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12.03.2009 | Halya Coynash

Hypnotic censorship

   

Why the National Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morality (the Commission) took so long to issue their verdict regarding the “pornographic nature” of Oles Ulyanenko’s novel “The Woman of his dreams” is a reasonable question. It wouldn’t hurt either to know why it states that it received the publishers’ request for an assessment two months before the date on the request. Presumably they were impelled more by the need to save the country from the book’s presentation scheduled for 13 February, and not the urge to mark the anniversary of another significant event. An anniversary that has no connection with love and kisses.,

On 14 February 1980 Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against the British writer and author of the novel “The Satanic Verses”, Salmon Rushdie. The Ayatollah called on Muslims to kill both the writer, and all those implicated in publishing his book. In short, for what he (and many others) perceived as an insult to the Prophet Muhammed, the leader of one country effectively sentenced a citizen of another country to death.

Clearly more divides these two “verdicts” than time alone, yet certain analogies do seem called for. Twenty years ago a fair number of people initially laughed when they heard of a death sentence declared during a radio address. They realized quickly enough how misplaced mirth was. Over the next few years a Japanese translator of the novel was killed, while one other translator and a publisher were lucky to survive similar attempts on their life. The British authorities provided Salmon Rushdie with special security and the writer spent years in hiding, never staying in one place for long.

The recent assessment of Ulyanenko’s novel given by the so-called Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morality is on the one hand hilariously idiotic, while at the same time not funny at all. At the request of the book’s publisher, the Commission turned its expert gaze upon the new novel by the laureate of the prestigious Shevchenko Award Oles Ulyanenko, and reached the expert conclusion that the author had written not a novel, but “a pornographic product whose sale is prohibited in Ukraine”.  One shouldn’t imagine that the “experts” forgot that the author of this “pornographic product” is a writer. Quite the contrary, that was the problem, since the “author’s mastery and expressive power with language could encourage base instincts in the reader which gives grounds for finding them pornographic”.

  Guffaws of laughter are not appropriate since the novel was actually withdrawn. We have an “expert” assessment which has absolutely no legal force, yet the press in unison reported that the novel had been banned. And you can understand why. Law or no law, the print run was withdrawn, the presentation officially cancelled and the contract with Ulyanenko was terminated.

  You don’t have to overexert brain cells to understand why people treated the extra-judicial sentence issued by the Ayatollah extremely seriously. Firstly even if later you prove that the killing was unlawful, it’s not going to help the victim. There is also another vital aspect: Rushdie was accused of insulting Mohammed, effectively, of blasphemy. The Ayatollah did all in his power to convince Muslims that it was no sin to kill him, but rather their duty. Ideology ruled, together with an understanding of duty not before man, but before Allah.

  At first glance the situation with the Commission is from another, probably soapbox, opera. Although yet again we read words about violence, sex with minors, etc, in fact all attention seems to focus on sex scenes which are certainly presented without any euphemisms. To make matters worse, the author writes so perfidiously well that the reader is in danger of being infected by “base instincts”. 

  The fact that the reader has almost certainly long been infected, having read no less explicit scenes in the literary works of Joyce, Lawrence, Miller or many others clearly does not bother these experts on our morals.  Which is a shame since such scenes will be read, probably in Russian translation, while it is surely worth fostering the development of contemporary Ukrainian literature. Not to mention the fact that Ukraine will become a laughing stock for its stubborn wish to renew restrictions on freedom of speech and prudishness which not just one generation has grown up without.  It has, incidentally, become almost commonplace to call freedom of speech the single real achievement of the Orange Revolution.

  It’s somehow uncomfortable to challenge a clown to a duel, and every step staggers the observer more with its idiocy, than its threat.  I would, however, reiterate that this body without any legal authority issued a verdict which makes one blush, and yet the book was effectively banned. And just as with the Ayatollah’s death sentence, the lack of a ban de jure has little significance if de facto it nonetheless took place.

