Camden Council unlawfully censors criticism of Israel

Pro-Israel censorship
By Ruth Tenne*

Camden Council claims to promote freedom of speech in all its forms. On its website the council clearly states that

Camden has a proud history of being an epicentre of radical thought and political activity. Often, decades (or centuries) later, what was once radical is considered mainstream. A culture of fostering thinking that sits against the grain keeps Camden at the forefront of innovation in all sorts of areas of life, the arts, science and business.

The website goes on to say: “It is vital that people are given the space to think and speak freely, even when we disagree or are offended by what they have to say.” It cites Article 10 of the Human Rights Act (1998) and says it understands this to “include the right to express views aloud, or through, [amongst other means ] communication on the internet”.

The website adds that

public authorities may restrict the right to freedom of expression if they can show that their action has a proper basis in law and is necessary and “proportionate”… The public authority must show that the restriction is “proportionate”, in other words the restriction must be no more than is necessary, appropriate and not excessive in the circumstances.

Double tongued

Sadly, it appears that the human rights pledges made by Camden Council are restricted to its website alone and do not apply apply to its actual policies and actions.

As a user of Camden’s public computers, I was appalled to learn, in the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza (July-August 2014) that I could no longer access my own articles on the Redress Information & Analysis website. As a result, I lodged an official complaint addressed to the head of library services in Camden. My complaint was dismissed by the council on the grounds that the Redress Information & Analysis website is “intolerant and anti-Semitic”. Regrettably, the Local Government Ombudsman has also upheld Camden Council’s decision to continue blocking indefinitely Redress Information & Analysis. (For the full details, see my article, “London’s Camden Council censors criticism of Israel”, published in Redress Information & Analysis.)

Disappointed and disillusioned by Camden Council’s sheer disregard for the democratic values it publicly claims to hold, I wrote to the council’s chief executive, Mike Cooke, in the hope that he would revise and overturn the council’s baseless decision to block Redress Information & Analysis on its public computers, which number more than 100. Perhaps expectedly, Cooke did not take long time to respond to my letter. He said:

The censor’s words – uncensored

I’ve now looked at the background and the details of this situation.

You may be aware that we use automatic website filtering to assist us in ensuring appropriate use of computers. In the case of the Redress [Information & Analysis] website, it was filtered by the software but then was reviewed by officers. A number of articles were assessed as being perfectly acceptable, a number were questionable in terms of conveying an attitude of intolerance and significantly the site also was found to contain a number of violent images which were alone sufficient to keep the website blocked.

As a public authority, the council believes it should not directly enable access to material that could be reasonably considered to be containing material [sic] that is promoting intolerance or found to be offensive. We have an important role to promote social cohesion.

Having looked into this, I am satisfied that we have acted reasonably and appropriately. If the Redress [Information & Analysis] website changes or develops, then we would of course review the blocking in the light of those changes.

My reply to Cooke’s letter reflected my deep sense of frustration and outrage:

I was disappointed, though not surprised, to see that you have upheld Camden Council’s decision to block the website of Redress Information & Analysis. I wonder if you had a chance to read my latest article on [the] website, a link to which I sent you in my previous email. This article included my response to the Local Government Ombudsman and addressed all the points made by Camden Council which you seem to have simply reiterated in your response to my email complaint.

I also noted that while initially the council blocked the website of Redress [Information & Analysis] on the grounds of being intolerant and anti-Semitic – mentioning violent images only in passing – your letter now seems to cite violent images as the main reason for blocking the website. This point has been already addressed in my response to the Local Government Ombudsman where I argued that the “the internet and the press quite often include graphic images of mutilated bodies and corpses which could be easily accessed by the users of Camden libraries’ computers, and all national and local press have an email edition which could be accessed by public computer users”.

If indeed the filter system of Camden Council has filtered out the website of Redress [Information & Analysis], how would you explain the fact (as was mentioned in my own article on Redress website) that four London boroughs whom I contacted randomly did not filter out/block the website of Redress [Information & Analysis] on their public computers…

The “crime” of criticising Israel

Throughout my work on the public computers of Camden Council, I found quite a number of websites blocked by the council whose singular “crime” seems to have been criticism of Israel’s policies. I also wonder if you read the advice given by the Liberty officer who did not see any reason for the council’s blocking of the website of Redress [Information & Analysis] apart from suspected political motives, clearly noting: “I have only had a chance to skim a few of the articles on; however, I agree that there is a strong case that the library has blocked political speech which is not sufficiently threatening, abusive or insulting to any religious or racial group as to engage the Public Order Act (or any equivalent legislation).”

It is virtually a scandal that Camden Council, which claims to hold up the principles of democracy, is blocking the website of Redress Information & Analysis (and quite a few other websites) for criticising Israel’s policies – claiming that the website is intolerant and anti-Semitic. This kind of censorship on the part of Camden Council has to be made public. I hope that it would , indeed, get the attention of the wider community through the press and social media.

Disproportionate and unlawful

To sum up, transparency is at the heart of local democracy. Yet, at no time did Camden Council disclose the criteria employed by the filtering system for totally blocking a website and material it deems unacceptable. If, indeed ,”a number of articles [on the Redress Information & Analysis website] were perfectly acceptable” – as the Camden Council chief executive noted in his letter to me – why has the council taken the decision to block indefinitely the whole of Redress Information & Analysis rather than simply filter out the “violent images” they found “unacceptable”.

That leaves Camden Council open to the charge of acting unlawfully and disproportionally, in contravention of Article 10 of the Human Right Act (1998) – covertly advancing the interests of the pro-Israel constituency in the multicultural Borough of Camden.

It appears that freedom of expression is merely granted to a selected local constituency by Camden Council, whose authorities have little concern for the true meaning of the Human Rights Act.

*Ruth Tenne is an Israeli human rights activist.

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