The original inspiration came from two prominent Soviet dissidents, Pavel Litvinov and Larissa Bogoraz, but from its outset, the magazine covered censorship in right-wing dictatorships such as Greece, Portugal, and the military regimes of Latin America, as well as in the former Soviet Union and its satellites . The magazine has also sought to shed light on other challenges facing free expression, including religious extremism, the rise of nationalism, and Internet censorship.
Over the years, Index on Censorship has filled its pages with writings by some of the world's most distinguished writers and thinkers, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milan Kundera,Václav Havel, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, Arthur Miller, Noam Chomsky, and Umberto Eco. The editor-in-chief is Jo Glanville. Index on Censorship is closely associated with the Writers and Scholars Educational Trust, with whom it collaborates on projects to support press freedom around the world. These projects support local journalists and help build the capacity of independent media outlets in transitional and post conflict countries such as Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
It is also a partner with Eurozine, a network of more than 60 European cultural journals.
Since 2005, the magazine has been published by Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis group.
Index on Censorship is a founding member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a global network of non-governmental organisations that monitors censorship worldwide and defends journalists, writers, Internet users and others who are persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Issues are usually organised by theme, and contain a country-by-country list of recent cases involving censorship, restrictions on freedom of the press and other free speech violations. Occasionally, Index on Censorship publishes short works of fiction and poetry by notable new writers.
In November 2004, Index on Censorship attracted controversy for publishing an article that, to many readers, seemed to condone or justify the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh. The article, written by the magazine's Associate Editor Rohan Jayasekera, claimed that van Gogh was a "free-speech fundamentalist" who had been on a "martyrdom operation[,] roar[ing] his Muslim critics into silence with obscenities" in an "abuse of his right to free speech". Describing van Gogh's film Submission as "furiously provocative", Jayasekera concluded by describing his death as:
Ursula Owen, editor-in-chief of Index on Censorship, apologised in mid-December 2004 for publishing the article, saying she didn't think "the tone is right" However, she said she would not remove it from the magazine's online archives nor fire Jayasekera. She repudiated Cohen's opinions in a letter to the Observer.
Index on Censorship annually presents the to courageous journalists, writers, lawyers, campaigners, filmmakers and whistleblowers from around the world who have made a significant contribution to free expression over the past year.