If you were heading out to the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival today to an event entitled Speaking Freely: The Impact of Censorship, you’d probably assume that Julian Assange would rate a mention.
Instead however, the presence of Assange loomed large in the marquis tent this morning, like an omniscient presence – the proverbial elephant in the room.
Was it a conscious decision not to talk about the Wikileaks founder and the fate that surely awaits him for his role in overseeing what he describes as the pursuit of transparency? Was it possible that the panel of journalists, hand chosen for their stance against censorship, had in fact chosen today to censor the big man himself? Perhaps it was just a really big oversight on um… someone’s behalf. Anyway -
Sitting on the panel were Mohammed Hanif, Denise Leith and Nicole Moore, who has just recently published a book on the history of censorship in Australia. Chaired by Julianne Schultz stepping in for Simon Marnie, Schultz paid homage to the PEN empty chair, reserved for not one, but three international writers who were currently imprisoned respectively in Mexico and China, on charges relating to censorship and conspiracy.
I couldn’t help thinking that a chair should have been reserved for Julian Assange but then that would have actually meant mentioning his name, and discussing a whole bunch of really necessary issues – giving less time for each panellist to plug their prospective books. Enough said.
The theme of ‘speaking freely’ pivoted around what censorship has to say about a society. The central questions society must ask of itself chimed the panel, revolve around what is being censored and why.
In Pakistan, explains Hanif, silence is the ultimate blasphemy. What is silenced and excluded tells you a lot about a society.
Moore brought an interesting perspective to the panel derived from the research on her book, The Censor’s Library. Funnily enough the book took seven years to complete, Moore tells us.
“I went down into the archives and then seven years later, I emerged.”
There were literally 793 boxes, equalling 12,000 titles of censored books.
Throughout Australia’s history, explains Moore, different types of books have been banned for different reasons, depending on the era and the moral panic of the time. Social norms played a huge role in determining what was classed as taboo. For example, in the thirties it was books on birth control and sex, then we moved onto homosexuality, and in a post war Australia it was all about political censorship, particularly Socialism and Communism.
In Pakistan, explains Hanif, it used to be about sex, and now censorship is all about religion. Even the average citizen must be careful how they speak about religion in the public domain and therefore a kind of self-censorship becomes normal in everyday life.
For the writer and for the journalist, there is a responsibility to share truth and to remain faithful to the truth while at the same time remaining respectful of those who may not want those stories told. Hanif suggests that fiction is the perfect solution. Writing fiction, he explains, enables the writer to tell the story they want to tell, the story they think is important, without having to worry about self-censorship or stepping on anyone’s toes.
On the topic of self-censorship, Denise Leith shares her own knowledge and wisdom on the subject of war reporting and particularly photojournalism.
“Photo-journalists are faced with a series of ethical and moral decisions,” Leith says.
Telling the truth isn’t always straight-forward, there are costs involved for the subjects in the photograph and their families, for the newspaper owners, for the advertisers and for the public at large. The journalist’s role is to document the truth and they give us the first cut of the truth but at the same time, there are consequences, and choices must be based around decorum, respect and tact. In the end it always comes back to that question of what is most at stake.
Michelle Sim is a Southern Cross University Student.