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Index on Censorship is thriving and defending free speech around the world

1 April 2014

1 April 2014

Index on Censorship defends free speech and debate for all – so we defend Nick Cohen’s right to write a blog highly critical of Index. The problem is, however, that what he wrote was wrong, both in broad outline and finer detail. As a consequence Nick threatens to undermine the very cause that he claims to hold most dear.

Index is not ‘falling apart’ nor is it even ‘in crisis’. In common with many other organisations in the charity sector it found itself, last year, facing a shortfall in funding. There are complex reasons for this but one of them, ironically, may be due to the very opposite problem to the one Nick suggests. Index almost alone among similar organisations, took the position after Leveson that we should campaign against state involvement in the regulation of the press. This almost certainly cost us donors and continues to be a highly controversial position, as those attending last week’s journalism conference at the LSE may be able to testify.

The result of the shortfall was a retrenchment and some redundancies, inevitably involving very valuable and respected staff members. This was painful and necessary but there was no other credible way of safeguarding Index’s position.  The financial outlook for Index is now much more robust. But even while this process was going on Index staff, together with our many regional correspondents and freelance contributors to our website and magazine round the world, were highlighting and taking on censorship in dozens of countries.

Last week, before an audience of 260 people at the Barbican in London, our 2014 Index Freedom of Expression Awards celebrated 17 brave and extraordinary nominees and hailed the four winners of our awards, from Egypt, India, Pakistan and Azerbaijan, covering journalism, advocacy, arts and digital freedom. Index’s website recently hit its highest audience figures and our social media followership continues to grow strongly.

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A look at Index’s website would show Nick that Index has strongly defended Edward Snowden, demanded with partners from around the world an end to mass surveillance and joined in judicial review of David Miranda’s detention – under the UK Terrorism Act. It has stood up to internet censorship and restrictions whether those be David Cameron’s domestic push for filters in the UK, and higher criminal penalties for ‘offensive’ posts, or Turkey’s attacks on Twitter and YouTube.

Perhaps most wounding, Nick accuses Index of abandoning underground journalists in Belarus. This is just not true. Index did take the strategic decision over a year ago that it would extend its international reach and editorial on authoritarian regimes – from Vietnam to North Korea to Egypt, Turkey and Zimbabwe amongst others. In doing that, we decided to retain a strategic focus on Azerbaijan but to end our focused project on Belarus. That small project spent just under £1,000 in the last year on commissioning several freelance writers on Belarus, many of them based outside Belarus – in the Baltics and Austria. It was very good work but to suggest we have abandoned journalists who relied on us is simply (though theatrically) inaccurate.

Index is grateful to all our financial supporters – large and small. Nick claims a body called ‘Fritford’ stopped funding Index. This is doubly inaccurate. A brief Google search would show that the organisation concerned is Fritt Ord (meaning ‘free word’ in Norwegian), one of the leading international freedom of expression foundations. Fritt Ord remains one of our main financial donors and we are hugely grateful to them for their continuing support.

Nick also claims that the board, in a fit of panic, pushed the departing CEO, Kirsty Hughes out of her job because the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, had threatened to resign as one of our patrons. This is a complete fantasy. Hislop had some months earlier considered publishing a piece on Index’s financial problems and had offered to David Aaronovitch to resign as patron if this was problematic – Aaronovitch assured him there was no reason to resign even if publication went ahead. In fact Hughes’s decision to resign was hers alone, and was not something the Chair or board either wanted or sought. There are, unfortunately, several similar errors in the piece but it would be tedious to go through all of them.

Life is hard enough as it is for freedom of expression charities, because though many pay lip service to such freedom, they often balk at the reality of it. It is doubly hard when friends of free expression, as Nick is, are so careless with the reputation of others who labour in the field. But we won’t insist on an apology. Rather we invite Nick to visit Index, talk to its staff, and find a way of contributing directly to the work that we do.

David Aaronovitch is Chair of Index and Kirsty Hughes is CEO of Index

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Show comments
  • Frank Fisher

    “Index on Censorship defends free speech and debate for all”

    No you don’t and you never have. When David Irving was jailed there were cheers sin the Index office. When Living Marxism lost its libel case, also cheers. Did you publish the Motoons in solidarity with cartoonists? Nope. Did you, on the other hand, urge your readers to applaud the murder of Theo Van Gogh? Yes you did. Did you publish obviously false stories of genocide in Kosovo to propagandise for NATO’s bombing? You bet you did.

