The Long History of Censorship

Mette Newth
Norway, 2010

Censorship has followed the free expressions of men and women like a shadow throughout history. In ancient societies, for example China, censorship was considered a legitimate instrument for regulating the moral and political life of the population. The origin of the term censor can be traced to the office of censor established in Rome i 443 BC. In Rome, as in the ancient Greek communities, the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Hence censorship was regarded as an honourable task. In China, the first censorship law was introduced in 300 AD.

Censorship: A Global and Historical Perspective

This is true Liberty when free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv's high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What can be juster in a State then this?


Perhaps the most famous case of censorship in ancient times is that of Socrates, sentenced to drink poison in 399 BC for his corruption of youth and his acknowledgement of unorthodox divinities. It is fair to assume that Socrates was not the first person to be severely punished for violating the moral and political code of his time. This ancient view of censorship, as a benevolent task in the best interest of the public, is still upheld in many countries, for example China. This notion was advocated by the rulers of the Soviet Union (USSR), who were responsible for the longest lasting and most extensive censorship era of the 20th Century.

The struggle for freedom of expression is as ancient as the history of censorship. The playwright Euripides (480-406 BC) defended the true liberty of freeborn men—the right to speak freely. Nevertheless, he was careful to point out that free speak was a choice.

Free speech: A Challenge to Religious Power in Europe

Free speech, which implies the free expression of thoughts, was a challenge for pre-Christian rulers. It was no less troublesome to the guardians of Christianity, even more so as orthodoxy became established. To fend off a heretical threat to Christian doctrine church leaders introduced helpful measures, such as the Nicene Creed, promulgated in  325 AD. This profession of faith is still widely used in Christian liturgy today. As more books were written and copied and ever more widely disseminated, ideas perceived as subversive and heretical were spread beyond the control of the rulers. Consequently, censorship became more rigid, and punishment more severe.

The invention of the printing press in Europe in the mid 15th century, only increased the need for censorship. Although printing greatly aided the Catholic Church and its mission, it also aided the Protestant Reformation and "heretics", such as Martin Luther. Thus the printed book also became a religious battleground.

Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1564)Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1564)

In western history the very term censorship takes on a whole new meaning with the introduction of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Pope Paul IV ordered the first Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. The Index was issued again 20 times by different popes. The last Index of Prohibited Books was issued as recently as 1948, and then finally abolished in 1966. These lists of books banned for their heretical or ideologically dangerous content, were issued by the Roman Catholic Church. Zealous guardians carried out the Sacred Inquisition, banning and burning books and sometimes also the authors. The most famous of authors that the Catholic Church banned is undoubtedly Galileo (1633), and the most famous victims of the Inquisition’s trials must be Joan of Arc (1431) and Thomas More (1535).

"The Spanish authorities were not only worried about the religious situation in Europe, but also in America. The possibility that America could be invaded with ideas from protestant countries was considered a permanent threat."

Peruvian historian Pedro Guibovich Pérez
The Lima Inquisition and Book Censorship

The Catholic Church controlled all universities, such as the famous Sorbonne, and also controlled all publications. The Church decreed in 1543 that no book could be printed or sold without permission of the church. Then in 1563, Charles IX of France decreed that nothing could be printed without the special permission of the king. Soon other secular rulers of Europe followed suit. Consequently, European rulers used systems of governmental license to print and publish to control scientific and artistic expressions that they perceived potentially threatening to the moral and political order of society.

The dual system of censorship created through the close alliance between church and state in Catholic countries was also exported to the colonised territories in the Americas. Philip II of Spain reinstated the Inquisition in 1569 and established the Peruvian Inquisition in 1570 as part of a colonial policy designed to deal with the political and ideological crisis in the Peruvian viceroyalty.


The Dresden Codex (Codex Dresdensis) is one of the surviving Maya Codices written in hieroglyphic script.The Dresden Codex (Codex Dresdensis) is one of the surviving Maya Codices written in hieroglyphic script.

The Peruvian Inquisition system was a Spanish blueprint for controlling the import of books. The inquisitorial officers periodically examined ships and luggage in ports, and inspected libraries, bookstores and printing houses. When the Inquisition was established in Peru in 1570, the Tribunal's district ranged from Panama to Chile and Rio de la Plata.

Without a doubt, the Inquisition's censorship in the colonies of the Americas was oppressive and sinister. Nevertheless, it could hardly compare to the Spanish invaders’ destruction of the unique literature of the Maya people. The burning of the Maya Codices in the 16th century remains one of the worst criminal acts committed against a people and their cultural heritage, and a terrible loss to the world heritage of literature and language.

