15 June, 2024

There is a fine French saying that tells us – the more things change, the more they stay the same…

The great astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, published “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres,” back in the 16th century. He said the sun and not the earth was the centre of our universe and the earth revolved around the sun. But he was careful to say so just before he died because he knew how his idea would be received by the Catholic church of the time. Galileo made the mistake of agreeing with Copernicus that the earth circles the sun and died under house arrest.
And you know the oldest question of all about free speech is this – how free may it be? Would you allow someone to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. I guess the extreme libertarian answer would be yes. I am not that kind of extreme libertarian. There is a lot to said for common sense and words that lead to violence, to death and destruction are never free. They cost lives. The trouble is no-one knows who will decide and how to decide what kinds of speech should be forbidden. ‘Sticks and Stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is a lovely childish illusion. And when a politician sings a song with the words, ‘Kill the Boer’, then I am in that crowded theatre and fearful of the reaction that may follow those words. But it seems that the courts in South Africa have decided the words are an example of free speech. Again, we are back at the central question: who gets to decide?

Let me begin by going back to what must be called the ‘old’ days. Even if the old days seem new all over again. As someone said about the past – it not even passed.

The era of apartheid in South Africa was, or so we thought at the time, the ultimate age of the censor, the age of house arrest, when the banning of books and people was pretty usual. I knew young writers who had more readers among the censors than they did among the public. Let me take you back to the 1980’s with an sample of the oppressive perfume of those times.

Perhaps you will remember we had as the first speaker of parliament in the new democratic South Africa, Mrs Fatima Meer. Well, before she reached that exalted position, most of us had known her only as a writer, and a writer whose work had been banned by the Publications Board, as that gang of well-read rogues called themselves. The Publications Board was not about publishing but about banning everything from Karl Marx, a writer too red for us, to Little Red Riding Hood, a fairy-tale much too red for us.

Mrs. Meer, back in those bad old days, was banned under the Internal Security Act . She was not allowed to publish anything or say anything out loud in public . Her publisher was Ravan Press in Johannesburg, a house that was, incidentally, my publishers at the time, Ravan Press, was forced either to cut out the offending passages by Fatima Meer in several of their books or stop their circulation. The books in which her work appeared carried titles like Church and Nationalism in South Africa, South Africa’s Minorities and Black Renaissance. Hardly ‘’Shades of Grey, are they, those books? Not quite right for the best-seller lists
Fatima Meer was banned under a law called the Internal Security Act. That made it a serious crime for anyone’ to publish, or in any way disseminate, any utterances, whether orally or in writing, of a person so restricted…’
It was very effective, but it was also very ridiculous. However, you could not say so because there was a law against laughing at the censors. Under Subsection 37(1a) of the Act No.42 of 1974, it was an offense, and I quote, ‘to insult, disparage or belittle in any way any member of the appeal board.’Of course, people laughed at this nonsense and that was why it became an offence to mock the censors’ decisions. In effect, they tried to ban laughter.
There were, at that time, many other Acts of Parliament, aimed at ensuring that that those who wished to speak their minds should not be allowed to do so. The Public Safety Act, the Unlawful Organizations Act , the Terrorism Act, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, the Riotous Assemblies Act, the Official Secrets Act, the General Law Amendment Act, the Defence Amendment Act, the Prisons Act, the Post Office Act, the Indecent or Obscene Photographic Matter Act, the Extension of University Education Act and the Bantu Administration Act.
The old regime was brutal, but it was also strangely sensitive. If supporters of the Nationalist government called you a liberal subversive in the pay of effete capitalist Western powers and suggested you go and live in Ghana, a common charge against government critics, that was regarded as fair comment. But if you suggested that South Africa was run by a bunch of racist desperadoes, whose barbarism was exceeded only by their stupidity – that was unfair, un-South African and swiftly suppressed.

Today, of course, little has changed, and those who doubt that the ANC government is divinely inspired are dismissed as detestable neo-liberal counter-revolutionaries, who should immediately start packing for Perth. How the times do not change…

I had my first brush with the censors in 1972, when my satirical ditty, a poem called Kobus Le Grange Marais, was banned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. That’s the old SABC. The SABC of that time was so slavishly supportive of the ruling party it was once described very accurately, as the government’s glove- puppet. Kobus le Grange Marais was the name of an old, disabled railway shunter, who sits on a stool of the Station Bar in Pretoria and attacks everyone and everything he blames for his sad life. The poem was banned because it contained what were called ‘words and phrases likely to cause offence’ (in this case to Afrikaners and to railway workers ) and it was also said be ‘racist’.