    Index is there to provide a fig leaf of establishment support for free speech. Like Liberty however, you have no intention of actually defending the rights of those you disagree with. It’s illusory – whoever pays you, calls your tune. Like the CIA funding of slightly critical left-leaning orgs in the Cold War, those who still like to put about the notion that the West today values free speech, when it very clearly does not, need willing stooges to soak up their funding. You are those stooges.

    There always was something very rotten at the heart of Index, and I guess that hasn’t gone away.

    Hey Padraig, I assume you’re out there – I guess you can see what I was on about now eh?

    • SpookySpook

      Can you point to some evidence of index supporting the murder of theo Van Gogh please? Or are you just another paranoid loon?

      • Frank Fisher

        Have you ever heard of Google?

        • SpookySpook

          No. What is it?

          • Frank Fisher


            • Rohan Jayasekera

              It’s all shockingly true. It was I. And yes, Frank’s just another paranoid loon.

              • Mr Grumpy

                Well, let’s just make sure everyone can read what you wrote about Van Gogh, shall we?


                • Rohan Jayasekera

                  Go for it. The dumb blog has been hanging round my neck for ten years. I think I’d miss it if it was forgotten.

                • Mr Grumpy

                  Don’t worry, I will have forgotten your name in about five minutes’ time. Index, on the other hand, should not expect to enjoy the benefits of amnesia quite so soon.

                • Rohan Jayasekera

                  You’ll never forget me. I’m the touchstone of your very soul, all you have left to animate your sad unfulfilled life. We shall spin together for all time crystallised in a virtual dimension, the three of us, like General Zod and his luckless cohorts in Superman II (The Richard Donner version). And I think Index should always remember what I did for it, so, thanks there :-)

  • roman_column

    If I had the choice of hugging an EU apparatchik or a leper, the leper will get my hugs each and every day. I don’t care whether Ms Hughes left or was pushed, her management has been a total catastrophe. To lose one member of staff could be bad luck, to lose two coincidence, but to lose seventeen in less than two years? And as a former EU bureaucrat I would be very surprised if Ms. Hughes remuneration for the last year would not be into six figures.

    I keep reading about Belarus and David Snowden, but wouldn’t the extermination of Christians in the Middle East after more than 2000 years of presence be a more worthy cause? Where are the voices of the tens of thousands of girls and women who are the victims of female genital mutilation in the UK and we have just seen the first prosecution in twenty-five years or so?

    Like many “charities” Index on Censorship appears to have lost its way.

  • MikeF

    “we defend Nick Cohen’s right to write a blog highly critical of Index.”
    What a pathetic statement – nobody is trying to censor Mr Cohen and so there is nothing to defend against in this instance.

    • Mr Grumpy

      But it makes Mr Aaronovitch feel important.

  • Martin Keegan

    Index on Censorship is not, or should not be, in the charity sector, as the authors claim. It should be a non-profit, not a charity.

    • monty61

      Which is the more deserving charity, Index or Eton College? Hmm let me think about that for a moment.

      • notme3

        Clearly Eton. The provision of education is always a charitable act.

        • SpookySpook


          • notme3

            The Charitable uses Act 1601 says different.
            “Charity in its legal sense comprises four principal divisions: Trusts
            for the relief of poverty; trusts for the advancement of education;
            trusts for the advancement of religion; and trusts for other purposes
            beneficial to the community”

            Eton is a school, and thus for the advancement of education. You might have some peculiar problem with the fact that some of the people who go there arent poor. But that isnt a criteria.

            The act of education is in itself a charitable good.

          • Mr Grumpy

            Well, it is certainly a waste of money in some cases.

      • SpookySpook

        Index, obviously.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Eton every time. Eton does not advocate murder.

    • SpookySpook

      Why on earth do you think that? Index fully meets the Public Benefit test, and the non-political requirement.

      • Fergus Pickering

        What public benefit? And how non-political?

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