Index on Censorship: 45 years fighting for writers
Samuel Beckett and Cecil Day-Lewis helped Stephen Spender set up Index to highlight censored writers’ plight behind Iron Curtain. The same fight continues elsewhere today
Index on Censorship staff wear a T-shirt with a Margaret Atwood quotation about censorship
“If Samuel Beckett had been born in Czechoslovakia we’d still be waiting for Godot,” states one of the t-shirts featured in the Index on Censorship archive.
This t-shirt is part of the history of this organisation and its quarterly magazine, and was part of a campaign that Beckett supported to bring attention to the plight of writers in then Czechoslovakia. Beckett’s play was banned in the east European country at the same time as the communist government was persecuting its own writers. Beckett became drawn to the case of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, and committed to bringing world attention to the way writers were being banned. The t-shirt was all part of the plan.
The sin of power is to not only distort reality but to convince people that the false is true, and that what is happening is only an invention of enemies - Arthur Miller
Beckett was so incensed by what was happening to Havel that he wrote the short play Catastrophe, dedicated it to Havel, and allowed Index the exclusive, to publish it first in its pages.
The magazine Index on Censorship, first published in 1972, was born at the behest of writers behind the Iron Curtain to highlight freedom of expression, and censorship, and publish banned writing. Four decades later it carries on with its work to “record and analyse all forms of inroads into freedom of expression” and to publish censored material. There is less focus on Prague these days, though Budapest and Warsaw are current areas of concern, as are the Maldives, Eritrea and Turkey. And artists and writers still worry about colleagues and friends across borders being persecuted for the words they put on pages, or cartoons they draw.
Samuel Beckett wasn’t the only Irish writer to be involved in Index’s early days, poet and mystery writer Cecil Day-Lewis was among of a group of prestigious writers and artists who pledged to help poet Stephen Spender highlight the plight of censored writers and helped to set up Index.
Day-Lewis signed a letter of support, along with WH Auden, Yehudi Meuhin and Henry Moore, after Soviet scientist Pavel Litinov wrote from the Soviet Union with a plea calling for help publishing information about what was going on.
The Index magazine archive is a wall full of copies of all shapes and sizes, as the magazine has been redesigned over the decades, but is a voyage through all the continents of the world. Famous names, wise words and shocking stories all unfold in front of your eyes as you flick through the pages and through the decades. And sadly the words seem as pertinent today, even though they may apply to another place.
In 1978 Arthur Miller writes in Index how: “The sin of power is to not only distort reality but to convince people that the false is true, and that what is happening is only an invention of enemies.” Miller was applying this to the Vietnam war and his experiences in Czechoslovakia, but it feels way too familiar to the conflicts of today as we struggle with accusations of fake news and new improved propaganda techniques.
Miller goes on to relate his own experiences and they would resonate with many writers living in exile today: “I have myself sat down at dinner with a Czech writer and his family in his own home and looked out and seen police sitting in their cars down below, in effect warning my friend our “meeting” was being observed.
“I know what it is to be denied the right to travel outside my country, having been denied my passport for some five years by our Department of State,” wrote Miller for the magazine.
This sentiment is just as relevant today to writers and artists who face being stopped from travelling beyond the borders of their countries, as well as not being free to carry on with their work within their nation. And Index magazine continues to publish those who are banned or persecuted.
As former literary editor of the Observer Robert McCrum, a long-time patron of Index, once wrote for the magazine, writers continue to be the grit in the engine of the state
Acclaimed investigative Turkish journalist and editor Can Dündar, who recently fled Turkey, found his wife was stopped at the border when she tried to join him. It was made clear by the authorities this was part of a campaign of pressure to get him to return to his homeland. Dündar had published journalism that the Turkish government would rather that he hadn’t, detailing Turkish government’s links to smuggling guns into Syria. He is appealing a sentence of five years and 10 months for revealing state secrets. He continues his journalism now from abroad, separated from his family. Index recently published an article by Dündar in the magazine calling for journalists to work together across borders so that when one reporter came under pressure to stop work on a story others picked it up. Of course he is not the only Turkish writer facing pressure or persecution right now. We continue to track many cases. Canan Coskun is a journalist at the daily Turkish paper Cumhuriyet, who has faced multiple court cases because her reporting has uncovered stories that make the Turkish government uncomfortable. At one stage this young court reporter faced 23 years in prison for charges of “insulting public officials” over her report on a property scam. In the Spring issue of Index on Censorship magazine she wrote of how every two or three weeks she sees a colleague marched off to prison. “We are not afraid of this dungeon darkness because we are only doing our job,” she wrote. At the time she faced two court cases, one for her story uncovering how cases of weapons were being smuggled around the country in lorries hidden under vegetables, and the other for covering Turkish Kurds being arrested, she accused of defaming Turkishness and causing the police to be a target.
We still work with writers in exile, writers whose works are banned in their own countries, and writers that continue to attempt to get published despite censorship. Index also publishes some of the world’s greatest journalists, as well as up and coming names, exposing attacks on freedom of expression. As former literary editor of The Observer newspaper Robert McCrum, a long time patron of Index, once wrote for the magazine, writers continue to be the grit in the engine of the state.
The magazine also seeks to shine a light on taboos that stop issues being tackled, or scandals being exposed, as well as campaigns that seek change. Recently University of Ulster academic Goretti Horgan wrote for us on what she considered had been “the greatest taboo in the Republic and Northern Ireland”, abortion and how politicians were being forced to address women’s concerns, and the innovative protests of the Speaking of Imelda group in sending knickers to Irish politicians to bring attention to the case for legal abortion. Other taboos covered, or uncovered, in the same issue of the magazine included China’s restrictions on reading about sex, despite topping the global charts for viewing porn and a Palestinian professor who received death threats for taking a history class to Auschwitz.
The same threats that those writers behind the Iron Curtain faced in 1972 are still faced today. Journalism and fiction is still suppressed when it upsets governments. Writers are still being shot. Mexican journalist Javier Valdez, who covered organised crime, was murdered in May this year, a particularly deadline year for journalists in that country. The challenges to freedom of expression and the right to write don’t seem to be going away. Index continues to publish those stories, and bring them to our attention.
Rachael Jolley is editor of the quarterly Index on Censorship magazine, which was first published in 1972, and is available around the world, www.exacteditions.com/indexoncensorship Follow us @index_magazine