  I therefore find it baffling that the Commission’s activities are to a large extent tolerated, and more attention is not paid to other, no less worrying analogies. It is clear that Mr Kostytsky, Head of the Commission, is not of the stuff that spiritual leaders of any group are made of, yet it hardly seems warranted to simply ridicule all the moronic and fuzzy provisions both in the law on public morality, and in the draft law proposing amendments. This is, in my view, extremely dangerous in part because a law is a law, and given the will, can also be turned into a weapon. What makes one even more wary is the increasing role of ideology, and all the rhetoric about the threat to national security, especially in the midst of a major crisis, could have seriously harmful consequences.

  Nor do there seem any grounds for assuming that the people flogging this nonsense do not see what they are doing. In fact a number of strange coincidences where surveys appear to confirm the diagnosis on the public’s moral condition made by the Head of the Commission and certain politicians, as well as the constant shrieking about the threat to the country suggest that deliberate policy is at play.

  During the last week the media has actively discussed a Cabinet of Ministers Instruction which includes a directive to the Security Service [SBU] to draw up a draft law on registering Internet publications which will make the latter media outlets. There are of course arguments for and against, however in principle I see scope for improvement in a situation where the Internet provides unlimited possibilities for abuse with nobody effectively bearing responsibility.

  It is however vital to clearly define what the liability is for and who one answers to. At present the law and Commission’s activities are neither clear-cut, nor foreseeable, not to mention there being no real agreement as to which moral principles need to be upheld.

  We are seeing an effectively political body which is set up, and sometimes actively supported by politicians when they’re not too busy wrecking the country with their squabbles, intrigues and deals. The makeup of this Commission is also subject to neither public control nor rational explanation. Is a person who was in the Soviet Communist Party right up to February 1991 really considered a moral authority by a large percentage of the population? The same question could be asked of the Commission member who is also a member of the rightwing and extremely intolerant “Svoboda” party, or Mr Kostytsky with his very specific career in both politics and jurisprudence. We are all very different and I would not wish to foist my views and values on others. However, if a plumber gives me a medical diagnosis or a doctor offers to fix a burst pipe in my flat, surely it makes sense to ask why I should trust them?

  The same Cabinet of Ministers Instruction includes a directive to the State Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting to draw up amendments to the Law on the Protection of Public Morality “in order to create effective legal, economic and organizational conditions for exercising citizens’ rights to an information realm free from material which endangers the physical, intellectual and moral-psychological state of the population”. In short, more arrant nonsense, however this is to be drawn up by April which suggests that the shameful imitation of a law which is presently posted on the Commission’s website will probably end up tabled in parliament.

  We can, of course, choose to rely on the wisdom of parliamentarians however I can’t say I feel such an urge. Yet without serious revision the present draft law could render freedom of speech little more than a liberal bleat. We will be left with either silence or discussion on Internet forums and other contemporary versions of the Soviet kitchen where seditious anecdotes and topics were discussed out of harm’s way. 

  I would hope that this is all paranoia but why take chances with freedom?  It’s worth mentioning one other crucial point in the story of the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie.  There was no surrender. The publishers of the book never withdrew it, and the British Government from the very outset defended the right to life and freedom of speech of its citizen.

  It is vital in the case at present that efforts are united. One publishing company rejected the book, we need to find another. Let them make a complaint to the police. The latter may even initiate a criminal investigation, though in honesty I would doubt it.  That the ultimate victory would be had by Oles Ulyanenko (and all of us) cannot be in any doubt since the European Court of Human Rights will most certainly give a correct assessment of the current law and the actions of those who are supposedly protecting public morality. It would, at the same time, be good to publicly discuss and then introduce effective mechanisms for self-regulation. There are after all plenty of things to criticize in the present system and at least children need to be protected. It is however more effective and just when the media and the public set the acceptable restrictions to freedom of speech, and not some kind of morality functionaries.

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