The Authority of the Postal Service

Although the art of printing was vital to the dissemination of knowledge, the establishment of a regular postal service was also an important advancement to communication. First established in France in 1464, the postal service soon became the most widely used system of person-to-person and country-to-country communication.

Consequently, the postal service also played a crucial role as an instrument of censorship in many countries, particularly in times of war. The British Empire efficiently employed censorship of mail during the first half of the 20th century. Even in today, the postal service remains a tool of censorship in countries where the import of prohibited literature, magazines, films and etcetera is regulated.

In Europe printing naturally also spurned the development of newsletters and newspapers. The Relation of Strasbourg published in 1609, was regarded as the first regularly printed newsletter. Soon the establishment of newspapers in other European countries followed, catering to a growing public demand for news and information. The first newspaper appeared in 1610 in Switzerland, in the Habsburg territories in Europe in 1620, in England in 1621, in France in 1631, in Denmark in 1634 and Italy in 1636, in Sweden in 1645, and in Poland in 1661. In some regions of India, however, newsletters had been circulated since the 16th century.

The rapid growth of newspapers represented a huge improvement of information sources for the literate peoples of Europe. But it also increased the authorities’ worry that unlimited access to information would be harmful to society and public morals, particularly in times of war or internal crisis.

Thus the Licensing Act of 1662 was enforced without mercy in Britain until after the Great Plague of 1664-65. In Germany, the press was effectively inhibited during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), through censorship, trade restrictions and lack of paper for printing. Such subtle means of censorship, even today, may effectively hamper the development of the free media in many countries.


John Milton's banned speech John Milton's banned speech "Areopagitica"

The Age of Enlightenment and Freedom of Expression

John Milton targeted the powerful bureaucratic system of pre-censorship practiced in late Medieval Europe in his much disputed speech "Areopagitica" to the Parliament of England in 1644. Milton vigorously opposed the Licensing Act that Parliament passed in 1643. In his noble plea for freedom of the press, Milton also quoted Euripides, adding the weight of the ancient struggle for free expression to his own arguments.

Milton's passionate and strong defence of free expression contributed to the final lapse of the Licensing Act in Britain in 1694. His "Areopagitica" also became one of the most quoted arguments for freedom of expression, and remains today a true beacon of enlightenment.

The 17th and 18th centuries represented a time of reason in Europe. The rights, liberty and dignity of the individual became political issues, subsequently protected by law in many countries. Sweden was the first country to abolish censorship and introduce a law guaranteeing freedom of the press in 1766, then Denmark-Norway followed suit in 1770. Today, the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States (1787) guarantees freedom of speech and the press. It is regarded as the root of the comprehensive protection of freedom of expression in western countries, along with the much quoted statement of the French National Assembly in 1789:

"The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen may therefore speak, write and print freely."
The National Assembly of France, 1789.

Although censorship lost ground as the most frequently used legal instrument during and after the 18th century in Europe, governments maintained laws curbing freedom of expression. Now the restrictive instruments are legislative acts on national security, criminal acts on obscenity or blasphemy, or libel laws.

In the United States, formal censorship never existed. But the libel law could sometimes serve the same purpose; thus American courts became the testing ground for free expression. This was also the case in Britain after the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1694. The courts became the new controllers in many countries that embraced the principles of freedom of expression. Libel laws were often subject to broad interpretations, allowing for continued restraint, harassment, and persecution of artists, journalists and other intellectual critics that challenged the contemporary concepts of national security, blasphemy and obscenity.

Censorship and the Establishment of Newspapers

In the 18th century, the press in most of Europe was frequently subject to strict censorship. The 19th century saw the emergence of an independent press, as censors gradually had to cede to demands for a free press. Yet this was also an age of strict press censorship in countries such as Japan. The first daily newspaper, the Yokohama Mainichi, appeared in 1870 a time when arrests of journalists and suppression of newspapers were all too common.

Also colonial governments, such as Russia and Britain, exercised tight control over political publications in their domains. Examples are Russia in the Baltic, and Britain in Australia, Canada, India and Africa. In Australia full censorship lasted until 1823, while in South Africa a press law was passed in 1828 to secure a modicum of publishing freedom. Later in South Africa, however, politics of racial division prevented press freedom. The total suppression during South Africa's Apartheid era was only abandoned in the last decade of the 20th century.

