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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: December 2020

Censorship and press liberty in the Sister Republics: Some reflections

Summary

In early 1798, the veteran Swiss journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan informed his friend, the abbé de Pradt:

As for the public… one must leave the continent in order to speak to it; for there is no longer anywhere where anyone can print a line against the Directory and its manoeuvres […] Your continent horrifies me with its slaves and executioners, its baseness and cowardice. Only in England can one write, think, speak or act.

The situation he describes implies a strange inversion of revolutionary values. For press liberty was enshrined at the heart of the founding document of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The revolutionaries of 1789 were convinced that only freedom of expression could guarantee political transparency, safeguard against corruption, and ensure the political education of the people. Yet less than a decade later, Mallet was suggesting that the armies of that same revolution had snuffed out press liberty across the entire continent, reducing the states of Europe, presumably the Sister Republics above all, to repressive French puppets.

But was it as simple as Mallet's colourful prose implied? The chapters in this section suggest a much more nuanced picture. Taken together, they offer a tightly organized and cohesive set of revisionist interpretative essays, as well as a model of effective, collaborative, internationally comparative press history. This is in itself a helpful contribution, for such comparative work is rare in the field of press history. Ten years ago, when Hannah Barker and I edited a set of nationally focused essays on press, politics, and the public sphere across Europe in the period 1760-1820, one reviewer commented that the last person to attempt such a comparative overview was the German diplomat Joachim von Schwarzkopf, and he was writing in 1800-1801.

A couple of years later, I found a similar paucity when I rashly agreed to write a 4,000-word synthetic piece on the press in Europe in the nineteenth century. My search for useful comparative literature to move the chapter beyond my own period yielded thin pickings, most notably an ambitious but distinctly uneven study on the reporting of the Dreyfus case in several different countries.