Our censors were grimly amusing in their obsessions. A title alone was enough to cause trouble. Martin Buber’s theological treatise, Between Man and Man, was banned because rumour said it might be a gay treatise. There were very few things that could not be banned: poems , adverts, wrapping for women’s nylon stockings and,of course, people – they could be banned or placed under house arrest for what they said and wrote and believed.
A few years after my poems fell afoul of the censors , in 1976, my novel, A Separate Development, a gentle comedy about a boy who could not decide what colour he was supposed to be , was banned almost as soon as it was in the bookshops , for holding up sections of the population to ‘scorn and derision’ (this time it was the police). Copies were withdrawn from the bookshops, and the novel died in South Africa.
That sort of thing was supposed to end with the new democratic government of 1994. It didn’t. A couple of years after the new South Africa was born, my little poem called Kobus Le Grange Marais was dusted off after twenty-five years of silence and set to music by David Kramer. He had been singing the poem he’d set to music, all over the country during the apartheid years, and those who heard it in concert seemed to enjoy it. But now we were in the New South Africa and the new ‘transformed’ SABC promptly banned David Kramer’s recording of Kobus le Grange Marais all over again. And for reasons not far removed from those given the last time around. Because it contained wordsand phrases likely to cause offence – not this time to white Afrikaners and Jews and Englishmen and policemen and railways workers, but to blacks. In a word, it was once again ‘racist’. I became that unusual creature, a writer banned first by the old apartheid censors and then censored again by the new and enlightened ANC puppet masters. For the same poem . I sometimes think I deserved a small prize
How did it feel, someone asked, to have my work banned in the old and in the new South Africa? Quite nostalgic, actually. It goes on, this old urge so popular to all the ruling cliques who have ruled and ruined our country . The Dutch did it and the British did it and the white Nationalists did it and the current incumbents seem keen to do it all over again. They wish to shut people up. Anyone visiting South Africa and looking at the papers or the TV, will catch. before long, a whiff of paranoia in the air. The search is on for enemies of the people, the unpatriotic, the dissident, the disloyal. The fortunes of the country are once again being equated with those of the ruling Party. The line between Party and State washed away under the old apartheid regime and has not been redrawn. Increasingly the search is on for dissenters.

Back in the dawn of democracy here in South Africa, in the years of the Mbeki regime in particular, the alarm about name-calling and censorship was soon raised. In a Steve Biko Memorial lecture, the writer Njabulo Ndbele quietly and profoundly doubted the wisdom of this new name calling. By constantly erecting this bogeyman of white racism, black South Africans were embracing again their old dependency, by ascribing to their former masters a power which they no longer possessed. There still existed, he thought, something alarming he called a “heart of whiteness”, something that whites themselves needed to confront and explore. However, he was clear that secret cabals of white racists bent on destroying the new democracy did not exist.

Ndbele was Chancellor of the University of Cape Town at the time, and one of the most original thinkers South Africa has produced. But what he said was , to some people, a heresy. The SABC refused to carry Ndbele’s address and said by way of explanation that it was not in ‘the national interest’ – a phrase so full of the perfume of the past that nostalgia again overwhelms me.

Only the methods have changed. In the old days, when people like BJ Vorster led the apartheid government, and someone at a political meeting asked an awkward question the Prime Minister did not like, he would send in the Security Police the next morning.

In the new South Africa, they send in the committees. It was in the early 2000’s, not long after we welcomed the ‘new’ South Africa, when everyone when to bed dreaming of rainbows and no-one dreamt that at the end of this particular rainbow might not be a pot of gold but a can of worms. I was in Joburg to report for an overseas paper on the proceedings of a committee of witch-hunters, busily sniffing out something called ‘subliminal’ racism in the newspapers. Those were happy days when we still had more than a couple of good newspapers. Remarkable times, sadly long gone. More remarkable still, people often believed what they read in the newspapers and the guardians of moral and racial purity feared that the public might be infected by subliminal racism each time they opened a newspaper.

