Index on Censorship, an organisation set up during the Cold War to give a voice to Russian dissidents, is celebrating its 50th birthday in a week in which the clock seems to have turned back to all those tensions.
On Tuesday evening friends and associates (I’m a trustee) crowded into the Bishopsgate Institute in London to listen to the current chair Trevor Phillips and the previous chair Jonathan Dimbleby discuss the history and future of free speech.
I say “crowded”. We had a few drop outs because of Covid, but welcomed stalwarts from the ranks of the Cold War warriors, journalists in corduroy old enough to remember the first time round, regarded with interest by a new generation of intellectuals, men and women from the writing trades.
Everyone rallied to Stephen Spender’s founding manifesto. “Our need today is for organs of consciousness that would help us know and to care about other members of the same intellectual community, much as Christians once were vigilant for other Christians in times of religious persecution.”
We looked at our phones at the news of Marina Ovsyannikova, the Russian television editor who held up a placard behind the newsreader on Russia’s Channel One. The video message she had recorded before her protest was lion hearted: “Unfortunately in recent years I have been working for Kremlin’s propaganda. And I am ashamed of it… We are Russian people – thoughtful and smart. It’s up to us to stop this madness. Come out to the rallies. Don’t be afraid of anything. They can’t imprison us all.”
Thus triumphs the bravery of protest movements. “They can’t imprison us all.”
Sometimes, they can. Dissent in Hong Kong was ruthlessly suppressed on the instructions of China. Russia organises the disappearance of citizens and sends missiles, artillery and tanks in an attempt to destroy its neighbour.
We’ve all struggled to answer a simple question: “What would WE do?” It is one thing to promote principles of freedom and democracy, another to risk our lives for them.
We can only admire those who have risen to the challenge. In the anniversary edition of Index on Censorship’s magazine, the Soviet dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya is pictured at a memorial protest in Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslavakia, 45 years after she was brave enough to attend the original demonstration. She stands by a banner that reads: “For your freedom and ours.”
Index on Censorship’s offers solidarity of language rather than arms or aid. Words may seem secondary at times of war and oppression. But they are tools all of us can use, the means to assert our freedoms and our humanity. That is why it is so important that we value words and language and assert our rights to use them.
The Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries was wrong to have the Kremlin backed broadcaster Russia Today taken off the air. Let us hear it and respond to it. And why be so sure that the Russians are in thrall to their government’s crude propaganda? The world’s tech companies break governmental power. Social media have created alternative power blocs.
On Friday, the UK media regulator Ofcom also announced that it was banning Russia Today, on the grounds that its criminalisation of journalists who reported facts unfriendly to Russia broke the rules of impartiality. This does not prevent it from publishing online, and thus online becomes the front line for the battle for truth. 
So let us not fight propaganda with propaganda but with the more powerful weapon that is truth: lists of names of the Russian dead, facts about the Russian economy. We must break through the iron curtain of information and let in the light that comes with truth.
Ukraine is a real war. People are dying. Our judgments are easy to make. But away from the battlefield a social conflict rages that questions whether we truly value freedom of expression. Here we have found new ways to stop people with whom we disagree, cancelling them from public life. If we are to be serious custodians of free speech, we must seek to win by force of argument rather than through the suppression of our opponents’ words. Let us not fear language, but take on our opponents word for word.
It’s not the way to a comfortable life, of course. Views change, societies move. Some of our heroes have feet of clay. Does that negate their art? Philip Roth was an early contributor to Index on Censorship; must he now languish after his death, on trial for misogyny? Can we never read the biography of him by Blake Bailey, on the grounds of the biographer’s alleged unacceptable sexual behaviour?
Index on Censorship started life as Writers and Scholars International. Fifty years ago, western publishers and academics understood the big prize that was freedom of speech. How shaming that so many of them have been reluctant to fight for it in recent years. We define ourselves by our opposition to the behaviour of Russia. But when we say that we believe in freedom of expression, we had better mean it.
Sarah Sands is a journalist and author. She was editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme from 2017 to 2020. Ayesha Hazarika is away
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