Free expression: No offence meant

By Anita Joshua

Free Expression is No Offence, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, English PEN Book & Penguin, £4.50. IN 2004, 996 writers worldwide were in prison for their writing. The Bible in translation was banned by the Synod of Canterbury in the 15th Century. A sample of the papal indexes of forbidden books. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was removed from classes in various U.S. schools in 1995. These are just a few nuggets of information that one comes across in the collection of essays christened Free Expression is No Offence.Brought out by Penguin in its 70th year, the collection has been put together by English PEN, a key constituent of an international organisation that champions freedom of expression the world over, and "the right of writers, artists and indeed anyone to say whatever they feel without fear of persecution or penalty".Written in the backdrop of the new world order that has come to be post-9/11, some of the articles included in this collection are an immediate response to the British Labour Government's law criminalising "religious hatred". The PEN view is that it "serves as a sanction for censorship of a kind which would constrain writers and impoverish our cultural life. Rather than averting intolerance, it would encourage the culture of intolerance that already exists in all religions". Included are articles by Salman Rushdie — himself a victim of religious intolerance — Monica Ali, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, whose play "Behzti" had to be closed after running to packed houses at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the wake of violent protests by Sikhs. While the articles present a collage of insights on the issue of freedom of expression — particularly, the competing freedoms of imagination and religion — the "Editor's Preface" and the chapter, "Bannings, Burnings and Suppressions", provide information on proscribed literature.

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