Rushdie freedom fighters

October 23, 1998

Brian Groombridge went to Oslo to hear what cultural workers think about Net copyright and intellectual rights

Salman Rushdie may still be at risk, but at least he is no longer on the hit list of a foreign state. His name was, inevitably, often invoked at the Council of Europe symposium on promoting freedom of expression held in Oslo last month.

The Rushdie case stood for one of the meeting's main debating points. Norwegian author and academic Helge Ronning summarised the problem: "It may become difficult in an increasingly globalised culture to uphold a principled view of freedom of expression. What is regarded as a right to critique in one context, may be seen as a total affront to sacred values in another."

The other, equally problematic, issue was copyright in the era of new technology. Writers, artists and academics everywhere are well aware of how the Internet is transforming intellectual property, undermining the authenticity of authorship, making the protection of copyright increasingly difficult. In the topical words of Charles C. Mann "Who will own your next good idea?" (September's Atlantic Monthly).

This was a cue for Kirill Razlogov, director of the Moscow Institute of Cultural Research and a familiar figure at such gatherings, to enliven a sluggish debate.

On day one Professor Razlogov noted that writers who struggled for the freedom to say what they liked often ended up with nothing of significance to say. The meeting was reluctant to agree that there is nothing like a touch of repression for generating creativity. On day two, since copying gets ever easier, he recommended that copyright should be abandoned. He reckoned that people who believed in freedom of expression and information should welcome that.

His Oslo critics could have classified him, as Thomas Mann might, as "a naive intellectual (belonging to) a small but surprisingly influential cadre of libertarian futurists, anti-copyrightists". Instead, they half-suspected him of finding a modern rationale for the Soviet tradition of piracy.

Rights lawyers (like next-door neighbours) are familiar with having to deal with conflicts between rights, and this area is thick with them. Promoting freedom of expression could not be unconditional, and the limits were examined closely in Oslo.

The symposium's rapporteur, Arne Ruth, who recently resigned as editor of Sweden's leading broadsheet, Dagens Nyheter, asked: "Why should a serious artist have greater freedom in making provocative statements than a Neo-Nazi rock group?" Paul Sturges, of Loughborough University's department of information and library studies, was one of the panellists and has done much ground-clearing work for the Council of Europe.

He contrasted the samizdat use of the Internet by Serbian university students and others enjoying global support against President Milosovic with the virulent anti-semitism, homophobic abuse and other forms of hate speech on the net. (He opposes censorship, preferring "ratings metadata".) Ana L. Valdes, the Uruguayan refugee writer brought up by German nuns and now living in Sweden, on the other hand vehemently asserted blasphemy as a human right.

For the participants, culture ministers and senior officials from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Serbia, these were not matters to be treated lightly.

There was a moment when west European exchanges about less painful aspects of the theme struck a Nigerian writer, living in Norway, as an "indulgence".

But then there was laughter when Ion Caramitru, well-known actor and theatre director, now Romania's minister of culture, compared acting in Hamlet before and since 1989. Under President Ceaucescu, actors and audiences combined to enjoy the play for its subversion. Gradually, after the communist regime's collapse, the more universal text took over:

"Instead of playing Hamlet, I found increasingly that Hamlet was playing I me!".

Cultural diversity and the role of the public authorities in encouraging or suppressing this was a third theme, drawing powerful statements from Ole Henrik Magga, the internationally prominent sami spokesman, and a plea from a Slovak speaker to protect the lives as well as the culture of Romany people.

This topic prompted a tribute from Gavin Jantjes, who was born in Cape Town, found freedom as an artist in the United Kingdom, where he served on the Arts Council, and now works in Norway. He saluted Britain for its remarkable success in creating a new multicultural society.

Anne Enger Lahnstein, head of Norway's culture ministry, which arranged the conference with the European Council of Cultural Affairs, said that "a society can be judged not only by the quality of its written constitution, but by the voices heard in the public spaces - the voices of its people, its artists and its cultural workers".

She wished us, as ministers will on such occasions, "a fruitful conference". This one was as useful as ever for networking and involving people in making international comparisons of often urgent and difficult matters, but it added up to a good deal less than the sum of its parts.

Given his coherence throughout, I anticipate that Arne Ruth's report, when it is published, will give added value to the event. It could help inspire the further development of cultural rights, still under-developed in constitutional and legal principle, and help extend in practice the enjoyment of those "public spaces".

Brian Groombridge is professor emeritus of adult education, University of London, and chair, The Scarman Trust. He attended on behalf of Rights and Humanity, UK.

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