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“The left has let conservatives hijack freedom of speech”

Ruth Smeeth, the former Labour MP and head of Index on Censorship, on the dangers posed to expression by the pandemic, war and an "incoherent" government.

By Samir Jeraj

In June 2020, three months into the pandemic, the former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was appointed chief executive of Index on Censorship, which campaigns for freedom of expression. The pandemic has lent new urgency to Index’s work: the organisation verified 250 attacks on media freedom worldwide as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. “The cover of Covid gave [governments] permission to attack media freedom in different corners of the world,” she tells me when we speak on Zoom.

Many states introduced curbs on freedom of expression, supposedly to counter the pandemic. Jordan, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco all banned the distribution of print newspapers, and even the Scottish government decided that it would water down freedom of information rights.

“Free speech, at its best, empowers people to argue, to debate and because of that to come up with new solutions to different ways to see the world, to challenge the status quo,” she says. “At its worst, it can completely destroy people, and it can scare people and can make them feel very isolated and alone.”

As the former deputy director of the campaign group Hope not Hate, and a high-profile Jewish MP facing down anti-Semitism inside and outside her own party, Smeeth understands intimately the harm that untrammelled hate speech can cause. As an MP she was the frequent target of anti-Semitic abuse on social media, and in 2016 she required police protection after a death threat.

“We should really embrace the power of speech and the power of free expression as part of the argument for change,” Smeeth says. She argues that movements for equality and liberation, particularly in the US — such as the Stonewall uprising, and the Civil Rights movement — were expressions of free speech. She acknowledges that there’s an important distinction to be made between lively debate and abusive or threatening communication, but feels that “we’re nowhere near having that conversation yet”.

She pointed out that, historically, the political left has consistently fought for free speech and freedom of association. From the Levellers and Tolpuddle Martyrs through trade union history and modern liberation movements, the left has “used freedom of speech and freedom of expression as ways to change the world”. She now believes that the left has forgotten its own history, leaving free speech up for grabs. “The political right have definitely tried to hijack something that was always of the left,” she says. “They [the political right] never wanted to challenge the status quo.” 

Smeeth has little positive to say about the current UK government’s approaches to free speech. She says that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, Online Safety Bill, and Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are “completely incoherent” in how they view free speech. The Higher Education Bill nominally seeks to protect the freedom in universities, including to express views that many find objectionable, but Index, PEN and Article 19 have expressed their concerns that legislation and “state control” is not the best way to promote freedom of speech.

By contrast the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill gives the police greater powers to restrict protests, including demonstrations by a single person. The former home secretary David Blunkett compared these measures to anti-protest laws in Putin’s Russia.

As for the Online Safety Bill, Smeeth said she was concerned about possible consequences if its restrictions, intended stop harassment and abuse, end up being exported to other countries with a poor record on freedom of expression.

Smeeth also highlighted the case of Digga D, a popular drill musician in the UK who was convicted of conspiracy to commit violent disorder in 2018 and served a year in prison. He is now subject to unprecedented restrictions on the content of his music until at least 2025. “It is a scandal that more people don’t know about Digga D and the fact that he has to give his lyrics to the police in advance.”

Index on Censorship was founded in 1971 as a magazine of solidarity to publish the work of dissidents. One of its early contributors was the playwright and future president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, whose 1979 article in Index on the importance of dissidence was published shortly before one of his arrests. Havel spent eight years in prison for his political activities.

Upon publication in London, Index was smuggled into countries with tight restrictions on freedom speech, such as Warsaw Pact countries of eastern Europe. The novelist Philip Roth was one of its volunteer magazine-smugglers. Over fifty years on, freedom of speech, press and political association remain under threat. “China especially is testing international law and is trying to see how far they can go to shape the narrative around them outside of their own borders, which I don’t think we have ever seen before on this scale,” Smeeth says.

China may have learned from Russia, she suggested. Putin has long used Russian state media to undermine domestic opposition and shape how the country is viewed overseas. This has become starkly apparently in recent weeks, as Russia has sought to restrict information within its borders about its invasion of Ukraine and made it a criminal offence for journalists to report accurately about the war.

“The crackdown on media freedom by Putin is almost total,” Smeeth says. “In recent days we’ve seen nearly every independent media outlet in Russia either shut up shop or cease all coverage of the Russian invasion into Ukraine. Even the science journal Trinity Option has been blocked by the Russian state regulator because of an open letter against the war signed by 7,600 scientists. Independent journalism is a foundation of democratic society and Index will keep providing a platform for dissidents who want to shine a light on this repression. ”

As for the role of social media, Smeeth welcomes a move by companies such as Twitter to highlight content that has been produced by state media and state-affiliated individuals, but noted that some countries abuse these sorts of rules to wrongly label people state agents. This happened to Daria Apakhonchich, a Russian artist who received an Index on Censorship award for freedom of expression and is classified as a “foreign agent” under Russian law, which means she has to include a disclaimer in her social media posts.

Social media has also placed more power in the hands of citizens living under repressive regimes. Citizen journalists have been able to use it to record and report on events of global significance. “We’ve got the first war crimes tribunals going through in Europe based on social media evidence gathered about Syria,” Smeeth says. “That information, those photos, those videos, they were collected by citizen journalists.”

The challenge is how to protect citizen journalists when they have no specialist training or recognised press status. This has become a stumbling block for the Online Safety Bill, which is trying to determine how to define journalists so that their speech is protected online.

Despite being engaged in some of the most polarising and divisive debates in the UK, Smeeth calls herself a “glass half-full person”. The years since the Brexit referendum have been marked by unpleasant debate online and offline, she reflects, but she believes there is a reaction to that now and a move towards more constructive engagement between people who disagree. “I think we’re going to get back to a point of tolerance,” she says. “Then we can start arguing again in a way that isn’t threatening and isn’t violent.”

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