Which Countries are Featured in the Database?

Mette Newth
Oslo 2010

In total 30 selected countries were represented in the first stage of the Beacon database project. The initial cases selected for the database included, among others, Spain, Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Malawi, Norway, Poland, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, USA and the Index Librorum.

A global and historical perspective

The countries represent different cultures, political histories and religions. They include countries as large as USA and Canada, and as small as Lithuania and Norway. Their histories span from Denmark to South Africa. The final choice of countries also depended on the possibilities of cooperation with relevant professional groups, institutions and organizations in the respective countries.

As Norwegian organizations initiated the Beacon project, Norway's history of censorship was naturally included. Self-criticism remains the best foundation for criticizing others; furthermore unlike many other countries, Norway had accessible censorship records. There were accessible records of suppressed books from Norway’s early history of printing, as well as complete records of censored books and illegal publishing during the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II.

In some countries records of censorship are easily available. In the USA for example the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom regularly publishes lists of challenged books in libraries. In other countries however the task of tracking or accessing the information proved too demanding for Beacon's otherwise enthusiastic partners. Regrettably, the Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression NFFE did not have adequate resources to conduct all of the extensive work needed. This was a challenge to data collection in many newly independent countries. As a consequence, continents such as Africa, Asia and the Americas were underrepresented when Beacon for Freedom of Expression was launched.

Historic cases span borders and historical periods

Particular countries and periods were selected for the Beacon database. Metaphorically speaking, brutal and often fanatical censorship has covered Europe like a huge blanket for centuries. As a first priority NFFE chose to document some of the most extensive periods of censorship in Western history: the Roman Catholic Church, the former Soviet Union, and the Nazi regime of Germany during World War II. All three historic periods of brutal censorship had devastating effects on countless victims and in many countries.

The banning of books by the Roman Catholic Church lasted for 400 years. This censorship was not only effective in all European Catholic countries, but it was also exported to the conquered Americas. Index Librorum Prohibitorum not only has great historical significance, but it also proves that religious fundamentalism is not a modern phenomenon. In a different historic case, the strict and systematically detailed censorship in the former Soviet Union lasted for most of last century. Furthermore it was effective in all republics and occupied countries. The equally deadly censorship in Nazi Germany also extended to all occupied countries (1940-45). These censorship periods were extensive because of their duration and their enforcement across territories and political borders.

Some countries, such as Poland, have been subjected to both religious and political censorship for extensive periods of their history. Censorship has always been bravely resisted, and not least in Poland, boasting a vibrant and enduring culture of illegal publishing (samizdat). During WW II, resistance against oppression was also vigilant in occupied countries such as Denmark and Norway. The so-called illegal press was well-organized and flourished, playing a vital role in peoples' struggle for freedom from occupation, and should be regarded as an inseparable part of the world history of censorship.

Censorship on religious grounds is certainly not merely a concern of the past, neither is political censorship. History has a tendency to repeat itself, and censorship proves no exception to the rule. Today's authors and journalists, editors and publishers are still victims of severe censorship in many countries, often in the Southern hemisphere. New technology has opened a host of new communication channels for professionals and the general public. Censorship has been lifted in many countries; views on freedom of expression, as well as on political, religious and moral issues seem increasingly liberal in many societies. Nevertheless some governments and religious authorities around the world still keenly practice censorship. Today the internet has become a world stage for a veritable “cat and mouse” game amongst governments, citizens, writers and information providers.One example is Iran.

Our world may never be rid of deadly attacks on free expression; perhaps not all UN member states will fully practice the principles of Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Even so, we must never stop demanding positive change.

Beacon for Freedom of Expression was designed as a tool of knowledge, intended to provide a comparative view of censorship throughout the world. Furthermore the database serves as a reminder of the vital importance of freedom of expression and free access to information for societies of the world. However inconvenient free expression may be —and regardless of the angry debates that it may trigger—freedom of expression will remain the cornerstone of democracy and a people’'s best defense against suppression.