A while ago, the hashtag #RIPJKRowling trended on Twitter. It was so enthralling that the social media had to clarify that the English author was indeed still alive and tweeting away. The hashtag was the Twitterverse’s response to Rowling’s new book: “Troubled blood”, published under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The bone of contention was a serial killer character, who abducted and murdered women while adorned in female clothes, all to the scintillating tune of ‘never trust a man in a dress’. Like all things on the internet, the hashtag drew both blood and hard lines among two camps, both vociferously defending their stance.
Supporters of Rowling saw the hashtag as an attack on her freedom to speech and right to expression and opinion. After all, she was not the first author to pen a cross-dressing male serial killer. If so, we should also ‘cancel’ Psycho and Silence of the Lamb! For them, the hashtag was simply another blowout from ‘snowflakes’ yet again taking offence to their delicate sensibilities.
Proponents of the hashtag, however, saw themselves as expressing their ire at a beloved author in what they considered the culmination of her transphobic views. To them, the hashtag symbolized the death of Rowling’s reputation and her place and adoration in their lives. The arguments of both parties prompt two critical questions relevant to today’s culture of ‘cancellation’ and political correctness: To tweet or not to tweet? Where does freedom of speech end and consequences begin?
“I will always defend freedom of speech in my country” said French President Emmanuel Macron in an interview he gave to Aljazeera on October 31st, 2020. One month later, French citizens took up the streets in mass protest against the new security bill proposed by the government – and forced the latter to rewrite it. The cause of the unrest was Article 24, that banned sharing images of police officers if they aimed to harm them physically or psychologically, which was accused of threatening freedom of speech. But how did we get there?
Je suis Charlie: Freedom of speech, a core French value
On October 16th, 2020, French history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded after showing his students caricatures of Mohammad from the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Almost five years after the November 2015 Paris Attacks, this gruesome murder sparked peaceful demonstrations throughout the whole country. More than paying tribute to the teacher, people wanted to defend a core French value: freedom of speech.
“Happy slaves are the bitterest enemies of freedom.” – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
In February 2020, I attended a seminar of the Konrad-Adenauer-foundation, where I am a scholar and where I was honoured to spend a day of interesting lectures and readings with Dr. Karsten Dümmel, a contemporary witness of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). This experience made me think about how little this important part of German history is discussed in schools and by people in Germany, but probably even less in other parts of Europe and the world. With the current corona crisis, one can observe the long-lasting effects of the DDR regime, particularly with regard to surveillance and the considerably higher fear of many Germans, compared with their European neighbours, of measures like a corona tracking app, curfews and compulsory vaccination. This article wishes to provide some insights and a deeper understanding of the DDR, especially regarding surveillance, mainly pursued by the Ministry State of Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit)commonly known as the Stasi.Continue reading “Insights into the Stasi: a surveilled life in former Eastern Germany”→
What would it look like, if the Charter 77 was still active, with members from all across the world and from all generations? One of the answers to this rather odd question took place for the 30th consecutive year in the city of Caen, in Normandy (France), on January 25-27, 2019. In French, it is called “Concours de Plaidoiries”; a competition of defence speeches and pleas for fundamental freedoms. Four of these fundamental freedoms were named by President Roosevelt on January 6, 1941: “the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear”. And for this 2019 edition, the competition covered all four of them, defended by high school students aged from 15 to 18 years old, law students, and lawyers. Why, then, would this competition be in the continuity of the famous Charter 77?
It is essential not to forget, when it comes to history, for otherwise, we might not repeat history, but we might fail at taking a step further and risk taking a step back. The initial point is an improved version of our world two hours ago, but also ten centuries ago. Improved? For the sceptics among the readers of this article, please allow me to mention that ten centuries ago, the United Nations did not exist, nor did the Geneva Convention, the Istanbul Convention, and most of the texts quoted during the event I am writing about today were not even drafts, not even thoughts. Improvement does not mean perfection. And this is precisely what the Charter 77 was about: reminding a sovereign state of its own duties, namely, respecting human rights, international law, and the Helsinki Declaration.
This is precisely what these 37 people did during three days in the “Cité de l’Histoire de la Paix”, in this Memorial dedicated to peace and human rights: reminding sovereign states of their duties. They were coming from all corners of France and beyond.
Among the ten lawyers present, only four were from France. Two were from Belgium, one from Québec (Canada), one from Switzerland, one from Mali, and one from Benin. It is this one, from Benin, whose defence speech is the source of the title I chose for this article. These were among the last words Maître Koukpolou said in his plea. “Hold on, help is coming!” (“Espera, la ayuda viene!”, in Spanish.) Even if he did not win any award, his speech was among the most touching for me. His word symbolised the message of this year’s edition: there is still hope, as long as there are still humans who care about and defend others. He was the only one, of all three competitions, to focus on the political and humanitarian crisis currently killing so many people, including children, in Venezuela. The title of his plea: “Give me food and I’ll do whatever you want”. Continue reading “Espera, la ayuda viene!”→
The danger of press freedom is not only an issue that can be observe in the US, China or Russia. It is right in front of us and thumbs its nose at us Europeans.
