Saturday, June 04, 2016

Free Speech under threat worldwide

The Economist magazine's current issue has a focus on the threat to free speech.

We in Britain cannot afford an atom of complacency about this as the siren voices supporting "No Platform" in defence of "Safe Spaces" have far too strong a hold on most of our university campuses, and as the combination of our libel laws and the cost of libel actions in this country have been used by rich and powerful individuals not just here but around the world in attempts, too often successful, to silence truth as well as lies.

Sometimes, as with the victory of the "Feel Free to insult me" campaign which successfully fought to Reform Section 5 of the Public Order Acts so that in 2014 it ceased to be a criminal offence to insult someone, we move a few steps forward.

However unpleasant it was for everyone attending the 2015 Conservative conference, including journalists, cleaners and caterers as well as delegates, to run the gauntlet of protesters shouting insults like "Tory Scum!" which would have been illegal before 2014, it was a price worth paying for living in a society where people are free to criticise things they disapprove of without the risk of prosecution if someone decides the criticism was offensive.

(Of course, spitting at peoplethrowing things at them and rape threats, none of which are anything to do with any reasonable definition of free speech, are still illegal and anti-Semitic abuse would have crossed the line for many people too.)

Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go before we have truly entrenched the principle of free speech as a fundamental right even in an established democracy like Britain.

In some other parts of the world the situation is truly dire. The Economist has published this chart with information from "Freedom of Thought" and the Committee to protect journalists which indicates what penalties exist around the world for blasphemy and how many journalists have been killed or imprisoned for doing their job.



Despite being a religious believer myself I believe there is no place in the modern world for blasphemy laws - and in fact my understanding of what is said in the holy books of the Christian, Islamic and Jewish religion underpins that view despite the tragic history created by too many religious leaders who have said and acted otherwise.

If there really is a God, then He has far more ability to protect himself from any insults He is concerned about than we have - and the Bible attributes to Him the words, "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, I will repay" while the Holy Qur'an says "Let there be no compulsion in religion." 

And yet blasphemy laws are not merely not dying out, they have been restored in places where there was previously compulsion in the opposite direction. While the Soviet Union declared its support for atheism and persecuted religious believers, the present day Russian Federation has brought back an anti-blasphemy law under which Russian atheists can face jail.

This chart does not show in how many countries people who change their religion risk being murdered or facing a death sentence for "apostasy" but I believe it includes every country coloured red on the chart above and too many others.

And however much I may often think the press has a lot to answer for, locking up journalists for doing their job is usually a very bad thing unless they have clearly broken a reasonable law, and killing them is never acceptable. (I presume the fact that there isn't a blue bubble over the UK means that the Committee to Protect Journalists considered that the convictions of those journalists who were sent to prison for phone hacking were fair.)

We need to do more to promote and protect free speech in every corner of the world. It cannot be taken for granted anywhere.

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