Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Silencing an Inconvenient Truth

So you think it isn’t dangerous to be a writer?

Writing seems such a harmless occupation, but if you start looking at international affairs, you begin to realise just how powerful the written word is. I have recently edited a book on the political situation in Egypt, with the proviso that my name did not appear anywhere in relation to the book. Given the way that Egypt has recently been treating journalists, it seemed a wise precaution, though I still felt rather cowardly.

The case of disappearing publishers in Hong Kong has recently focused public attention on the dangers of writing and publishing material that those in power don’t like.  Lee Bo and his four associates  published books that were legal in Hong Kong, but not in China, yet they were ‘spirited away’ across the border in a sinister scenario worthy of a Bond movie.  So, what kind of firebrand publishing business was this?  According to a HK bookseller, their books ‘focus on taboo topics: politics, religion and sex.’

Lee Bo
In many, many countries across the world, freedom of information and opinion is restricted on these three absolutely fundamental subjects.  When I worked in broadcasting in Qatar, these three subjects could not be mentioned and a Ministry of Information censor sat in the corner of the studio ready to pull the plug. Even in the supposedly liberal west, the idea that we have complete freedom in these areas is an illusion, as the arrest of Edward Snowden and others has recently illustrated. If you reveal your government’s duplicity and seek to tell an unwelcome truth, you are regarded as a national traitor and liable to be incarcerated for a very long time.  In the USA you can be murdered for supporting Planned Parenthood.  All over the world you can be murdered for being the wrong kind of Christian or the wrong kind of Muslim.  In Saudi Arabia don’t even mention either the D word (democracy) or Women’s Rights. Critics of Islam have been gunned down in European capital cities, most notably the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris. What you write can seriously affect your health.

Palestinian journalist Mohamed al-Qeq is reported to be near death, after a hunger strike protesting against his detention in an Israeli jail without charge for six months.  What he was writing was deemed by Israel to support Hamas.

Hamza Kashgari
The Middle East is one of the most risky areas for a writer, and the case of 23 year old poet and newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari is particularly sinister.  In 2012 he posted a number of Tweets that could be construed as critical of the prophet Mohammed and supportive of women’s rights. The authorities called for his arrest on charges of ‘apostasy’ which carries the death penalty. Hamza left to seek political asylum in New Zealand, but, despite an injunction against his extradition (Malaysia has no extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia), he was intercepted in the transit lounge of Kuala Lumpur international airport, arrested and put on a private plane to Saudia Arabia.  He spent two years in jail without trial before an international campaign secured his release.  Hamza wrote that;

"I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights—freedom of expression and thought—so nothing was done in vain. I believe I'm just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights."  In his Tweets, he commented on women’s rights by stating that Saudi women "won't go to hell 'because it's impossible to go there twice." He was forced to issue a public apology and has been silent since then.

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, also arrested in 2012, was sentenced to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison.  Where he remains, in poor health after receiving the first round of lashes, despite being granted political asylum in Canada. He, too, has been effectively silenced.

In the 21st century, with a global internet network, shouldn’t we be moving towards a more liberal information culture? Sadly, it seems not. There is a growing culture of fear in the world of publishing. Only the brave, the committed and - possibly the old with nothing left to lose - are willing to risk their lives to tell an inconvenient truth. 

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