Literary Censorship And Infringement Of Human Rights – Role Of The Librarian

By admin ~ March 10th, 2011 @ 11:48 pm


In this age of information explosion, the Librarian is supposed to be an opener of blocked pathways in the maze of knowledge, a blazer of trails in the encompassing dark forest of ignorance and a leader in keeping the human mind free. To censor is to act so as to change or suppress speech or writing that is condemned as subversive of the common good. Literary censorship goes back to the office of censor established in Rome in 443 B.C. but however honourable the origins of its name, it is today generally regarded as a relic of an unenlightened and much more oppressive age. It is an infringement of human rights and affects the Librarian in many ways. It also affects the Universal Availability of Publications (UAP), a programme developed within the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and supported by United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


Prohibition of the production, distribution, circulation or sale of material considered being objectionable for reasons of politics, religion, obscenity or blasphemy is an infringement of the individual’s right. It contradicts the most powerful statement of the global aspiration of respect for human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly. Article 19 is an independent and impartial human rights legislation established in 1986 to promote freedom of expression to combat censorship worldwide. It reads: “every one has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Shawcross 1991, p.409). The African Charter on Human Rights, European Convention on Human Rights, the Arab Charter on Human Rights and the Helsinki Final Acts – to mention a few- all stress that everyone should have the right to freedom of expression; a right that includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his/her choice.


In practice one sees the opposite. Even the quite open society of Athens had limits, as indicated by the trial and conviction of youth and acknowledgement of unorthodox divinities. In the ancient Greek communities, it was assumed that the character of a people would and should be shaped by that of the government. In the ancient Chinese system, control of the information was retained – not by the information worker – but by the authorities who also determined the contents of the authoritative texts. Perhaps the most dramatic form of literary censorship in Christendom was the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books Roman Catholics were prohibited by ecclesiastical authority from reading or keeping without permission. Such books could not be imported into countries where Roman Catholic control was considerable. The Roman Catholic Church used this index to police the literature available to its followers.


The Librarian serves the precious liberties of the nation; freedom of inquiry, freedom of the spoken or written word and freedom of the exchange of ideas. A democracy smugly disdainful of new ideas could be dismissed as a sick democracy and a democracy chronically fearful of new ideas would be a dying democracy. The last person to be a censor should be the Librarian whose responsibility is to provide materials which stimulate growth in factual knowledge, literary appreciation, aesthetic values and ethical standards. S/he provides a background of information which will enable citizens to make intelligent judgements in their daily lives. By providing materials on opposing sides of controversial issues, citizens develop the intellectual practice of critical reading and thinking.


It would not be farfetched to state that IFLA is aware of the roles and responsibilities of the Librarian. In addition to its basic functions carried out by the divisions, sections and round tables, a number of core programmes have been established to meet the requirements of the information community. These include the Universal Availability of Publications, Universal Bibliographic Control International MARC, Preservation and Conservation, Universal Dataflow of Telecommunications and the Advancement of Librarianship in the Third World. The Universal Availability of Publications, a programme developed within IFLA and supported by UNESCO could be seen as a battle against literary censorship. It is concerned with promoting the availability of publications all over the world. It covers not only libraries but publishing and bookselling, not only books and journals but audiovisual and electronic media, not only research libraries but school and public libraries. The ultimate objective is that “all publications, wherever and whenever published should be available to anyone, wherever and whenever they are wanted” (Membrey 1990, p.35). This is the ideal position in which IFLA stations the Librarian. The existence of a free and democratic society and an honestly administered government depends upon recognition of the concept that justice is based upon the rule of law grounded in respect for the dignity of the individual and his capacity – through reason – for enlightened government. Each individual has the right to a self-actuated existence to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is therefore the right of each to have uncensored access to unaltered information of both a serious and frivolous nature. The librarian (an Information Professional) provides access to accumulated knowledge and information and plays a vital role in the preservation of society and the freedom of the individual. The statement of the professionals on Code of Ethics of the California Library Association and the California Society of Librarians aptly noted that the librarian has an obligation “to make the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those which are unorthodox and unpopular with the majority, available to any individual and has a further obligation to make known to each individual the breath of information extant” (Taylor 1976, p.800).