‘Racist ‘ is a word used to brand your political enemies – as ubiquitous and as empty a label as ‘communism’ once was. It even comes colour-coded. ‘Racist’ may be coupled with, or swapped for, ‘white’, as in ‘white racism ‘, rather as the words ‘communist’ and ‘red’ were once freely applied, like a coat of paint, to some whose political colour was unpopular or provocative to others.

You will recall those years, in the first flush of the ANC government, under Nelson Mandela’s early term in office , we began to get used to open debate and free expression it made me quite giddy. Then, under Thabo Mbeki, the government grew crankier and wonkier and downright paranoid about AIDS and racism and to much criticism . It took a little getting used to. The ANC Government, elected with an overwhelming majority, showed itself in the Mbeki years and then again in the Zuma kleptocracy era, to be just as thin-skinned as the old white Nationalist establishment. Their languages mirrored each other. Particularly, the language of threat Those who run South Africa operate always on the principle that we may do and say what we like, but you will do as you’re told.

We have retreated from those heady early days of free debate when we began to say what we thought. At first, it was a gradual retreat when we began learning to censor ourselves. To accept the rules we were given. There grew slowly a deep and unhealthy respect for authority. One hears it in the way people talk about our governors. Government is spoken of like a kind but rather prickly aunt who guides and disciplines us for our own good. The government proposes and disposes, it does not take the definite article, it is not ‘the’ government but simply ‘Government’ – like ‘God’. ‘Government does this’ and ‘Government does that, government decides, and we must obey ‘. In reality,Government’, as it was then and as it is now, is simply that bit of the ruling Party susceptible to manual stimulation, it is a kind of political G-spot. To watch ostensibly independent public servants, broadcasters, frightened liberals, pliant functionaries and abject business tycoons stroking the ruling party’s G spot is to see a form of political pandering so perverse it should be viewed only by consenting bureaucrats.

In the new South Africa the need to manipulate information for ‘patriotic’, by which is meant political ends, began growing once again. The crime rate frightened people but crime might be a seen as coded reference for race, so for period , the figures must not be released. Murders get a lot of bad press, so you don’t publish the numbers. Rape is widespread. Well then, let us declare it unpatriotic to talk about it. Road fatalities are shockingly high – let us no longer give them out. Such evasion was commonplace under Mbeki and Zuma and talhough the numbers are a little more reliable under the present authorities, transparency is still patchy.

Under the old white Nationalist regime at least you knew who the enemy was. He was on the other side. Under the ANC you may be silenced by those you once thought were your allies. Or you may be expected to censor yourself. This is hotly denied, of course. You are free to say or write what you like in the new South Africa, say the authorities and their lackeys. But it’s tosh. The ANC is the Party – is the Government- is the Country .That is the way it goes now , and it did so under the old regime for half a century. In its intolerance to criticism and debate, the Government and its apparatchiks do indeed pay unexpected homage to those censorious souls they’ve replaced. Once again, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.

It was, again, in the Mbeki years that ,with a pang of recognition , I read the protest of Oupa Moatshe, a trades-union organiser, who told the The Sowetan newspaper that the SABC was a government dummy. Of course it was . Glove puppets rule, OK? The only thing that changed on state-run television and radio from the old SABC, when the Mbeki administration was in office , was that this time round the puppet did not bother about wearing a glove. It parroted the official line on AIDS. The illness did not exist and if something like it did exist, then the way to treat it was with garlic and the African potato.

But enough of the old, let us look at the new censorship plans in the new South Africa. Just a few months ago, on December 6, 2023, parliament adopted a new law that makes ‘hate speech’ a crime. It’s called the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill,’ and its name does not trip off the tongue, does it? What does the new law cover, what are the areas where hatred is to be detected and stopped? I am grateful to Daniela Ellerbeck’s human rights group for this useful summary of the areas where Hate Speech may occur , according the legal definition under the new law:

Here they are:
Race,Gender; Sex, which includes intersex; Ethnic or social origin; Colour; Sexual orientation; Religion; Belief; Culture; Language; Birth; Disability; HIV status; Nationality; Gender identity; Albinism; or Occupation or trade.
‘This crime is notable in that it includes any person who intentionally distributes hate speech through an electronic communications system which is accessible by any member of the public; or accessible by, or directed at, a specific person who can be considered to be a victim of hate speech’.
So much for Hate Speech. Let’s look at its ugly sister, hate crime: here is the wording of the act:
Any person who commits this offence is guilty of a hate crime and liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding eight years or to both a fine and imprisonment.
The criminal record of a person who has been convicted must explicitly record the underlying offence as a hate crime.
You can be prosecuted in our country today for: ‘Mocking the concept, events or victims of hate crimes, even if no real person is depicted in an image.’

