camfed must also have made it an easier step to joining the very international Index.

“I looked at what Index does and its history and changed my mind and I love it,” says Ginsberg.

We haven’t seen a response from the UK on Saudi Arabia on the Jamal Khashoggi killing.

Just warm words?

Unsurprisingly, the Index chief executive takes a robust view of politicians, even when they are saying nice things about press freedom.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote an article in the Sun recently vowing to keep the press free around the globe as he joined up with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who has campaigned for the two Reuters journalists jailed in Burma.

Hunt plans to join with Canada to launch a worldwide campaign to protect journalists and the media, a cause to be promoted with an international conference in London in July.

“I am always cautious about these kinds of initiatives because I worry they are more about talk than action,” says Ginsberg.

“We haven’t seen a response from the UK on Saudi Arabia on the Jamal Khashoggi killing. There has been condemnation but we haven’t seen any further action or demonstration that perhaps the UK won’t do business with, or otherwise support, countries that systematically harm their journalists,” she says.

Two of her current preoccupations include the lumping together of, and attacking, the work of all journalists, and increasing worries about the ability to finance proper newsgathering into the future.

“I think there is a real problem with people treating the media as a homogenous mass and denouncing it because that undermines those people carrying out classic public interest journalism,” Ginsberg says.

If a US president calls all journalists enemies of the people then that seeps into the general consciousness that journalists are not people to be trusted.

“That is incredibly damaging when you are doing the most important work uncovering and challenging the corrupt and holding those in power to account,” Ginsberg adds.

Another abiding concern is how to finance the future of free expression and one of the great things about the press and the media in general – in contrast to personal information being bought and sold for profit – is that the media brings information to everybody.

The fewer the organisations involved, the greater the restrictions to our access to a variety of information.

I think there is a real problem with people treating the media as a homogenous mass.

Celebrating journalism

“We have to demonstrate increasingly, and celebrate, why journalism is of value both in terms of society and that it is something we should pay for,” the Index chief executive insists.

The Spring 2019 issue of Index on Censorship magazine was devoted to the problems of financing local journalism and the worries of a majority of editors that they no longer have the resources to hold the powerful to account in the way they did in the past.

The Index on Censorship magazine is one way to make a noise – another is through the organisation’s annual Freedom of Expression awards which are nothing if not international in scope and wide in their range.

One award this year went to Mimi Mefo from Cameroon who was arrested last year after she published reports that the military were behind the death of an American missionary. She has also covered the growing violence in the country’s “Anglophone crisis”, the conflict between English and French speaking regions of the country linked to separatism.

“There isn’t a dedicated press freedom organisation operating in Cameroon and she has taken on that mantle. I would like the government to be explicit in their defence of people like Mimi,” says Ginsberg.

Another award went to Zehra Doğan, a Kurdish painter and journalist who was jailed for a painting of the destruction of a Kurdish town, part of Index’s support for freedom of expression in the arts as well as journalism.

Cartoons are also an important aspect of freedom of expression and a campaigning award was won by the US-based Cartoonists Rights Network International which monitors threats and abuses suffered by cartoonists around the world.

One was Zunar, a Malaysian cartoonist who had been facing up to 43 years in jail for cartoons that mocked the then prime minister and his wife.

Charges were dropped after a change of government but cartoonists working in Turkey are in jail or facing jail for lampooning President Erdoğan.

“When you think about what is going on in the UK and you think about how many vicious cartoons are printed about the present government, pretty much all cartoonists in the UK would be in prison if that was the way we operated.”

“I think that’s quite a sobering thought,” says Ginsberg.

Unsurprisingly, the Index chief executive has worries about the government white paper on regulating the social media complete with an external regulator.

“We think that places like the UK have the potential to set global standards for laws that affect freedom of expression and we will try to ensure that any measures that seek to regulate social media will have protection of freedom of expression,” Ginsberg argues.

In particular, she is concerned that a relatively small number of extreme, outlying cases could end up being responsible for “an overly restrictive attitude” which could restrict positive and useful content.

Index is very wary about surveys of those suffering online harm such as those produced by communications regulator Ofcom, claiming that 45 per cent of adult internet users had experienced some form of online harm.

“It sounds pretty terrible until you look at the harms that they list and find they include things like spam, targeted advertising and bad language. I don’t think that should include swearing because, frankly, at the moment there is a lot to swear about,” says Ginsberg.

The protection and celebration of freedom of expression online is one of the things that Index on Censorship is going to be noisy about in future, as is helping journalists in countries with no organisations such as Index.

But above all, Jodie Ginsberg says she will continue to fight with as much noise as it takes to protect views that she herself finds almost abhorrent.

We will try to ensure that any measures that seek to regulate social media will have protection of freedom of expression.