As IFEX and other organizations document, in modern times, restrictions on press freedom continue in many countries in Africa and Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.

Censorship in Libraries: The Benevolent Public Concern for Morality

Although government-instituted censorship had apparently been abandoned in most western countries during the 19th and most of the 20th century, public concern for offensive literature did not subside. Public libraries were expected to act as the benevolent guardians of literature, particularly books for young readers. Consequently this gave teachers and librarians license to censor a wide range of books in libraries, under the pretext of protecting readers from morally destructive and offensive literature.

Surprisingly, in liberal-minded countries such as Sweden and Norway, which boasts the earliest press freedom laws, surveillance of public and school libraries remained a concern to authors and publishers even through the latter part of the century. No less surprising is the die-hard tradition of surveillance of books in schools and libraries in the United States.

Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has remained controversial in the USA because of the author's portrayal of race relations and racial stereotypes.Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has remained controversial in the USA because of the author's portrayal of race relations and racial stereotypes.

One of the most stunning examples, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884 UK, 1885 US), was first banned in 1885 in the Concord Public Library (Massachusetts). According Arthur Schlesinger, the author of Censorship - 500 Years of Conflict, Twain's book was still in jeopardy of censorship in 1984.

In spite of the Library Bill of Rights, the library profession's interpretation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, public and school libraries in the US still face demands to remove books of "questionable content" from groups claiming to represent the interest of parents or religious moral codes. However, the libraries themselves have challenged this practice. The American Library Association (ALA), through its Office of Intellectual Freedom, maintains statistics on attempts to censor libraries in various states, and regularly publishes lists of challenged books.

Censorship of libraries is by no means a recent practice. On the contrary, libraries have been the targets of censorship since ancient times. History is littered with facts of destroyed library collections, and libraries themselves have far too often become flaming pyres. As early as 221 BC, the deliberate burning of a library was recorded in China.

Although the destruction by fire of 400,000 rolls in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 47 BC was by all accounts accidental, the burning of the entire collection of the University of Oxford library in 1683 was on direct orders from the king.


"Where books are burned, in the end people will burn." Heinrich Heine

Even in the 20th century, rulers have used the burning and destruction of libraries extensively as warnings to subversives and as a method of ethnic language purging, as was the case in Sarajevo and Kosovo. In 1991 the Serbian government banned Albanian as a language of instruction at all levels of education. During the period 1990-99, all libraries in Kosovo were subjected to the burning or destruction of the Albanian–language collections, according to reports from the joint UNESCO, Council of Europe and IFLA/FAIFE Kosovo Library Mission in 2000. The Serbian government’s deliberate cultural and ethnic cleansing on the brink of a new millennium will stand as a distressful monument to the persistent tradition of destructive censorship.

Censorship in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
The Longest Tradition in the 20th Century

The Russian empire had a long tradition of strict censorship and was slow to adopt the changes that central European countries had implemented a century before. Censorship reforms were started in a single decade of tolerance, from 1855 to 1865 during the reign of Tsar Alexander II. There was a transition from legislation on pre-censorship (determining arbitrarily in advance what may or may not be permitted) to a punitive system based on legal responsibility. During this decade the press enjoyed greater freedom and more radical ideas were voiced. Nevertheless censorship laws were re-imposed in 1866 practically eliminating the basic ideas of the reform. Only half a century later the law of 1905-1906 abrogated pre-censorship. Finally, all censorship was abolished in the decrees of April 27 1917 that the Temporary Government issued.

Sadly the freedom was short lived as the decrees only were in force until October 1917. This began a new, long and extensive era of strict censorship under the revolutionary rulers of the USSR lasting until the end of the 1980s. Taking into account the long history of strict censorship during tsar-regimes, the Russian people have only been without formal censorship in the last decade of this millennium.

The new order of the USSR meant drastic political and economic changes, but also culture, education and religion were subject to revision, all with the idealistic intentions of relieving the new Soviet citizen of the suppressive yokes of feudalism. Hence religion, regarded as gross and misleading superstition, was targeted only a few months after the revolution.

In the spring of 1918, a decree was issued formally separating church and state. Strict prohibitions imposed on religious bodies and nationalization of all church property followed. In 1922 the central censorship office was established, known for short as Glavlit. Its role was to purge the Soviet society of all expressions regarded as destructive to the new order and contagious to the minds of people. The Glavlit had absolute authority to subject the performing arts and all print media to preventive censorship, and to suppress political dissidence by shutting down "hostile" newspapers.