The bill includes exceptions and these are:
Artistic creativity, performance or expression;
Academic or scientific inquiry;
Fair and accurate reporting in the public interest or the publication of any information, commentary, advertisement or notice;
Interpretation and proselytising or espousing of any religious conviction, tenet, belief, teaching, doctrine or writings, that does not advocate hatred that constitutes incitement to cause harm, based on one or more of the grounds.

I am not saying South Africa is alone in this desire to outlaw people who think or say things that someone, somewhere, somehow, considers to be beyond the pale. There is a lot of it about right now.

Many of you will have Facebook pages. And Facebook has its own censors and they have a list of what may not be spoken :
‘Insects (including but not limited to: cockroaches, locusts)
Animals in general or specific types of animals that are culturally perceived as intellectually or physically inferior (including but not limited to: Black people and apes or ape-like creatures; Jewish people and rats; Muslim people and pigs; Mexican people and worms)
Filth (including but not limited to: dirt, grime)
Bacteria, viruses or microbe
Disease (including but not limited to: cancer, sexually transmitted diseases)
Faeces (including but not limited to: shit, crap)
Subhumanity (including but not limited to: savages, devils, monsters, primitives)
Sexual predators (including but not limited to: Muslim people having sex with goats or pigs)
Violent criminals (including but not limited to: terrorists, murderers, members of hate or criminal organisations)
Other criminals (including, but not limited to, “thieves”, “bank robbers” or saying “All [protected characteristic or quasi-protected characteristic] are ‘criminals'”).
Certain objects (women as household objects, property or objects in general; Black people as farm equipment; transgender or non-binary people as “it”)
Harmful stereotypes historically linked to intimidation, exclusion or violence on the basis of a protected characteristic, such as Blackface; Holocaust denial; claims that Jewish people control financial, political or media institutions; and references to Dalits as menial labourers.’

All very well. But Facebook and its many competing online electronic megaphones allow degrees of hate-filled, anonymous invective, on a scale unlike anything to be found in any library , newspaper or any other old-fashioned purveyor of opinions and does it in defence, of course, of ‘free speech.’

As I say, South Africa is not alone in its growing appetite for shutting down debate. Let’s look at what the Scots are doing about hate speech, as it is reported in a recent article in The Times of London:

‘Under the bill now law in Scotland, someone behaving toward, or communicating material to, an individual in a way that could be considered, by a “reasonable person,” to be “threatening or abusive” could face a maximum penalty of seven years in prison — but only if it’s found they intended to “stir up hatred” against a protected group.
The inclusion of transgender identity under the new rules sparked the ire of activists already angry with the Scottish government’s separate, and ill-fated, bid to make it easier for people to legally change their gender through self-identification.However , women are not listed as a protected group.
And that’s where J.K. Rowling comes in.
‘The Harry Potter author tested the fences by describing several transgender women — including prominent activists, public figures and some convicted sex offenders who self-identified as women — as men.
“Freedom of speech and belief are at an end in Scotland if the accurate description of biological sex is deemed criminal,” Rowling warned.
She added, very splendidly:
“I’m currently out of the country, but if what I’ve written here qualifies as an offense under the terms of the new act, I look forward to being arrested when I return to the birthplace of the Scottish Enlightenment,”

New laws in Ireland also target ‘hate speech.’

I wonder how James Joyce, Ireland’s great writer, would fare under the new law? Joyce, still a young man, left Ireland in disgust, never returned and was scathing about much of Ireland, its church, its mores and its absurdities.’ Ireland’, he cheerfully remarked,’ is an old sow that eats its own farrow’…

The hard question is who decides what must be censored, suppressed and forbidden? Again, I’d return to the good sense expressed by the organisation called, ‘Freedom of Religion, South Africa.’

