Fake news and censorship

Salil Tripathi (chair WiPC), Ma Thida (Myanmar PEN), William Nygaard (Norwegian PEN) and Halya Coynash (Ukraine PEN).

What happens when falsehood and distortions are expressed in the name of free speech? Should there be restraints? How can lies be countered in the post-truth world? And is it possible to define ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ in a world where alternative facts are as accessible as official histories?

William Nygaard, President of Norwegian PEN, speaks about the situation in Norway at the ICORN Network Meeting & PEN International Writers in Prison conference on 1 June 2017.

Fake news have existed since the very first newspaper saw the light of day in Germany in the fifteenth century. What characterizes our era, however, is that this phenomenon has become a widely used political tool, used on the one hand to denounce journalistic content one disagrees with, and on the other to attack the free and independent media. Fake news and trolling are evils that should always be attacked, wherever they pop up. Working against the attitudes underlying this particular kind of abuse is a prerequisite for the survival of a free democratic society.  In Norway the existence of fake news is on the increase – as is the case in other countries – and as I will illustrate further in a little while, the debate on how to deal with it is already well under way.

When considering basic principles concerning this phenomenon, one paradox arises: Attempts to define, regulate and penalize what is seen as «fake news» could lead to violations of the right to freedom of expression. It could well be that tolerating false news stories, rumors and even outright lies are the price we pay for the fundamental right to free communication in an open society. To solve this dilemma requires a demanding, but necessary, balancing act. This point was recently discussed in a joint declaration by prominent international organizations monitoring freedom of the press, among them David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and his colleagues.

In my view, the essential condition for a defense of freedom of expression is a human rights based approach, fighting propaganda, disinformation and fake news. This also implies that we should refrain from introducing provisions on fake news which violate human rights standards.

The situation in Norway
The situation in Norway may seem idyllic compared to the intense political polarization of countries like the United States. But the Norwegian media are subject to the same forces promoting fake news, half-truths and other forms of trolling.

According to a 2017 survey on freedom of the press from Journalists without Borders Norway takes the lead. But as we know, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not synonymous entities. Who is responsible for securing these fundamental rights in an open society like ours? Another survey on fake news, provided by the Ministry of Culture, reveals a characteristic feature in our solidly social-democrat society: Responsibility for the fight against trolling and fake news should not reside with the individual citizen, but rather with relevant institutions in our society. 68 % of the respondents felt that responsibility lay with the media, while only 27 % considered that the population has a substantial responsibility for preventing the spreading of fake news.

To me it seems clear that media responsibility alone is not sufficient.  In the pluralist media universe of the future, traditional media organizations are gradually losing their dominant position and are being replaced by an infinite variety of other platforms. In this situation it is our individual sense of responsibility and critical sense, together with an increased focus on education that is needed as a bulwark against the tsunami of fake news and other forms of trolling.

This individual responsibility becomes even more important when we look at the development of Facebook. Today Facebook is the platform (together with other social media) that is lining up for a takeover of the greater part of news distribution in the future. We really hate it, all kinds of monopolies tendencies we dislike. The survey from the Ministry of Culture shows that Facebook, as a medium without an overall editorial policy, also is the medium spreading the largest quantity of fake news and trolling. We know that Facebook takes this challenge seriously and is working hard on establishing further active measures to improve their control over this phenomenon. This is a positive development, but we still have a long road ahead of us.

Media competitors to join forces in the war against fake news
In July four important Norwegian media institutions: VG, Dagbladet, TV2 and NRK (the National Broadcasting Corporation) together with two independent foundations, Tinius-stiftelsen and Fritt Ord, will launch a new initiative in order to limit the amount of fake news and trolling in our media universe. The initiative is called Faktisk (Factual). It is a shareholding company, where the owners contribute 10 million kroner the first year and follow up with a guaranty (2 mill) the year after.

This is the first time competitors in the media are trying direct editorial collaboration apart from the editorial rationalizations that followed the important media mergers of the last decade. This is sensitive territory. This new initiative needs to be discussed from an analytical, critical angle, weighing the pros and cons,  based on the absolute premise of freedom of expression.