In the early 1920s during the time of Lenin and Trotsky, however, writers and artists were granted creative freedom, provided they observed the rule of not engaging in overt political dissent. This leniency may be attributed to the regime's recognition of the importance of intellectuals for the conveyance of the new ideals. Although the majority of intellectuals were opposed to the revolution, many artists and intellectuals supported the revolution's ideals of equality for all and freedom from slavery and poverty.

Russian artists had embraced the ideals of the European Modernist Movement, already in 1915 forming the visionary Avant Garde aesthetic movement which survived until 1932. Thus the first years of the new order saw a degree of innovation in literature and the arts, in stark contrast to the overall political rigidity of the regime. All leniencies ended with the Stalin regime, during which the censorship system became more elaborate and the methods of purging increasingly sinister. The regime authorized printing, banned publications and prevented the import of foreign books.

The USSR Exported the Glavlit System to Occupied Countries

After a time the USSR imposed its strict censorship system on all occupied countries and satellite-states, many of whom had been subject to the censorship of imperial Russia. When the USSR occupied independent Lithuania in 1940 a "bibliocide" began, lasting in effect until 1989. This period of Soviet dominance was only interrupted in 1941-1944 by the German occupation. The Nazi regime was infamous for their book pyres and deadly censorship in Germany and the German-occupied countries. Nevertheless, the systematic use of the destruction of libraries in the USSR is part of the longest and most extensive censorship in the 20th century.

In the study Forbidden Authors and Publications, Klemensas Sinkevicius describes the strategy of the Soviet censorship that zealous local inspectors performed in occupied Lithuania on behalf of the then infamous Glavlit. "After the restoration of Lithuanian independence, we got an opportunity to study the most tragic period in the history of Lithuanian libraries", writes Sinkevicius. Sinkevicius’ study for the National Library of Lithuania is the first of its kind in Lithuania. Many of the banned works of Lithuanian writers now exist only in the list of banned and destroyed books.


WW II – Nazi Germany and Occupied Countries

Literature confiscated during WWII Literature confiscated during WWII

"From these ashes will rise the phoenix of the new spirit", Goebbels optimistically declared as the flames devoured massive funeral pyres of some 20,000 volumes of offensive books in Germany in 1933.

Numerous book pyres were enthusiastically lit by the Hitler Jugend, the young members of the fanatical Nazi movement, growing stronger and gaining ever more power in Austria and Germany during the 1930s. In order to cleanse the minds of people and society any book written by a Jewish author, communist or humanist, was fed to the flames.

The German author Heinrich Heine, who warned that burning books would end in burning humans, was sadly right, as proved by Nazi–Germany’s gruesome mass extermination of people. The exterminations included at least 6 million Jews but also Romani, communists, dissidents, and the physically disabled—anyone that deviated from the ideal "Aryan race".

Hitler, the omnipotent Fürer of the Third Reich, also implemented the severe censorship and intolerable propaganda machine of the Nazi regime in all countries occupied during WW II (1940-45). In occupied countries national newspapers, publishing houses and radio stations were taken over at once or shut down (and radios were confiscated). In countries such as Norway strict censorship was put in place, making listening to "foreign" radio as well as producing, reading or disseminating illegal newspapers punishable by death.

Despite the threat of severe punishment, the illegal press flourished in occupied countries, such as Norway where more than 400 newsletters and papers were published by groups of activists recruited from all parts of society. In Denmark 541 illegal newsletters and papers were published. In Denmark as in Norway, members of the illegal groups were executed or died in concentration camps because of their activities. As activists were arrested or fled the country, new volunteers took on the illegal work, keeping the chain of communication unbroken until the end of the war.

The illegal and underground publishing of all suppressed nations represents the most outstanding monuments to the people’s relentless struggle for freedom of expression. Most impressive is the vigorous illegal (samizdat) press and publishing in the former Eastern Bloc countries, during the Soviet and the Nazi reign, representing both a firm stand against brainwashing and against the most devastating consequence of censorship--oblivion. Writers’ manuscripts were smuggled out of countries such as Poland and printed abroad. Moreover classical and contemporary works of foreign writers were translated into Polish and smuggled back into Poland. A similar example of resisting sustained censorship and oppression is resistance during the Apartheid era in South Africa.

Apartheid Censorship in South Africa

To uphold its cruel policy of racism, the Apartheid regime in South Africa (1950-1994) employed severe censorship, torture and killing. The aim was to strangle the South African extra-parliamentary liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), and apparently to erase public memory. In this respect, the prohibitive policies of the Apartheid regime strongly resemble that of the USSR.

