Focus on 'free' world's blinkers and censors

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Nick Cohen's latest book begins at the end of the Cold War. Many liberals saw 1989 as a year of triumph for the West: the totalitarian regimes of the East had finally fallen, liberal democracy would spread, and freedom of speech would flourish. But it was also the year, Cohen reminds us, that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a Fatwa on Salman Rushdie, for his book, The Satanic Verses.

Cohen uses the Rushdie censorship fiasco as a landmark to trace the trajectory of Islamofascism and the concomitant suppression of free thinking in the West. The so-called liberals in New York, London and Paris, says Cohen, have buried their heads in the sand ever since, acting as religious apologists, downplaying such hideous crimes against women as genital mutilation and murder committed by fundamentalists in the name of religion.

Free speech is not only under pressure from religious fundamentalists, Cohen argues, but also from a western elite, notably in Britain, that is awash "with judges drawn from the pseudo–liberal upper middle class who have no instinctive respect for freedom of speech or gut understanding of its importance."

Moreover, thanks to the UK's notorious libel law, English courts happily accommodate clients with deep pockets.

Cohen highlights Roman Polanski's 2004 defamation case against Vanity Fair as an example. The film director, who had been wanted since 1977 for the rape of a 13-year-old girl in the US, was granted special treatment to give evidence via a video link in France to defend his reputation in a London court. Property development and censorship share key attributes, says Cohen: location matters.

A respectable London court allowed Polanski to exercise his power to censor his critics. Polanski was subsequently awarded £50,000 and estimated costs of £1.5 million.

Although many journalists jubilantly praised social networking sites for their role in the protests that led to the Arab Spring, Cohen is more sceptical.

He believes that the internet is a cost-effective tool for dictators to collect information about its citizens, avoiding the need for secret police officers to eavesdrop on telephone conversations or intercept mail. Arrests can be made as a result of simply browsing through Facebook and Twitter comments.

Or better still, WikiLeaks will publish the names of dissident fighters against oppressive regimes in Belarus, Afghanistan and China, effectively creating a death list for people who, Cohen points out, are braver than Julian Assange could ever dream of being.

Though Nick Cohen's prose is a little too prone to anger and hyperbole, when he is on the money - as he is for much of this book - his analysis of moral hypocrisy is first-class.

If you believe we are living in an unprecedented time of freedom, in the cyber and physical worlds, do read this book and dare to be challenged.

J P O'Malley is a freelance reviewer

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