Why Document Censorship?

Mette Newth
Norway 2010

Most countries in the world have a history of censorship. Although most countries also keep records of their censorship, the detailed information is not always easily available, at least not to the general public. The reasons may be many, from lack of funds to make the data accessible, to lost records or reluctance on the part of the authorities responsible for censorship.

Why should records of censorship be publicly available?

The obvious answer is that history may teach us (authorities included) not to repeat mistakes of the past. But other reasons are also pertinent, for one, the principle of transparency. Detailed records of censorship tell their own stories, sometimes of the extreme zealousness of censoring bureaucrats or the deliberate destruction of a people's language and cultural heritage.

Making public the hidden records of censorship was also important to the Beacon for Freedom of Expression project for another reason; the detailed records would represent a symbolic monument to the many writers that were silenced throughout history, their literary works often lost forever.

Finding historical records on censorship

The historical records on censored or prohibited books and newspapers are often held by government bodies or university and national libraries. In 1997-98, the Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression (NFFE) conducted a world-wide survey of international and national government agencies, national libraries, academic institutions, and human rights organizations among others, to map the state of available records of censored printed material, and also to establish partnerships.

The response to the project and to the invitation of cooperation was indeed positive. Nevertheless, the state of complete and available records of censorship varied greatly amongst continents and countries. NFFE found that in far too many cases, information only existed on paper lists or in manual archives. This was indeed the situation in many libraries in countries that had recently emerged from the extensive and strict censorship of the former USSR. More surprisingly, in some countries even centuries-old censorship remained a sensitive issue, mainly for government bodies, but occasionally also for libraries.

Based on results of the survey and the response from partners, NFFE began collecting detailed historical data on censored books and newspapers, and detailed data on publications concerning aspects of censorship and freedom of expression historically, from national and international sources.

Collecting all relevant data from countries was an immensely demanding task for all parties involved. The risk of not achieving this goal was great in a number of countries, so NFFE selected 30 countries from different continents to document censored books and newspapers through the ages. NFFE provided the administration and funded all basic costs for making the data available in English on the Beacon for Freedom of Expression website, recognizing that the cost of transferring paper archives of forbidden literature to online databases would be impossible for many a library or organization to undertake alone. NFFE worked in close cooperation with the information providers through the whole process. The experiences gathered during the process were used to adjust future methods of data collection and collaboration.