Freedom of expression is proudly held by democracies as a beacon of liberty compared to restrictive regimes such as China, North Korea, the former Soviet Union and various Middle Eastern states, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia.
This pride in our liberty is also a risk to our freedom as we become complacent about legislation introduced to "protect" us.
Vilification laws in Australia make it "unlawful to insult, humiliate, offend or intimidate another person or group in public on the basis of their race". These laws have been criticised by some right-wing politicians and a few Christian groups who feel that they are being unfairly targetted and that they should be able to criticise others. Interestingly, some of these critics line up to have Muslims prosecuted for similar speech, to have them banned from certain expression, such as wearing a burqa and often oppose permits for the construction of mosques.
The difficult aspect for anyone who wants freedom of expression is that the "other side" will also benefit. There will always be those who state opinions that we disagree with, that we might even find offensive. In Australia there are defamation laws which can be used to protect a person's reputation. Since 9/11 the political debate in the West has heated up and become more aggressive with attacks on individuals and racial or religious stereotypes.
Does freedom of expression mean that we can say whatever we want without impunity or should there still be some boundaries around that freedom. The moment we limit freedom of expression, is it truly freedom? We live in a free country, but that doesn't mean that the country is free from law. There would be few citizens who want to live in anarchy. Laws are there for a reason. Most laws are designed to protect people from the destructive actions of others. Vilification laws are designed for the same reason. But do these laws go too far?
Vilification law was introduced to hopefully prevent the sort of extremist propaganda that led to Nazi Germany's persecution of the Jews and other abhorrent events, however, the irony is that it also leads to the same censorship and book-burning behaviour of the Nazis, Stalin's Soviet Union and the medieval Catholic Church.
The freedoms that we boast of in democratic nations are undermined by a variety of censorship laws.
On a day now known as Black Tuesday, 22 November 2011, South Africa passed the 'Protection of Information Bill' (1), a piece of doublespeak more popularly known as the 'Secrecy Bill', which prohibits the disclosing or possessing of information deemed classified by the government. A person found guilty could face up to 25 years in prison. Whilst it is understandable that the government wants to protect State secrets, the law also applies to whistle-blowers, so could encourage corruption within government to fester. The Act does acknowledge the importance of freedom of expression but then references numerous categories of information which are protected, including economic, commercial and political information. In addition to this Act, the ANC is considering a tribunal for disciplining journalists (2). Journalists and civil rights activists in South Africa are understandably concerned. (3)
On 25 July 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed the "Bill for Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott - 2011" (4). The resultant Act will make it an offense for anyone to demand or participate in an "economic, cultural or academic" boycotts to "purchase products or services produced or provided in the State of Israel, in any of its institutions or in an area under its control". Areas under its control, include the illegal settlements that violate UN resolutions. Essentially, Israel has made it illegal to protest against illegal activity. The Act will allow for those targetted by boycotts to sue and be recompensed irrespective of actual losses incurred. Freedom of expression? Ironically, the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, once said "the test of democracy is freedom of criticism".
Following 9/11, the United States government introduced the highly secretive "United and Strengthening by Providing Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act", another piece of Orwellian doublespeak more popularly known as the "Patriot Act". This Act stifles freedom of expression and limits what journalists and other writers can report. (5) Even reporting on parts of the Act is a criminal offense. Usually, ignorance of the law is no defense, so how does that stand when the public are not allowed to be informed of the contents of the Act. Even more sinister is the discovery that the Act has power beyond the United States, giving the USA secret access to cloud stored data of other sovereign nations without the knowledge or permission of those nations. (6) Interestingly, President John F. Kennedy once stated "We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people".
What do we want? Freedom of expression - which gives everyone freedom to state what they want, whether we like what they say or not and whether they criticise or expose government behaviours ... or do we want to curb some of the vitriolic speech and whistle-blowing through vilification laws, secrecy bills and 'patriot' acts?
Personally, I would prefer fewer laws and the ability to speak and write freely! I'm not advocating anarchy of expression as there are existing laws against defamation, violence and property damage that can be used to prosecute those whose opinions result in, or encourage, behaviours harmful to others. However, we do not need more laws controlling what we can and can't say or write.
Whilst I do not agree with the bigoted and ignorant vitriol espoused by some of the so-called journalists in our media, I fear it is a slippery slope when we start censoring journalism and either banning the reporting of, or ordering writers to sanitise, certain events or their own opinions.
It is this freedom to express ourselves and our beliefs, that provides the backdrop to history as it unfolds. History is more than events, it is comprised of the life experience of millions of individuals expressed through writing and speech.
Silence this and we silence humanity.
Freedom of Expression quotes
"I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - Evelyn Beatrice Hall in "The Friends of Voltaire".
"If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all" - Noam Chomsky.
"Here is my advice as we begin the century that will lead to 2081. First, guard the freedom of ideas at all costs. Be alert that dictators have always played on the natural human tendency to blame others and to over-simplify. And don't regard yourself as a guardian of freedom unless you respect and preserve the rights of people you disagree with to free, public, unhampered expression." - Gerard K. O'Neill, 2081.
"Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime". Potter Stewart.
"The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion". Henry Steele Commager.
"Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity", Herman Hesse
"Silence is the loudest scream", anonymous.
All references accessed 25 March 2012.
1. Republic of South Africa, 'Protection of Information Bill'. http://www.info.gov.za/view/DownloadFileAction?id=118894
2. David Smith, 21 November 2011, 'Black Tuesday' protests to mark likely passing of South African Secrecy Bill' - The Guardian online. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/21/black-tuesday-protests-south-africa-secrecy
3. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, 22 November 2011, 'Black Tuesday in South Africa', The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/11/black-tuesday-in-south-africa.html
4. Human Rights Watch, 13 July 2011, 'Israel: anti-boycott bill stifles free expression'. http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/07/13/israel-anti-boycott-bill-stifles-expression
5. Bill of Rights Defense Committee, 'First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and Assembly', http://www.bordc.org/threats/speech.php
6. Zack Whittaker, 12 October 2011, 'Newspaper sues government to reveal 'secret' Patriot Act interpretation', ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/newspaper-sues-government-to-reveal-secret-patriot-act-interpretation/60407