What kind of truth is a common editorial set-up supposed to legitimize, on what premise will it collect and sort the information, and judge between true and false info? Will the project secure mechanisms strong enough to avoid abuse, misleading information or various forms of conflict, for instance of editorial character?  Considering PEN’s role as a guardian of freedom of expression I feel obliged to point out the danger of establishing a kind of «truth police». At the end of the day, who is the guardian of truth? What will be made public, and how can we assure that it meets the real need in the public, and provide the responses they look for?

To be honest, it seems that this project – with all its merits and good intentions – needs to further clarify a definite goal and structure. The most important is to avoid reinforcing stereotypes and a relaxation among media professionals who mistakenly believe that this project will diminish their own ethical responsibility for the stories they present.

It is difficult to evaluate the quality of the Norwegian media on an international scale. But there can be no doubt that the generous economic framework of government media policy has been important, the way a long term cultural policy has contributed to the international success of Norwegian literature. And to a person with my professional background it seems that the Norwegian media in general maintains a respectable international level in their criticism of sources and continuous internal debate – at least until new economic realities will force changes in yet more editorial offices. In my active years in the media and in publishing I have witnessed how the motivation and the will to verify facts have improved considerably. Increased ethical awareness and the examples of people committed to good journalism have been important.

On the other hand, we must warn against a type of surveillance of fake news – and other news – that engenders new authoritarian ways of thinking and acting. Norwegian PEN visited Edward Snowden in Moscow recently, and his unreal universe is a powerful reminder. So far he has become a victim of his own idealist search for truth. Snowden’s warning of illegal surveillance of us all is being punished, while the guilty party walks free. That is the truth, and no «alternative fact» can change that.

The Role of PEN and Norwegian PEN
The response of Norwegian PEN in the critical situation for freedom of expression we are faced with has been to strengthen our focus on our own country. This does not mean that we have abandoned our efforts internationally – very far from it! But the same principle holds good in our work as in the struggle for climate change: If you are not willing to do something about your own situation, you can hardly expect an improvement in the overall community. Three years ago Norwegian PEN started The Norwegian Project for Freedom of Expression and Responsibility, supported financially by three separate foundations. Our organization is small, with two employees, but with a hard-working board, executive committee and highly committed members. Over the last few years membership has doubled and now counts close to 900, a solid contingent among the more than 100 member countries of PEN International.

Our project focuses on eight separate challenges to freedom of expression in this country, among them of course the media development, whistle-blowers, surveillance, challenges in a multicultural society, and not least: an active approach to young people on the meaning and impact of freedom of expression. On each project we make use of the most qualified experts, always in close cooperation with our strongly motivated board. This approach generates new energy, and we believe that Norwegian PEN signals a credible commitment to making an effort also in a larger format, internationally.

In other words: we try to handle both fake facts and the trolls that create them, and hopefully they will burst at sunrise, as they do in the fairy tales.

2nd World Conf. on Music & Censorship

2nd World Conference on Music and Censorship, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 28-29 2002


More than 100 musicians, musicologists, producers, journalists and human rights defenders from 25 countries worldwide convened in Copenhagen on the last weekend of September in order to lecture, discuss, present cases and hear personal testimonies concerning the state of music censorship in 2002.

A South African protest singer and the police spy assigned to stop his career met face to face in a panel discussion, a famous Afghan musician from Kabul told his personal story on how he was forced to work as a butcher under the Taliban regime

The 2nd World Conference on Music and Censorship examined the above cases, as well as personal testimonies from a Palestinian cultural worker, a controversial Israeli/Palestinian singer, a censor from Nigeria, and other musicians, journalists and scholars from Sudan, Cuba, Israel, Malaysia, and USA.

A total of 30 speakers from 20 different countries spoke at the conference, which also focused on the many aspects and effects of music censorship worldwide. Among the themes were censorship by corporative, governmental and religious bodies, media and music industry concentration, nationalism/protectionism, and limits of musical freedom caused by the September 11 attacks and other political events.

