As the debate continues globally on the subject of freedom of speech and expression, I am pleased to see leading figures, around the world, speaking on the issue and recognizing the reality that there must be limits and responsibility when exercising one’s right to freely express one’s thoughts.
As the BBC reported, “Pope Francis has defended freedom of expression following last week’s attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo –– but also stressed its limits. The pontiff said religions had to be treated with respect, so that people’s faiths were not insulted or ridiculed. To illustrate his point, he told journalists that his assistant could expect a punch
if he cursed his mother”.
The pope is right because the reality is that no individual can freely express his/her thoughts, especially offensive ones of others, their beliefs, thing they hold dear and so on, without some reaction from the other person(s) to the offence. Now, it may be argued that reacting violently is absolutely wrong and against the law; and I agree 100 per cent.
But the point is an action will incite a reaction. So why not let that action be a positive one and not a negative one so that the resulting reaction could also be positive.
BBC also reported that the British prime minister had disagreed with the pope. He is reported to have said: “I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion.”
My question is does that right have any limits and does being offensive have any limits?
There are several laws across Europe limiting what people can say in respect of different things. Foremost is anti-Semitism and holocaust denial –– and rightfully so, due to the heinous crimes committed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
Hate speech is also on the books and defined. Interestingly, hate speech laws in the hyperlink http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom are found in several statutes. Expressions of hatred towards someone on account of that person’s colour, race, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation is forbidden. Any communication that is threatening or abusive, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone is forbidden. The penalties for hate speech include fines, imprisonment, or both.
As I pointed out last week, there are blatant double standards in the way that freedom of speech and expression is dealt with in many developed nations. It seems that what is “good for the goose is not always good for the gander”. I always wonder however why the need in the first place to have offensive speech.
I understand and appreciate that we can have different viewpoints and even fundamentally opposing thoughts on an issue or subject, but why should it be necessary to sink to being offensive and downright hateful –– a viewpoint, I am pleased to note, shared by an email I received from Ty Ajani, Bajan author of Deeper Soul, who writes: “Here in Switzerland you get an up-close display of blatant double standards. Satire done to offend millions, actually 1.5 billion believers, is not satire; it is done with an evil intent to hurt and create enmity and to provoke.
“It has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom of speech. Sure I can go up to anybody and tell them to their face and choose my words so as to really hurt and upset. I can do that, but then I should not be surprised if someone reacts and knocks me out . . . cause and effect . . . .”
Professor Ali Mazrui, who passed away last October, was an academic professor, and political writer on hyperlink http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_studies and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_studies. He was born in Mombassa, Kenya. He was an Albert Schweitzer Professor in the humanities and director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University in New York.
Speaking and writing about freedom of speech and Western values several years ago, the late professor’s position remains very relevant today. He states in one of his works: “The most celebrated case of the last decade –– that of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, published in Britain in 1988 but banned in most Muslim countries –– brought the Western world and the Muslim world in conflict, but also uncovered some surprising similarities and large helpings of Western hypocrisy.
“Further scrutiny reveals widespread censorship in the West, if imposed by different forces than in Muslim societies. As their civilization has become more secular, Westerners have looked for new abodes of the sacred. By the late 20th century the freedom of the artist –– in this case, Salman Rushdie –– was more sacred to them than religion. But many Muslims saw Rushdie’s novel as holding Islam up to ridicule.
“Many devout Muslims felt that Rushdie had no right to poke fun at and twist into obscenity some of the most sacred symbols of Islam. Most Muslim countries banned the novel because officials there considered it morally repugnant. Western intellectuals argued that as an artist, Rushdie had the sacred right and even duty to go wherever his imagination led him in his writing. Yet until the 1960s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was regarded as morally repugnant under British law for daring to depict an affair between a married member of the gentry and a worker on the estate.
“For a long time after Oscar Wilde’s conviction for homosexual acts, The Picture Of Dorian Gray was regarded as morally repugnant.
“The Satanic Verses was banned in some places because of fears that it would cause riots. Indian officials explained that they were banning the novel because it would inflame religious passions in the country, already aroused by Kashmiri separatism. The United States has a legal standard for preventive action when negative consequences are feared –– ‘clear and present danger’. But the West was less than sympathetic to India’s warnings that the book was inflammatory.
“Rushdie’s London publisher Jonathan Cape went ahead, and the book’s publication even in far-off Britain resulted
in civil disturbances in Bombay, Islamabad and Karachi in which some 15 people were killed and dozens more injured.
“Distinguished Western publishers, however, have been known to reject a manuscript because of fears for the safety of their own. Cambridge University Press turned down Fields Of Wheat, Rivers Of Blood by Anastasia Karakasidou, a sociological study on ethnicity in the Greek province of Macedonia, publicly acknowledging that it did so because of worries about the safety of its employees in Greece.
“Targets, sources, and methods of censorship differ, but censorship is just as much a fact of life in Western societies as in the Muslim world. Censorship in the West is more polished and decentralized. Its practitioners are financial backers of cultural activity and entertainment, advertisers who buy time on commercial television, subscribers to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), influential interest groups including ethnic pressure groups, and editors, publishers, and other controllers of the means of communication. In Europe, governments, too, sometimes get into the business of censorship.”
Fortunately Barbados has traditionally upheld the value of freedom of speech while also holding on to being responsible in exercise of that freedom. Libel laws are enforced and media houses here go to great pains to avoid publishing and carrying stories that are offensive. What has emerged however over the years has been the power of the social media, blogs, social sites and so forth that seemingly have no laws to govern what they put out, and most times anonymously.
The power of this form of expression cannot be underestimated and sadly many people now get their “news” and “information” from these sources rather than traditional more reliable media. Under a mask of anonymity they can and do twist stories to suit their agenda. The effects can be far-reaching and can lead to mistrust and hate –– something I personally witnessed last year as
a result of some social sites deliberately misrepresenting the housing project in Clermont.
I am sure the debate on freedom of speech and expression will continue to be hotly debated for many years. I reinforce that as we teach our children from young to respect others, we as adults must also be a shining example of similar behaviour. And not only through our actions, but our speech as well.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace and secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association.