Censorship affected every aspect of cultural, intellectual and educational life in South Africa. Although grimly menacing, the magnitude of the banning of ANC symbols—, buttons, T-shirts and lighters —seemed truly paranoid. Already in 1996 the South African publisher Jacobsen thoroughly compiled and published detailed information about all censored items. The excellent Jacobsen's Index of Objectionable Literature restores to memory and documents for posterity all the details of the Apartheid madness.

The tenacious struggle against the Apartheid regime has been the subject of numerous studies, notably also by the South African historian Christopher Merrett, who besides producing books such as A Culture of Censorship, also has compiled a complete list of censorship through the entire history of South-Africa. The list is included in the Beacon for Freedom of Expression database with the gracious consent of the author. Another noteworthy mention is Peter D. McDonald's book The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences (2009) and the impressive companion website.

"Truth is the first victim in a war"

Throughout its 400-year history, the media has been the first victim in times of war, be it in external or internal conflicts. As a rule, the press has been faced with a choice between gagging and closure. Many respectable newspapers were simply taken over by a country's new rulers, or submitted to becoming their mouthpiece.

In the years prior to the outbreak of World War II the press in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal was subject to rigid Fascist censorship, but no less strict was the censorship of the enemy the USSR. During World War II the press was held in a stranglehold by all countries involved, from Norway to Japan.

In the United States and Britain a clampdown on news coverage was expected, as strict press censorship also had also been applied during World War I. The British and American press and media, often submitting voluntarily to self-censorship, were also the targets of a steady flow of official news and propaganda issued by the British Ministry of Information and the U.S. Office of War Information. In USA, a "Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press" was also issued by the Office of Censorship.1

The war of words is less lethal but no less dirty than the war of weapons. Demonizing the enemy and whitewashing one's own cruel deeds while blindfolding the people through rigid censorship have been favoured strategies for many warlords and dictators throughout history. Some of the worst examples of rigid press censorship induced by military dictators in the 20th century were those of Spain (Spanish Civil War 1936-39, the regime lasted from 1936-1975), Greece (1967 -1974), Chile (1973-1990) and Nigeria (1966-1999). Despite countless pleas from the international community, Turkey still upholds strict censorship through the Anti–Terror Act of 1991, under the pretext of ensuring national security against "the enemy within",” the Kurdish minority.

The role of media in times of war was starkly demonstrated in the spring of 1999 when the NATO alliance started the campaign of bombing designed to secure peace and human rights, and also force the Yugoslavian government to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The Yugoslavian government which had clamped down on independent national media for almost a decade expelled all foreign media and independent observers from Kosovo. Thus the government guaranteed its unlimited license to kill, terrorize and deport hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Due to their leader's archaic policy of censorship and propaganda, the Serbian population of Yugoslavia lost all sympathy in international public opinion.

The NATO alliance, however, also launched a war of words portraying their "war for peace" as just and clean. When in April 1999 it became indisputably evident that NATO bombs had killed Kosovo-Albanian refugees, NATO informed the international media in a manner that the international media has characterized as misleading. NATO'’s deliberate and deadly bombings of the radio and television stations in Belgrade were also strongly criticised as contradictory to the humanistic aims of the NATO operation.

"Those that live by the pen shall die by the sword"

With these words the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) declared war on the media in Algeria, instigating one of the most chilling contemporary examples of the deliberate murder of the messenger. From May 1993 until the end of 1995, 58 editors, journalists and media workers were systematically executed; nine were murdered in 1993, 19 in 1994 and 24 in 1995, with the intent of punishing and scaring journalists from acting as mouthpieces for the Algerian authorities. This slaughtering was triggered by the conflict that exploded when the Algerian army disrupted the election of the National Assembly in 1992 to prevent what seemed to be the certain victory of the fundamentalist party Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The Algerian press, having long suffered rigorous censorship, not least during French colonial rule, was caught in the crossfire between the authorities and the opposition.

As the conflict mounted, the authorities introduced sterner press censorship under the pretext of national security, clamping down ever harder on the coverage of civilian killings and introducing in 1996 rigid pre-censorship of all "non-official" reports on the bloody conflict. With Algeria being off-limits to foreign press and independent observers, the killings could go on behind closed doors. By 1998 independent observers estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 civilians became victims of the frenzied slaughter. Only in 1998 did the Algerian government amend their press law, no doubt thanks to the incessant pressure from independent freedom of expression organizations.