Thematically, the conference moved in various directions: the historic testimony in the South-Africa panel, the consequences of war and conflict leading to almost total absence of technical infrastructure (the Middle-East) and the more or less sophisticated examples of recent censorship, ranging from Turkey through the even more hardliner-regimes of Afghanistan and North Korea.  The latter country includes two officially state appointed pop groups who, throughout their «careers» have released a total of more than 100 CDs, the only pop-CDs available in the country.  In Turkey, self-censorship still hinders Kurdish music and cultural expression in spite of the fact that Turkish authorities recently lifted their ban. Recently a trial was announced against 11 women in a folk music ensemble performing a 60-year-old Kurdish song at a cultural festival in Diyarbakir.  But, in spite of this, things are slowly getting better.  Only a few decades ago certain instruments like the «oud» were forbidden, and government appointed committees «chose» the music you were supposed to hear and approved bands and ensembles.  Needless to say, only those that played  pure, Turkish music were allowed and all foreign, ethnic expressions were banned.

On the telephone from Jerusalem, Rania Elias, director of Yabous Productions – a non-profit Palestinian organization set up in 1995 in order to organize festivals and concerts and promote Palestinian groups and artists within the performing arts, excused herself explaining that this was the 13th international conference she had to turn down so far this year.  She is not allowed to travel.  The situation for Yabous is getting increasingly difficult.  One aspect is the Israeli occupation which «deprives us of our ability to move and work freely» as well as the bombing of Palestinian TV and radio stations.  But even if they could move around freely – the Israeli have imposed a six o`clock curfew – people are afraid to move around during nighttime.  Also, the economic situation being the way it is, musical events are not among people`s main priorities.  The consequences are, that in several cities such as Ramallah, public concerts are simply not being organized.

And then there is the political aspect.  Whereas writers in the Middle East, at least in secrecy, keep in contact, there are no musical relations between Palestinian and Israeli musicians.  At one of the last festivals that was arranged in the area, musicians from Egypt and Palestine refused to attend if Israeli musicians were invited.  The festival organizers chose to comply with the demands of the Arabs and so the reactions from the Israeli side were unanimous («You`re a bunch of nazis»). The Arab music world on the other hand, would also evidently welcome a total cultural boycott of Israel.

A session called «limits of free expression» gave examples of Mexican and Italian authorities trying to come to grips with «underground» music gone popular: The Mexican corridos associated with the drug-business and Italian songs associated with the Mafia.  The music, as was demonstrated at the conference, was sweet, almost folkishly naive, but the lyrics were another story altogether, brutal, violent and gloryfying the bussiness.  Both authorities and artists, however, seem slightly ambivalent.  Said one corrido bandleader after Mexican authorities had banned their song critizising president Fox: «I would have banned it too if I were the president.»

The Afghanistan session was a mixed experience.  While bringing together musicians in exile and Afghan musicians who had stayed home during the Taliban regime, the panel was top-heavy with representatives of the latter group who all seemed to condone the new regime and the presence of the international society.  Be that as it may, their reluctance to answer questions relating to the total lack of women in music and media as well as the ethnic diversity of the country, left this listener with the impression that the music scene in the new Afghanistan may not be as free as we were being told.

But the situation under Taliban was pure horror in comparison.  Whereas music has always been an important part of Islam and censorship rules have been muddy, the only form of musical expression allowed during Taliban was unaccompanied chanting.  Musical instruments were forbidden and destroyed, musicians got their fingers and even hands cut off and there were no public performances at all.  Still today, there`s a lack of musical infrastructure to meet with the growing demands of the Afghan people; poor distribution, few media outlets, no education and almost no venues.

If the Afghanistan panel was confusing, the session on South Africa was both interesting and touching.  It was the story of a South African protest singer and the security branch policeman assigned to end his career.  The whole story was also told in the 54-minutes film «Stopping the Music» which got a special screening outside the conference.

