Who is the censor?

SOMEONE has walked into a building in London and shut down 21 independent
gagging cartoon
media websites from Belgrade to Venezuela. The rest is obscure - which suits those who would rather it were not reported very well. It was, I fear, the most serious threat to freedom of expression in the UK for decades. It's still just possible it's something silly. The trouble is that it may as well have been engineered to be an unreportable non-story.

What happened is clear: people turned up and seized two web server computers used by Indymedia: so 21 Indymedia sites went dark. Within hours www. indymedia.org.uk was back on line; but a dozen of the others were missing large parts of their archives - over a million texts, images and sound files, Indymedia said.

When: Thursday, 7 October.

Where: at the London premises of Rackspace, a Texas-based company that houses such web servers.

Who? It begins to get murky.

Who Indymedia are is clear enough, at least to anyone comfortable with the phrase "network of non-hierarchical collectives"; over 140 of them. Each offers an alternative news outlet on social justice issues, and an open "newswire" where anyone can post anything. Since Indymedia was founded in the run-up to the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999, the collectives have thrashed out content guidelines under which, for example, offensive material or personal threats are removed from their home pages.

Who seized the servers, though? The first report that Indymedia received, from Rackspace's geeks, suggested that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation had shown up with a warrant in London. Since then Rackspace, on legal advice, has nothing to say other than that it complied with an order "pursuant to a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty".

The FBI's Joe Parris told Agence France Presse that this "is not an FBI operation... the subpoena was on behalf of a third country". So does that make it an activity - not an operation - on behalf of a third country carried out by the FBI, or what? It seems increasingly likely that the third country was Italy - where, as it happens, Indymedia volunteers were brutally beaten by police in Genoa in 2001.

The Metropolitan Police said: "we were not involved in that particular job." Another UK police spokesperson said: "we are as mystified as you are as to who did this."

Why? No-one is saying. As a UK civil liberties campaigner notes, it seems alarmingly possible that "the US have been able to grab a very important media site without explaining what they're doing - and that's of course very worrying." But that person doesn't want to be quoted on the record while they have no idea what is alleged against Indymedia, even though "it has occurred to us that the refusal to give reasons may be precisely in order to prevent comment."

There's another barrier to telling this story. The BBC website, when it finally ran it the following Monday, filed it as "technology". That's like discussing Rupert Murdoch's control of the Times under "forestry" - yes, trees are involved, but the question is freedom of expression.

The servers were returned a week later, still with no idea of who did it. The International Federation of Journalists was first off the mark to report the seizure, and both the Branch and the NUJ nationally have condemned it and are offering support to find out who did it and why.

  • Please contact your Member of Parliament and encourage them to sign the Early Day Motion launched by Jeremy Corbyn with the support of the NUJ Parliamentary Group.

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