Literary censorship is a giant cankerworm in every society. Governments invoke a wide range or variety of reasons for justifying literary censorship, for justifying secrecy and for taking actions against individuals because of their opinions. The claim that freedom should be limited in order to protect the rights of others is one of the most common reasons given for literary censorship. This includes privacy, defamation and protection of reputation. National and state security, sedition, public interest, public health, public morals, public order, violence, racism, sexism, religious intolerance (heresy and blasphemy), linguistic and cultural hegemony, propaganda (government propaganda and disinformation), special situations (state of emergency, election periods and war), media bias, copyright and intellectual property, corruption) are other reasons cited. In response, a variety of methods – direct and indirect- are employed to suppress the rights and freedom of expression and information. Press laws, licensing, attacks and restrictions on information workers (illicit killings, death threats and beatings, kidnappings and disappearances, arrests, detention and imprisonment, restrictions on movements and expulsions, dismissals and harassment) are some of these methods. A close study or examination of these reasons reveals that many lack justification in the sense that they are not recognized as permissible restrictions under international law, and in fact many have illegitimate aims, such as the suppression of criticism and unorthodox ideas. It is against such a background that the Librarian is supposed to disseminate information. Denying the individual the right to information because of age, race, religion, national origins or social or political views is a clear infringement of human rights. Over many years, librarians and other information workers have “fought many shades of opinion to defend the principle of the free dissemination of information. Librarians recognize the need for an appropriate balance to be maintained within the materials which they make available to reflect differing extremes or shade of opinion on matters which they might think to be contentious” (Haight 1978, p.124).

Literary censorship ought to be challenged by the Librarian in the maintenance of his responsibility to provide public information and enlightenment. How can he present vital problems and issues of our times because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval? Why was the British novelist Salman Rushdie condemned to death in February 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni because his novel The Satanic Verses was viewed as blasphemous and insulting to Islam? Why did Dr. Omar Abdel Rahman, leader of an illegal political group, declare a ‘fatwa’ against the Nobel Prize-Winning Egyptian author, Naguib Mahfouz for his book Children of Gabalawy in April 1989? This was why Thomas Jefferson caustically noted that “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” ((Haight 1978, p.124).

The evil which results from literary censorship is almost impossible to measure by the Librarian because it is very difficult to tell where it ends. It is nothing less than the danger of stopping the whole progress of the human mind in all its paths. The Librarian bases his/her profession as much on the freedom of the mind as the profession of medicine is based on the responsibility for the care of the body or the profession of law for equitable determination of the relative rights of individuals, or of the individual and society. S/he believes in “the absolute freedom of the mind as an ideal; if not a practical goal” (Eli 1980, p.230).


Controlling the individual through literary censorship is therefore nothing but an infringement of fundamental human rights. The Librarian does not foster education by imposing as mentor of the pattern of his/her own thought. The people should have the freedom to read and consider a broad range of ideas. It is wrong that what one man can read should be confined to what another thinks proper. Free communication is essential in the preservation of a free society and a creative culture. Librarian should therefore continue to challenge censorship in maintaining their role and responsibility of providing public information and enlightenment. They should also co-operate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgement of free expression and free access to ideas.


Height, Lyon. Banned Books: 387 BC to 1978 A.D. New York: Bowker, 1978.

Membrey, D.J. Nothing to Read? Birmingham: International and Comparative Librarianship of the Library Association, 1990.

Oboler, Eli M. Defending Intellectual Freedom. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Shawcross, William. Information Freedom and Censorship. London: Library Association, 1991.

Taylor, L.J. A Librarian’s Handbook, Vol. II. London : Library Association, 1976.
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