Roger Lucey is a white, South African protest singer who dared to challenge the injustice of the apartheid system through his songs.  He encouraged his colleagues and his audience to «stop singing Bob Dylan texts and start singing about our own reality.»  When he became very popular the security police intervened.  The film, which was shot in post-apartheid South Africa, as well as the panel during the conference, focused on the relationship between Lucey and the policeman assigned to stop him, Paul Erasmus.  They each described and explained their experiences of the dirty tricks campaign waged against Lucey.  Having individually explored their past during the shooting of the film, they agreed to meet each other for the first time on camera in the very hotel where Erasmus used to celebrate his successful campaigns, including some of those against Lucey.

The film and the panel was ultimately a story of reconciliation in a country once torn apart by severe racial and ideological conflicts and offered a moving insight into the cathartic process of facing up to one`s past.  But the session was not without humorous aspects.  Music producer and publisher David Marks explained that political consciousness was very low, both among white South Africans and among visiting artists.  Some of the artists playing the famous «Sun City» resort in the seventies and eighties did not even understand that they were actually in South Africa.  As for the South Africans themselves, Marks illustrated his point by telling the following story:

Once upon a time in the 1970ies, Boney M, the popular black soul-pop-disco group of that era, visited South Africa.  They did not at all like what they witnessed.  Some time after, they attended the MIDEM festival in Cannes, the record industry`s annual get-together.  At MIDEM they ran into a white, female South African record producer and started questioning and almost harassing her about the political situation in her country.  The producer, obviously baffled by the hostility of the musicians, gave the best answers she could.  But this was not doing it for Boney M, and at a certain point one of the musicians screamed: «But when are you guys going to release Nelson Mandela?»  Whereupon the producer, evidently slightly confused, replied: «Yes, well – what label is he on?»

Paul Erasmus «turned» in the late eighties.  He himself became a security risk and was persecuted by his own colleagues.  In his opinion, this was part of the white regime`s strategy in their negotiations with the ANC – they needed to give the impression that they were serious.  Whatever aspect you choose – the South African reconciliation process is something to be studied by other countries as well as ethnic and political groups in and areas of war and conflict.

There were other sessions equally interesting, if not that moving.  During «The Logic Behind Music Censorship», the «logic» of conservative interpretations of music in Islam was explained by Jonas Otterbeck of the University of Malmø, Sweden, as the «fear of music as a competing source for passion and pleasure.»  Music, according to Islamic hard-liners, is useless.  Instead of giving praise to Allah and learning about Islam, musicians engage in useless and sometimes harmful activities.  And this, then, becomes the crucial issue: The presumed power of the music.  Music is seen as a competitor for the passion of humans.  That is the «logic» behind the hard-liners attitude and, consequently, music censorship in parts of the Islamic world.

During a session on Cuba, a Cuban anthropologist now reciding in USA, tried to «explain» censorship as part of a deeper logic which had nothing to do with censorship imposed by authorities.  She was paired in the panel with Gorki Luis Aguila Carrasco, a musician from the band «Porno para Ricardo», one of Cubas most censored groups.  In spite of the fact that their band-posters are red with the good old hammer and sickle, their CDs contain warnings and in reviews and newpaper articles journalists change the band-name in order not to provoke readers and authorities.  They simply go too far.  But this is Cuba today, seemingly more tolerant, but according to Carrasco they fool you.  The communist party tries to influence young musicians, censorship is heavy and, in short, «everything is being monitored.»  Nobody speaks their own opinions in public, there are rules for all public expressions and performances and, last but not least, everybody should abide by the «fact» that «the Cuban government takes care of your happiness.»  So, where is the deeper logic?

There were still other sessions, discussions and speakers, but this is what I was able to cover.  The program was packed with an impressive list of speakers and important themes, enough to fill more than the two days that the conference lasted.  So, the next time around, we may very well spend a full week in Copenhagen.  Sadly enough, music censorship will not go away, at least not in our time.

A complete report from the conference will be available in February 2003.  Meanwhile, check out the organisation Freemuse at www.freemuse.org.

Carl Morten Iversen