This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Voltaire has been rewritten

I have an urgent announcement to make to the many people who, over the years, have said to me: "I don't agree with a word of what you have said, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it." I have decided to take you up on the offer. I want to go to George W Bush's inauguration ceremony with an 18-wheel flat-bed rig and 20kW PA system and continuously broadcast: "Compulsory abortions for all non-Satanists! Hail Osama!" Either that, or turn up at a Countryside Alliance demonstration, blasting out: "I'm Alun Michael and I've come to claim your wives!"

I can't quite make up my mind which to do, but remembering your kind offer to lay down your life, I thought that this might be the right opportunity for such a gesture. Anyone up for it?

Freedom of speech might not give us the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, but it does give us the right to shout "Heard it!" during Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy. As the political activist Abbie Hoffman observed, freedom of speech is the right to shout "Theatre!" in a crowded fire. And had he been alive and present when Bush spoke through a bullhorn in the rubble of the twin towers, he'd have had the perfect moment in which to shout it.

Many may quote Voltaire, but what they really mean is: "I vaguely agree with your values and will be prepared to sign a petition and possibly wear a badge for your right to say it."

Generally it is assumed that issues regarding freedom of speech occur abroad. We might even be aware of the odd case, like the comedians U Pa Pa Lay and U Lu Zaw in Burma, jailed for five years in March 1996 for performing satirical sketches. However, although the nearest we get to the repression of comedians in this country is the biannual removal of Jim Davidson's driving licence, we are still an illiberal nation when it comes to free speech.

The 1997 Gandalf trial in the UK received little attention in the press and, subsequently, little support outside the activist community. Three men were charged with conspiracy to incite criminal damage under the Criminal Justice Act. They were found guilty and each was sentenced to three years. They served four and a half months before being freed on appeal. So what evidence did the Crown Prosecution Service come up with? In an occasional magazine called Green Anarchist, writers had reported on various acts of civil disobedience.

The prosecution argued that this kind of reporting encouraged others to commit criminal damage. Such logic, which insists that reporters of conflict or disruption are to blame for further violence, can only lead us to conclude that Rageh Omaar is to blame for the invasion of Iraq.

In Britain, we rarely support free speech for ideologies we do not agree with. The New Statesman (18 October) did offer some decent press coverage of the latest assault on freedom of speech and press. This involved the Indymedia website - the most significant step taken in journalism since Rupert Murdoch moved his printing plants to Wapping. The site is run by volunteers and, for its content, it relies entirely on contributions by ordinary people, the citizens of whatever country where it is running. "Don't hate the media, be it!" is its slogan. It challenges people to tell their own stories and report on events. One of the best examples of Indymedia in action in the UK came during last year's arms fair in Docklands, when up-to-the-minute reports, photos and footage provided a running commentary on the protests taking place at the fair.

On 7 October, the FBI seized Indymedia's servers in London. The seizure orders came as a result of a request from the Italian and Swiss governments. With the servers' removal, 20 Indymedia sites in countries all over the world went down. This was an act of censorship and intimidation. It was the equivalent of the FBI storming the Guardian's offices and demanding that the paper hand over all its computers, including those that hold details of its writers and photographers.

The odd thing is that the FBI seized the servers at the request of foreign authorities - and yet the Home Office claims to know nothing about it. Apparently, there is no protection of privacy for Indymedia contributors. There is no accountability for the actions taken by the FBI. The Home Office just shrugs its shoulders.

There is no greater censor than the fear of Big Brother watching over your shoulder. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a jackboot on a human face for ever - and a rather cute black guide dog sitting next to it.

On 10 November, Mark Thomas will receive an International Service Human Rights Award for his work as a "global human rights defender" at a ceremony in London. Judges praised him for "using his skills and talent so intelligently to raise public awareness of human rights abuses at home and abroad".


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