The Beginning: A Norwegian Initiative

Mette Newth
Norway, 2010

The Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression (NFFE) initiated and produced Beacon for Freedom of Expression. NFFE was established early in 1995 as an independent center of documentation and information committed to defending freedom of expression worldwide.

NFFE was entirely funded by the following member organizations:

Association of Norwegian Editors

Norwegian Press Council

Norwegian Specialized Press

Norwegian Union of Journalists

Norwegian Writers for Children and Juveniles

The Association for Public Information in Norway

The Norwegian Association of Literary Translators

The Norwegian Authors' Union

The Norwegian Booksellers Association

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee

The Norwegian Library Association

The Norwegian Non-fiction Writers and Translators Association

The Norwegian PEN Center

The Norwegian Playwright's Association

The Norwegian Publishers Association

The Norwegian Rushdie Defense Committee

The Norwegian Society of Composers

The Resistance Press Society (WWII)

International electronic networking

In 1995 NFFE became the only Nordic member of the world’s largest network of independent freedom of expression organizations, International Freedom of Expression eXchange Clearing House or IFEX (www.ifex.org). In 1996 on behalf of all IFEX members, NFFE established the IFEX alert service. Today this alert service provides the IFEX member organizations free access to expert documentation of current violations of freedom of expression worldwide.

Independent international NGOs have produced the majority of today’s important documentation of the state of freedom of expression and censorship. The number of independent freedom of expression organizations has grown steadily over the past two decades, most rapidly in countries of the southern hemisphere. Consequently the quality reports and documentation of censorship in this region have increased.

Censorship sources around the world

In 1997 NFFE conducted a worldwide survey of available sources on past and present censorship. A huge variety of sources was found, many on the internet. Nevertheless NFFE concluded that there was a need for one database—containing both historic and current records of censored books and newspapers, as well as historic and contemporary publications about freedom of expression and censorship.

Ongoing international collaboration

Up-to-date publications from independent organizations and international bodies such as the UN are invaluable to the work of international human rights defenders, politicians and the media, as well as to the engaged general public. Still even publications of current interest may be hard to find in libraries or bookstores. NFFE found a clear need to systematically compile bibliographical data on the vast amount of documented international literature on issues of freedom of expression and censorship published through the ages. Although most of these important books have been out of print for a long time, many are still obtainable in libraries around the world. Once the bibliographical data were presented in Beacon for Freedom of Expression, the books could be easier to find.

Establishing an electronic network of co-operation, spanning different relevant professions, was fundamental to NFFE’s aims of realizing the Beacon database. In early 1998 NFFE invited more than 300 international human rights organizations, as well as research, educational and cultural institutions to participate in the project. There was also an overwhelmingly positive response from UN agencies such as UNESCO’s Unit for Freedom of Expression and Democracy, an important supporter of the Beacon database project.

Engaging libraries of the world

NFFE was particularly keen to engage libraries, noting that the expert knowledge of the world’s libraries is invaluable to ensuring the professional quality of the database.  Cooperation with selected national and university libraries around the world was established in 1998. Evidently modern libraries do not subscribe to censorship, but throughout history many governments have regarded libraries as important instruments of censorship. Thus, today, some libraries still keep national archives on former censorship. Moreover in some libraries such records are an integral part of the national history.

Furthermore libraries that do not hold information on censorship such as the British Library and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., were important supporters of the Beacon project. They represented some of the most comprehensive sources of world literature on freedom of expression and censorship, past and present.

NFFE decided to dedicate Beacon for Freedom of Expression to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina already from the start of production in 1998. The dedication honoured this important library of the ancient world, and celebrated the revival of this unique world institution. The revival of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as stated by UNESCO’s International Commission for the Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, is meant to foster a spirit of openness and the quest for knowledge. This also reflects NFFE's vision for Beacon.

The Norwegian-based RAVN Webveveriet AS (www.ravn.no) tailor-made the original internet-based presentation of the database in close cooperation with faculty and students from the Faculty of Journalism, Library and Information Science at Oslo University College.

From the upstart in 1997 until 2006, Mette Newth and Hege N. Nouri carried out the daily management of Beacon for Freedom of Expression. Until 2001 the project was managed by NFFE under the direction of the Project Steering Committee with the National Library of Norway as professional advisor. When NFFE was dissolved in 2001 the management of the Beacon project was taken over by a Norwegian Steering Committee hosted by the Norwegian Library Association, in cooperation with an international steering committee. Since 2006 the National Library of Norway has managed Beacon for Freedom of Expression in cooperation with its International Advisory Board.