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Speaking Freely: The impact of censorship

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. 



  1. PEN’s ‘Empty Chair’ represents writers around the world who have been silenced because of their work. Julian Assange has not, as yet, been silenced. I encourage you to research the three people who were represented by the ‘chair’ so that you might fully appreciate how deserving they are of our concern and respect.

    I doubt that any decision a seasoned journalist makes to censor is ever based on, as you write, decorum or tact. Such decisions are the most challenging a journalist/photojournalist will ever make in his or her career because they go to the heart of who you are: of your ethics and morality.

    The issues of Wikileaks and Julian Assange were addressed after a question from the floor. I believe the public are generally aware of the Wikileaks/Assange story. I am not sure any of us in the panel had any more facts to further that debate at this time.

    I wish you well in your chosen career.

  2. scumediastudents says

    Hi Denise,

    In response to your comments, I have a huge amount of concern and respect for the three members represented by the PEN ‘Empty Chair’. My comment about Assange deserving his own chair was not meant to detract from them in any way. However I disagree with you when you say he has not been silenced. I do think he has been silenced and I think that what is taking place should have at least been mentioned. As for what I said about tact and decorum, I was not referring to war corresponding or photo journalism where ethical decisions underpin censorship choices. I was talking about journalism at large, and the choices made every day. Actually, as I was writing sentence, I was listening back to the recording, to something Mohammed Hanif said about journalists having to show ‘decorum and tact’. Those were his words – not mine, and he is (as I understand it) a seasoned journalist. Thanks for the well wishes.

    • Actually, they weren’t Mohammed’s words, they were Nicole’s and she is (as I understand it) not a seasoned journalist. After your last post I took the time to listen to the recording of the session and am wondering why you would write that you were listening to Mohammed when you weren’t.

      Anyway, now that I have listened to the session I may as well cover a few other points in more detail. Were we at the same session? You wrote:

      “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.”

      Actually, enough hasn’t been said. Do you think Mohammed flew all the way from Pakistan to talk for approximately 15 minutes on a session on Censorship and a couple of other sessions? We are authors who have just published books and, as strange and offensive as that seems to you, we have an obligation to promote them. Having said that, I take the issue of censorship extremely seriously and I hope my writing supports that. It is also clear to me that both Nicole and Mohammed feel the same way about censorship (although I have to stress I cannot, and would not, speak for them). So some facts about the session and our so-called plugging of our prospective books. Mohammed and Nicole (whose seminal book is actually about censorship so she had to talk about it) spoke about their books only when they were directly asked a question about them. None of my books were mentioned during the session (although they deal extensively with journalists and censorship in war) and I did not mention, nor did I ever allude to any of them. Maybe I was plugging them through osmosis.

      In regard to Assange, if you recall I said that decisions by good journalists can often come down to the ethics and the moralities that define them. I have never written anything that could endanger another human being, although there have been times when I could have. As I stated in question time the problem I have with your ‘great man’ is that he published around 250,000 documents without regard to who he may have been endangering.

      If you want to find some great men and women who have put their lives on the line to speak out against censorship and injustice, who do not have high profile international lawyers working and speaking on their behalf, who do not make front page news in our papers, on our internet or nightly news, whose mothers cannot meet the president of a country to plead for the safety of their sons and daughters, who the general public know nothing about, but should, then you might like to go to the PEN web site, or find out more about one of the three people represented by the ‘Empty Chair’ on that day.

      Perhaps you would be interested in the Vietnamese blogger Ta Phong Tan whose mother didn’t meet a president and then hold a press conference to plead on behalf of her son, but who, in a last last desperate effort to raise the plight of her daughter and save her from disappearing into a Vietnamese jail self immolated this last week. Unlike Assange, Vietnamese bloggers knowingly put their lives in danger to further freedoms within their own country. Assange did not knowingly put his life in danger. What he did was not illegal and he could not have foreseen the ramifications.

      I am not saying he doesn’t deserve our support, but if we had discussed individual situations I believe it would have been more productive and informative for the audience to have spoken about someone like Ta Phong Tan. Or perhaps we could have told the audience about censorship in Mexico (where over 43 journalist and authors have been killed since 2006) and the story of the journalist Marco Antonio Ávila García, who was tortured before being strangled to death in May because of his reports on organised crime. Maybe then we could have ‘discuss a whole bunch of necessary issues’ around censorship in Vietnam and Mexico and what it means to those countries instead of giving more airtime to Assange who already has massive world-wide support and whose situation the audience already knows a great deal about.

      But then, all that is just my opinion and, as you write, ‘in the end it always comes back to that question of what is most at stake. Evidently.’

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