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The West is wounded in the battle for free speech

France pays tribute on October 21 to a history teacher beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in a lesson on free speech. - Credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

What do the beheading of a teacher in France, the suspension of a digital portal in Belarus and tweets about postal ballots in the US elections have in common?

They are all different ways in which freedom of expression is being abused. The issue is sometimes seen as ephemeral, but it shouldn’t be. It is one of the most fundamental freedoms of all; it is more in peril now than it has ever been; it is under attack on a number of fronts. And it has become far more complicated to navigate.

The gruesome murder of Samuel Paty outside a school near Paris brought to the fore the collision between the right to discuss issues, no matter how sensitive, and the ‘right’ to take offence (which may exist in the mind but not in law). President Emmanuel Macron has seized on the horror to reassert the importance of laïcité, which decrees that all public spaces in France should be free of religion.

The second assault is the most tried and tested – violence or coercion by the state against reporters or anyone seeking to uncover inconvenient truths. These methods have traditionally been the preserve of dictatorships, but in these confusing populist times the lines between authoritarian regimes and so-called democracies are blurred.

The organisation Article-19 reported recently that more than half the global population is living in a country where free speech is in crisis. “We have seen a deterioration of the right to speak, to know and to be heard over the years, but 2019 created a perfect storm, with the confluence of protests, internet shutdowns and the increased attacks on journalists and human rights offenders,” it said.

At the end of last year 250 journalists were languishing in prison. In the course of 2019, 57 journalists had been killed, with an impunity rate of around 90% (in other words, the perpetrators got away with it). Its annual ratings put China, India, Turkey, Russia, Bangladesh and Iran at the bottom.

Belarus, with its violent suppression of protest, arrests and harassment of locally-based reporters and ban on foreign correspondents, is hurtling down the ladder. Far more effective, and far harder to counter are the non-violent exertions of power – the take-down of independent media online using tech, legal or financial means.

By far the most dangerous of all the various assaults on freedom of expression is misinformation, and its more intentional sister, disinformation taking place right in the heart of the Western world.

The corrosion began before Donald J Trump arrived at the White House but over the past four years it has become embedded as one of the main tools of government. The United States, author Emily Bazelon writes in the New York Times Magazine, “is drowning in lies”. Aka fake news.

The authoritarian right around the world has taken its cue from Trump, although the disease is not the preserve of one political viewpoint. Some just do it better than others. During the presidential election campaign, the Republican camp has elided fact with fiction, inventing and distorting with alacrity.

If its main goal doesn’t work, to change a voter’s mind, there is still the chance that the individual will succumb to despondency. “The spewing of falsehoods isn’t meant to win any battle of ideas,” Bazelon writes. “Its goal is to prevent the actual from being fought, by causing us simply to give up.” That means finding every way possible to dissuade anyone not in Trump’s base from voting.

Apart from the Republican party, the other beneficiary are the online platforms, notably Facebook and Twitter, whose business model requires keeping users engaged. The more outrageous the comment, the greater the number of clicks. Anything goes, pretty much. In spite of their professions to be monitoring malicious or false content, they have proven time and again that they have no interest in upholding democratic norms.

A decade ago I was running another freedom of expression group, Index on Censorship. We played a major role in changing the UK’s libel laws for the better, at least slightly. We highlighted abuses around the world. It was easier then. The issues were more black or white.

I was an uncompromising advocate for the freest interpretation of free speech. I struggled to comprehend other approaches. I remember giving the keynote speech at Amnesty’s UK annual general meeting. I challenged those assembled to agree that free speech was as important a right as any of the others they were fighting for.

Many of the employees were not convinced. I wrote at the time: “Many people, particularly on the left, find it hard to disentangle a liberal society from an open society.” I now realise that they had more of a point than I saw at the time. Is unbridled freedom of speech always the friend of liberal democracy?

I took my cues from the American First Amendment and the famous quotations of yesteryear. Most people can remember Voltaire and the defending to my death of your right to say something about which disapprove.

At least as salient is a line from a famous Supreme Court ruling in 1927 by judge Louis Brandeis. “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence,” he said. In other words, good will always out.

A century on, much as we might wish it, does this remedy still hold true? The problem has gone far beyond the issues of state power. No two people, it seems, can agree on what freedom of expression entails any more, or where its boundaries lie.

To go back to the French case: the murder was an act of revenge, or ‘punishment’, against Paty for showing pupils in his class the cartoons relating to the Charlie Hebdo controversy.

He was telling the class about the ethical issues that stemmed from the attack by Islamist gunmen on the satirical magazine after it published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. He didn’t self-censor. He showed them one of the illustrations.

Macron has pledged “concrete action”, vowing that “fear will change sides”. But many in France’s Muslim communities, while condemning outright the slaying of the teacher, do not accept the principles of state secularism that the president was promising to defend.

This broader clash dates back to the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in 1989 for publication of The Satanic Verses. Then came the murder of the Dutch director Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the Danish cartoon affair the year after.

These were the headline moments. But disputes such as this are going on all the time, mercifully very few of them leading to violence.

The fury of the liberal left, now disparaged as the ‘woke’ brigade, is also based in a requirement to redraw the boundaries of what is deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘appropriate’ speech, leading to self-questioning or self-censorship (depending on your point of view) among journalists, authors, artists across the world.

American columnist Bret Stephens has recently written of a “default to a middle position” that presupposes causing offence as the flip side of terrorist violence. “It reintroduces a concept of blasphemy into the liberal social order,” he argues. It gives the prospectively insulted a de facto veto over what other people might say. It accustoms the public to an ever-narrower range of permissible speech and acceptable thought.” He concludes: “It is as deadly an enemy of writing as has ever been devised.”

Terrorism; state repression; manipulation of the truth; cancel culture. These are just a few of the disparate challenges to freedom of expression. My boundaries too have changed. I am more sensitive to sensitivities. I self-censor far more than I used to. Am I right to do so?

I search for trustworthy information and think I know where to find it, but I have niggling doubts. In this madness, there is a small amount of consolation. The problem will not disappear if Trump is evicted shortly from the White House. But it is hard to imagine the problem can get any worse.

If public life rediscovers some good old-fashioned civility and reliability, perhaps the search can begin for a new consensus around freedom of expression in this fraught digital age.

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