‘The new censorship laws do not in fact criminalise ‘hate speech’ as its supporters claim, but criminalise some speech that some people hate.’

Back in the 2019 elections in South Africa, we had a taste of what the future or free speech may look like. Journalists were attacked, notably by the EFF and its leader, Julius Malema, who encouraged such attacks, both physical attacks and online. It had, and has, a very dampening effect on free reporting and anxiety about what may be said about the EFF and its policies.

In March of 2019, Fikile Mbalula of the ANC insisted that the SABC rev up coverage of the ANC electoral virtues and claimed the SABC was throttling, or blacking out, good news about the ruling party.

In the age of state capture, the Gupta era, the time of the great kleptocracy under Jacob Zuma , TV channels like ANN7 and the New Age newspaper, both linked to the Guptas, ran high-octane propaganda campaigns assailing their enemies , both in and out of government, with a ferocity that would have made Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief , very proud .The Zondo report recounted how , in 2019, several journalists were paid to inform Bosasa, that unlovely handmaiden to wholesale government corruption, of any news reports that had the nerve to point this out to the South African public. Such inflammatory, racist, invective passed without much comment.

More recently, and more worryingly, the war against what may be said has intensified in South Africa. Here are the comments of the Campaign for Free Expression in September 2023.
‘Journalists face numerous and frequent attempts to silence them, including intimidation and assault, death and rape threats, state surveillance and court action. Political leaders have instigated attacks on journalists by party supporters. These increase the risks journalists face online and while out on assignment. On several occasions, the courts have considered the question of the singing of ‘Kill the Boer’, a song associated with the struggle against apartheid. A High Court judgement found it to be hate speech but in the latest judgement the Equality Court found that, given the social and historical context, the song was offensive but not hate speech. ‘

Again, who decides?

There is an American journal called FIRE, dedicated to supporting free speech in universities, and it keeps track of this form of masochistic desire to stop us speaking our thoughts and beliefs and prejudices out loud. Let me quote some remarks that reveal how insidious the busybody cult of censoring anything we find disagreeable has become very recently:

‘The cancelling culture isn’t a singularly Left-wing phenomenon. Take the cancelling of Palestinian novelists, artists, and musicians on both sides of the Atlantic since the war in Gaza. Today, in Western democracies selected officials can and do try to restrict academic freedom in a variety of ways. Some write directly to a university to demand a professor face repercussions for criticizing them or because they disapprove of the scholar’s research. Others pass legislation banning books or restricting what can be taught in college classrooms. Some even initiate legal investigations into a scholar’s work.

The Economist, in a recent essay on growing intolerance, reported that half the students at the most revered ( and very liberal ) universities in the US believed it was absolutely fine to stop their peers attending a lecture by a speaker they did not like and that one in three felt it was OK to shut a speaker down.

In the US, when someone complained that there were racial slurs to be found in classic novels like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird ‘and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , the district of Burbank removed the books from school reading lists . Not banned, they insisted, merely removed …

The author of To Kill a Mockingbird wrote a wonderful riposte to this foolishness. She said:

“Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honour and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners .To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of double-think.”

So then, how are we doing in South Africa right now? Well, a short time ago, the president was heard, on a live mic, complaining about the lamentable coverage his party the ANC got from the SABC.

Jolly good for the SABC, you might think, at long last a real public broadcaster , no more a glove puppet.

But the president was not amused, as the report makes clear – ‘’President Ramaphosa can be clearly heard saying: “TV stations have no right to be negative towards us… We want more than fair treatment (from the media). There will be a team of comrades who will be watching this space all the time.”

I was present a few years back, when students at the pulled down the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, Among the things they detested were Western dominance and Western ways. After the statue was taken away, I watched as they climbed into cars of Western construction, wearing T- shirts and trainers in the American tradition and drove off to the pub to drink beers branded by Belgians and Italians and at no time did they appear to be aware of any contradiction . Ignorance may seem a delicate flower but it has cast-iron petals.

During the time of campus decolonisation, when books and photographs and pictures were sequestered and banned by the University and others were burned on campus by student. I visited several university libraries and found myself in the law library of Natal University in Durban shortly after it had been set on fire. The acrid stench of paper, type, leather in that dark hole will never leave me.
David Goldblatt, the great South African photographer, told me that because of the campus book burnings, he could no longer leave his entire photographic collection to UCT , as he had planned. When he died, all of Goldblatt’s work, an irreplaceable tapestry of South African lives and times, covering much of the 20th Century, went not to UCT in Cape Town but to Yale University in the US. Frankly, I am not sure that this was not a destination almost as bad.

