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Defending free speech isn't just for heroes like Roberto Saviano

It is right to laud writers who risk everything: but free expression suffers if we only support people we agree with

It’s 10 years since Roberto Saviano published Gomorrah, a book that famously exposed the Italian underworld and led to a life under police protection for the author. Part of his motivation was to explode the Godfather myth and show organised crime as a business: "it’s commerce, it’s a social order that opposes the law’. He’s gone on to apply the same method to the Mexican cocaine trade in his book Zero Zero Zero (the term for the purest cocaine). Last year he made an impassioned plea to a London audience, asking them to lobby government and put an end to the capital’s role as the "head" of the drugs trade – the profits of narco-trafficking are laundered on our doorstep. "The British treat it as not their problem, because there aren’t corpses on the streets," he told the Independent.

This week his new book My Italians will be published. Once again, Saviano takes on corruption, investigating further crimes of the mafia, including their role in the toxic waste scandal in the south. The book is based on Saviano’s hugely popular television series Vieni via con me, which won Rai 3 the largest audience in its history. Saviano is a national hero in Italy, but he has paid a heavy price: he was just 26 when Gomorrah was published and his youth has been spent moving from one safe house or hotel room to another . "Dark rooms. Windows that don’t open (sometimes no windows at all)." He said last year that he’s not even able to have a relationship, since his partner and their family would immediately be targeted by the mafia.

Like Rushdie (who has given Saviano support and advice over the years), Saviano had never expected that his writing would result in a death sentence. When David Hare chose him to share the PEN Pinter Prize five years ago, he saluted Saviano for his courage. "Of Saviano, as much as any contemporary writer, we may ask the question, 'Would it matter if he had not lived?' in the certainty of receiving the emphatic answer: 'Yes.'” The two writers will be discussing freedom of expression in London this week – it will be their first meeting. Since the PEN Pinter Prize was launched, other international writers who have won the prize for their bravery include Raif Badawi, Mazen Darwish and Lydia Cacho – their courage in speaking out, risking their lives and liberty, is remarkable, and they have rightly been celebrated on many international platforms. Awarding honours to Saviano and his peers is an act of solidarity and a public recognition of the fundamental importance of protecting freedom of expression.

Cultural arrogance?

These are the free speech heroes, moral examplars whose right to speak is challenged by gangsters or repressive regimes. Closer to home, it’s often less comfortably black and white, but the free speech principle still needs protecting vigorously and our inconsistency in standing up for that right undermines its defence.  When Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje and other leading writers condemned the PEN American Center last year for honouring Charlie Hebdo for its courage, their protest went to the heart of a liberal dilemma when it comes to defending free speech – should the protection of freedom of expression be sacrificed to avoid giving offence to minority groups or other cultures?  Carey criticised PEN America for its "blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population". The discomfort at appearing to honour a publication that was perceived to be racist, led Carey and his supporters to consider the magazine unworthy of being recognised like Roberto  Saviano or Lydia Cacho. Yet the PEN America refuseniks were perhaps also guilty of "cultural arrogance", in failing to recognise the satirical context of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and its strong track record in fighting racism. 

Trump card

Our attitude towards hate speech and offence also seems somewhat dependent on geography: last week, JK Rowling spoke out against the campaign to ban Donald Trump from visiting the UK, "He has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there". But no one was raising their voices to protest the Labour Party’s suspension of Rod Liddle, who has also been accused of  bigotry.

The writer Kenan Malik, in his acute analysis of the repercussions of the fatwa against Rushdie, was the first to articulate an increasing ambivalence towards freedom of expression and a readiness to sacrifice its defence. Where free speech was once considered to be wholly beneficial, the hurt it can cause is now deemed so pernicious that censorship is seen as a good thing. "In the post-Rushdie world, speech has come to be seen not as intrinsically good, but as inherently a problem, because it can offend as well as harm, and speech that offends can be as socially damaging as speech that harms."

In his magisterial new book, Free Speech, published this week, Timothy Garton Ash has developed a framework for safeguarding freedom of expression. In a fascinating examination of diversity and the impact of hate speech laws, he makes a wholly convincing argument that the legislation should be "pruned back" (although he excludes speech that is intended, and likely, to lead to physical violence). It’s a brave and principled stand at a time when the bar is now so low that it is offence, rather than hate speech, that is more frequently invoked as a justification for banning speech.

We face more threats to free speech in the UK than we have for a long time. They are not on the scale of the risk that Saviano faces, but they all pose an incursion on our liberty. The government's Prevent strategy is creating a cautious culture of self-censorship, and its new Counter-Extremism bill is likely to exacerbate the climate; the Investigatory Powers Bill also threatens to rob journalists, writers and lawyers of essential safeguards for sources, and to deprive all of us of a freedom that we take for granted. Showing commitment for the universal defence of freedom of expression, rather than standing up only for the speech that makes us comfortable, is now more important than ever.

Roberto Saviano and David Hare are in conversation on 26 May 730pm at the Emanuel Centre in London. Tickets are £25, but Little Atoms readers can get tickets for £20 by using the code SILVERPEN when you book via the Free Word website. The proceeds will support English PEN’s work promoting and defending the freedom to read and the freedom to write.

Jo Glanville is a visiting fellow at Giessen University and a longtime campaigner for freedom of expression. She was previously director of English PEN and editor of Index on Censorship Magazine

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  1. Timothy Garton Ash is the author of eight books of political writing or "history of the present". They include The Magic Lantern, The File, History of the Present and Free World. His latest is Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing From a Decade Without a Name. He is Professor of European Studies and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His essays appear regularly in the New York Review of Books and his weekly column for the Guardian is widely syndicated in Europe, Asia and the Americas. He has received many awards for his writing, including the Somerset Maugham Award and the George Orwell Prize.

    First broadcast on 9th June 2010.