One of the many editions of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic VersesOne of the many editions of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses

Modern Day Inquisition in Iran

Even though centuries and cultures apart, there are striking resemblance between the arguments and zealousness of the Inquisition of the Catholic Church and that of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance in the modern Islamic Republic of Iran.

After a period of a liberalized climate for publishing following the Islamic revolution in 1979, the war against Iraq (1981) and the fight against opposition groups within the Islamic Republic gave the government opportunity to introduce strict censorship. When the war ended in 1988 censorship became monopolized by the traditional extremists eager to purge Iranian society of freedom-seekers and dissenters.

In the spring of 1988 the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (SCCR) issued resolutions on limitations of publishing. With the aid of the revolutionary courts, offenders have regularly been charged with propaganda against the Islamic Republic and the desecration of public morals. Often the charges result in executions. Moreover the wrath of Iran's rulers has impacted non-Iranians, such as the British author Salman Rushdie. In 1988 the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie, calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers. His novel The Satanic Verses (1988) caused violent reactions many places in the Muslim world. Rushdie's Japanese translator was stabbed to death in July 1991, and his Italian translator was seriously injured by stabbing the same month. His Norwegian publisher barely survived an attempted assassination in Oslo in October 1993. The Turkish translator was also targeted in July 1993 in Sivas, Turkey, and 37 people died. The fatwa was eased in 1998.

Even though the people of Iran elected a liberal president in two successive elections, for example in 2001, the Guardian Council still holds the reins of power. Furthermore the revolutionary courts continue to gag the press and punish editors and journalists.

"Not to forget and never let it happen again"

When signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the members of the newly established United Nations pledged to remember the millions of people murdered in Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, in full view of the media-saturated international community, history has repeated itself, for example in the Yugoslavian territories in the 1990s and in Rwanda in 1994.

Most member countries of the UN have signed the declaration. A substantial number of countries across the world have made legislative adjustments in accordance with the principles of Article 19, even in sensitive areas such as the official secrets acts. The reality of human rights in practice often contradicts theory, however.

In 1998 alone, the year of international celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, independent human rights and freedom of expression organizations reported violations in almost 120 countries. One hundred eighteen journalists were imprisoned in 25 countries and 24 journalists were murdered. Numerous newspapers, publishers and broadcasters were banned, closed or violently attacked, for example bombed.

Currently most of the serious attacks on freedom of expression are committed in non-democratic countries, struggling democracies or new democracies, for example former East Bloc countries. Even today more than half the world's population still lacks an independent press. Considering how crucial the press is to the process of democratization and transparency of society, and the equally important role that the written word plays for eliminating illiteracy internationally, this is indeed a tragic state of affairs.

While Western and democratic governments and human rights defenders justly criticize the abuses committed in new democracies and non-democratic countries, however, we should not forget the dark history of censorship in Europe and its colonized countries. Likewise we should not ignore the cruel suppression of indigenous cultures, languages and non-written literature for which Europeans also are responsible.

Unfortunately, Western human rights defenders often ignore our shameful past, or fail to criticize our allies for their current abuses of human rights. The lack of criticism in the UN of European censorship—for example the systematic purging of libraries in Southern France by Front National— gives perpetrating governments, such as China or Burma a welcome opportunity to accuse Western countries of one-sided criticism. Furthermore, the "blame –game" that is played in North and South, by rich and poor nations or by Muslims and Christians cannot create or improve a climate of open-minded dialogue.

The painful paradox that history's worst crimes continue to repeat themselves cannot be resolved by creating a database such as the Beacon for Freedom of Expression, but it will provide another tool for enlightenment and action by people. Thus hopefully, Beacon will contribute to ending the violations.

Thanks to the generous contributions by numerous universities and national libraries, institutions and freedom of expression organizations around the world, this memory bank now contains guides to the accumulated documentation and knowledge of the world status on censorship and freedom of expression for more than 2000 years, as well as many thousands of books and newspapers that fell subject to banning for most of the last millennium.

Each entry of the title and author represents a minute but significant monument to memory. The entire collection of titles in the database represents but a small selection of the books and newspapers that have been censored in the history of the world. Yet the Beacon for Freedom of Expression is an electronic monument under construction. It will grow steadily through the continued joint efforts of its competent partners.

In writing this article I am indebted to a multitude of sources, all of which are documented in the database or linked to this website.


1 See History of the Office of Censorship. Volume II: Press and Broadcasting Divisions. The National Archives and Records Administration. Record group 216, box 1204.