Many years ago, when Salman Rushdie’s novel, the Satanic Verses, was published, I reviewed it for the BBC in London. I said that whatever Rushdie intended, one thing was clear: this was a novel that fiercely attacked the intolerant religious autocrats who had come to power in Iran, using humour and sarcasm. Very soon after the book hit the bookshops, those same religious fundamentalists put a price on Rushdie’s head and promised a reward to anyone who murdered him. As you know, there was another attempt to kill him recently.

From that time on, you might say, it has been open season on writers and on journalists, who have been harassed and assaulted. Online attacks, which often come from supporters of political parties or groups from both left and right, are likely to be far higher than reported, with many journalists accepting them as ‘part of the job’. They often include threats of assault, rape and death. Worldwide , in 2023 , some 120 journalists and media workers were killed. Journalists in South Africa are attacked online and on duty , there is harassment on line , there are the twitterbots , there are threats from political thugs of all stripes, some were threatened with rape, court action and assassination. In May this year as the election grew nearer, officials from Zuma’s new MK party attacked and groped female journalists covering the MK rally in Orlando. Such attitudes to journalists , shutting down what you do not like to see and hear , whether its people or political opinions or poems or demonstrations or films are now the new normal.

‘In 2020, the streaming platform Showmax removed films produced by comedian Leon Shuster from its service so that it could review them for ‘racially sensitive material’. In several of his highly popular films, which cinema blockbusters at the time, the comedian had performed in blackface, which is considered by many to be hate speech. The threat of public backlash has resulted in forms of self-censorship, or at least bullish caution by artists, which are likely to be more prevalent than reported. Illustrative of the social dynamics of encountering public censure, renowned satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys’s book One Man Shows: The Black and White Years, published in 2021, contains the ‘Disclaimer and Warning’ that, [t]he scripts in this collection, from 1981 to 1994, have not been altered to reflect today’s values and current sensibilities. They are an authentic record of what was performed at the time. The words are specific here to their social context. Deeply offensive terms were used ironically and satirically to expose racism, sexism and hypocrisy and to reflect the prejudices of society at the time. Comedians appear to be at the coalface of what has been called the ‘shifting cognitions of offence’ or ‘a change in the ideas of what’s offensive’.

The work of Herman Charles Bosman, one of our greatest writers, is now unreadable aloud without risking a visit from the language police. Bosman used terms and phrases once all too common throughout South Africa. But they cannot now be repeated. Amnesia is the safer way and so we prefer to forget but every so often someone forgets to forget and the past comes flooding back.

Nelson Mandela remarked a few months before he was elected president in 1994: “No single person, no body of opinion, no political or religious doctrine, no political party or government can claim to have a monopoly on truth. For that reason, truth can be arrived at only through the untrammelled contest between and among competing opinions, in which as many viewpoints as possible are given a fair and equal hearing. It has therefore always been our contention that laws, mores, practices and prejudices that place constraints on freedom of expression are a disservice to society.”

I’d say there has never been a true tradition of free speech in South Africa. Not under the Dutch nor the British, nor the White Nationalists of yesteryear, nor the Black Nationalists of today. South Africa, past and present, is run by issuing edicts, pronouncements, hot air, threats, and the need to find scapegoats. But very seldom has open debate be valued. Words are weapons, their meanings found in the government gazette and not in the dictionary. The wrong form of words can seriously damage your health. We should be aware of what we say, but we must find ways of speaking out or lose the right to do so. It is an impossibly delicate balance but we must try.

I spent a good deal of time in Moscow at a time when the Soviet empire was at its height. People said very little publicly. Instead, they used a code that was understood only by those they trusted, but was closed to outsiders. In their kitchens, they talked of everything and anything and they were scathing about the failings of the Party than ran the country . What they said could be shocking in its bitterness but also in its icy humour. Because will find ways of saying what they think, whether the censors like it or not. Free speech may not keep us safe but I believe it helps to keep us sane.

George Orwell put it well. ‘If freedom means anything, it is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

Christopher Hope