What happens when unpopular ideas get silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark? What does it mean when journalists are muzzled, and fake news are deliberately disseminated? The answer is very clear: press freedom dies. Such painful death is happening on our so called “democratic continent” – Europe. Press freedom stands at the pillory, and its hangman is the populism.
Just recently, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published the annual Press Freedom Index for 2018 and shows the bitter truth: growing animosity towards journalists, hostility towards the media – encouraged by political leaders. But even more terrifying: the report refers to Europe.
As we usually think about countries outside of Europe as Egypt, Iran or China in terms of reduced press freedom, we must face the fact that the traditionally safe environment for journalists in Europe has begun to vanish. The situation of the freedom of press has deteriorated like in no other region in the world. Especially in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Malta and the Czech Republic attacks on media increased alarmingly. Leading politicians stand out negatively through verbal abuses and legal steps against journalists. European democratically-elected leaders, such as Victor Orbán or Giuseppe Conte, no longer see media as something that needs to be defended at all costs but as a toxic enemy. Even though free press is deep-seated in the fundamental rights and is an essential part of liberal democracies – something that Europe cloaks itself with. Europe rather seems to be pleased to trample all over these rights. But why is it so that the media becomes an adversary or even a scapegoat for all the bad things that happen? Continue reading “European Press Freedom at the Pillory”→
Can we continue relying on internet hosts to be solely responsible for taking down offensive content or hate speech?
Last week’s headlines traced the scuffle between Norway and Mark Zuckerberg when one of Norway’s largest newspapers, Aftenposten, criticised Facebook for removing their photos of the ‘napalm girl’ on account of child nudity. The photo of the ‘napalm girl’ or Phan Thị Kim Phúc, from Vietnam and now a Canadian citizen, was taken on 7th June1972 during the Vietnam War. It shows her as a nine year-old-child, running away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack which left her severely burned. Taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, the image is world famous for its depiction of the violence of the Vietnam conflict. Zuckerberg later reneged on his decision to remove the photo and acknowledged the iconic status of the historical image. Whilst this incident might primarily raise alarm bells about the power that Facebook wields over our modern lives, it is also symptomatic of the arbitrariness of online content monitoring.
Alongside its status as one of the most democratic exercises in information sharing, the internet is home to an increasing body of offensive content and unchecked manifestations of hate speech. Whilst some self-censuring is taking place, (for example in the form of ‘NSFW’ indications and ‘content notes’), such warnings are essentially used in a humorous manner. If there’s to be a concerted effort to tackle hate speech and offensive material which transcends the old adage of turning a blind eye, how is this to be achieved?
Should governments and the international community have a role to play?
Simply put, the answer from the European Convention on Human Rights is a resounding no. Article 10 ECHR guarantees freedom of expression for all and goes on to say that:
‘This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.’
This freedom is extended to internet users and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has confirmed that ‘the state [must] not exercise surveillance over Internet users’ communications and activity on the internet except when this is strictly in compliance with Articles 8 and 10 of the Convention.’ The Court’s case law confirms a support for freedom of expression, even if the article does allow some margin of appreciation for states to take restrictive measures, as was the case in Delfi v. Estonia , where the court held that there had not been a violation of Article 10.
Similarly, Article 11 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’.
This is inherently a good thing. Of course there are some countries in Europe where the systematic blocking of whole websites has severely reduced freedom of expression and access to internet material to an unacceptable level. Consider the recent ECHR case, Cengiz and others v. Turkey, where the court unanimously held that there had been a violation of article 10 due to the blocking of access to Google over a long period(Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey ). And yet, the question we must ask ourselves is, if governments aren’t checking online content, then who is?
Net neutrality: a commercial myth?
The hands-off approach taken to internet monitoring by national governments (as advised by the Council of Europe and EU) results in a two-fold problem:
this leaves internet providers and website hosts – i.e. private companies – in charge of monitoring content;
these companies are sensitive to legal threats, as well as their reputation among their users and end up haphazardly take down content without serious reflection.
In the case of the former, the crux is this: when we leave it to web hosts to decide what is suitable content and what isn’t, we are allowing organisations with their own commercial, social and political agendas to act as the moral arbiters for all society. Is this democratic?
And in the case of the latter, this is exactly what happened with Facebook napalm incident. Is this double burden of total freedom and total responsibility not actually counter-productive to freedom of expression online? As the 2016 Annual report on state of human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe concludes:
‘the fact that internet intermediaries fear being held liable for the content they transmit may have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression online.’
If we’re serious about blocking hate speech and inappropriate content, we need more explicit guidelines from governments and IOs. As it stands, we hail our freedom from government censorship but are trapped in an online game where private web hosts write their own rulebooks.