Introductions to selected countries and periods of time

Censorship has been practised by governments in most countries at some time, and consequently must have been recorded. An impressive amount of books have been written through the ages about the practice of censorship in various countries, but the detailed records of books and newspapers actually censored are more randomly available. The index-lists of forbidden writings are important to make publicly available for a number of reasons; not only as a matter of principle of transparency, but because they tell their own story, sometimes of the extreme zealousness of censoring bureaucrats, occasionally of the deliberate and evil-minded destruction of a peoples language and cultural heritage. When publicly available, the index lists represent a monument to the many authors and journalists that were silenced through history, their works in many cases now lost forever.

For the Norwegian pilot project, 30 countries on all continents were initially selected for detailed recordings of censored books and newspapers through the ages. The project proprietors attempted to keep a global perspective by including countries as large as USA and Canada, and as small as Lithuania or Norway. Naturally, we chose countries where both partners and information were accessible. As Norway is the initiator of the project and self criticism constitutes the best foundation for criticising others, the history of censorship in Norway naturally has been included. In addition, Norway – unlike many other countries – has complete records of all suppressed books through the history of printing, as well as complete records of censored books and illegal publishing through the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II.

In some countries, records are easily available, as in the USA, where the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom regularly publishes lists of challenged books in libraries. However, in some cases the task of tracking and supplying the information has proved a too demanding burden on otherwise enthusiastic partners. Regrettably, the Beacon project did not have the resources to conduct the needed research in person and therefore had to leave some countries out. Consequently some continents are underrepresented, sadly the continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

As to periods of time, the project proprietors have chosen as a first priority, the most outstanding periods of censorship in Western history, such as that of the Roman Catholic Church, the former Soviet Union and the Nazi Germany during World War II. The main reason being that they all were devastating in terms of the long duration, but also due to the transnational aspect.

The banning of books by the Roman Catholic Church lasted for 400 years, effective in all European Catholic countries, and exported to the conquered Americas. Thus the Index Librorum Prohibitorum not only has great historical significance, but illustrates that fundamentalism is not a modern phenomenon. The rigid censorship of the former Soviet Union lasted for the best part of last century and was effective in all republics as well as occupied countries. The equally deadly censorship of Nazi Germany also covered all occupied countries (1940-45).

Seen in this perspective, severe censorship has - metaphorically speaking - covered Europe like a huge blanket throughout history. Some countries, such as Poland, have virtually been subjected to all these forms of censorship through a large period of their history.

Censorship has always been bravely met with resistance, especially in Poland, boasting a vibrant and enduring illegal publishing (samizdat). During WW II, the resistance also was vigilant in occupied countries such as Denmark and Norway. This well-organised illegal press, so important to the struggle for freedom from occupation, the project proprietors regards as an inseparable part of the long history of censorship.

Striking a balance
Today, authors and journalists, editors and publishers are still victims of stern censorship in a great many countries, mainly in the Southern hemisphere. By documenting the long history of censorship in western culture, the project proprietors has aimed to illustrate that conditions for freely expressing thoughts and opinions do change, as society’s views on political, religious or moral values change. Knowledge of the past is essential, not only to secure a comprehensive and balanced view of censorship throughout the world, but also to elucidate that censorship appears in very different societies, crossing all cultural borders.

Thus the main purpose of the database is to enhance public awareness that a free press, free access to information and open debate, as well as freedom of expression represents the cornerstone of democracy, and remains the best defence any people have against suppression.

Selected countries are: Spain, Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Japan, Iran, Italy, Lithuania, Germany, Norway, Malawi, Russia, Peru, Poland, South Africa, Turkey, USA and the Vatican State. Relevant sites.