As students of Europe, we like to believe we have a good grasp on the history and political development of the continent. Too often, however, we have been educated from a singular perspective, one that rarely includes the perspective of what we have labeled “the East”. The tragedy of Central Europe, as Milan Kundera once called it, is not that the Soviet Union gobbled up so much of the continent after World War II, but rather that “the West” allowed such a massive piece of its cultural heritage to slip away. One of the most common things Euroculture students say after spending a semester in Olomouc is, “I never knew.” “I never knew about Václav Havel.” “I never knew about the Prague Spring.” “I never knew about Tomáš Masaryk.”
The Euroculture program, however, is fortunate enough to have among its professors Josef Jařab, a person with a keen memory and a knack for being around at the turning points of history. Professor Jařab, or JJ as he is more commonly known among Euroculturers, is a professor, former rector and dissident who calls Olomouc his home. We sat down with JJ to speak to him about his life, the Velvet Revolution, and lessons we should be taking from Central Europe.
A Central European Story
Born in 1937 in the Silesian region of what was then known as Czechoslovakia, JJ’s life has been studded with academic and literary accomplishment. He glibly refers to his birth as his first major achievement; he somehow managed to be born full term only three months after his parents’ marriage: “It usually takes nine months! My first surprising sort of record was to make it in three or four months.” This, he told me, is why he is so famous in Olomouc.
All joking aside, JJ’s reputation in Olomouc – and throughout Central Europe – truly does precede him. At the risk of turning this article into a listicle of defining moments, I would like to mention a few that stand out. Throughout the Soviet occupation of then-Czechoslovakia, JJ worked to bring Western culture beyond the Iron Curtain. When the Velvet Revolution began in Prague, he led the students in Olomouc to a similar revolution. On the day he was officially fired by Palacký University, he became its first freely elected Rector. He was a close friend to Olga and Václav Havel, served as rector of the Central European University and as a Senator of the Czech Parliament and pursues, to this day, his passion for poetry, literature and jazz. This, too, is a fitting profile for a Czech revolutionary; the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution were, after all, not driven by activists or the overtly politically minded, but by the writers, the students, the poets, the actors.Continue reading “Professor Jařab & the Velvet Revolution: “Freedom is a Sleeping Beauty””→
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.
Answering ‘yes’ to this question asked by this magazine, evokes a utopia with endless possibilities and no worries. Yet, perhaps humankind is bound to be shackled. Nevertheless, we could strive for this utopia. The question is how.
Today humankind has conquered physical nature for the most part and freedom is largely defined as a political concept by Western liberal ideology. Hereby, each citizen ought to be free within the limits of the necessary conditions that allow society to function. Additionally, the state should provide and protect this freedom. This idea originates from late medieval to early contemporary philosophers who, after antiquity, started to fundamentally rethink the concept of freedom and the structures of society. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau are just a few of the prominent representatives who contributed to establishing modern political thought on how societies could be constructed, instead of accepting traditional structures of a God-ordained order.
“To Hobbes, being free in freedom means anarchy and conflict…”
Memory is a fickle thing. One second you think you can recall, and the next you’re absolutely dazed and confused.
But, this one I remember.
It’s from a long, long time ago.
We used to live in the capital in those days.
The street we lived on was on elevated ground. And just beyond the other side of the street, there was a slope that led downwards to an outgrowth of sorts.
One hot summer day, after lunch, I must’ve sneaked out of the house (I say so because I don’t actually remember sneaking out, but can only recall returning back home, leading to the very reasonable possibility that I must’ve, indeed, sneaked out in the first place). And by sneaking out, I mean just stepping out of the gate and walking across to the other side of the road. It was a big deal for a two-year old: just me, on my own, ready to face the world.
My first taste of freedom. I was hypnotized by it, just floating around in its mesmerizing haze. Life, in that instant, was good.
Once on the other side, standing on the edge of that slope, about 20 feet away, I saw a stray dog lurking down below. Like almost everything at that age, it was fascinating; every new sight, every new smell, and every new feeling had to be explored. Now, on any other day, I would’ve just stood there and lurked around a bit myself, but this was no ordinary day. I was feeling invincible.
So, I picked up a stone, and threw it at the stray. It landed inches from its feet.
Is too much freedom a dead-end-road? How does it feel to be stuck in too much freedom? This article describes the challenges of a generation born into too much freedom.
Eike-Maria Hinz │email@example.com
Freedom has many facets: freedom of speech, freedom to vote, freedom of religion, the list goes on…. In modern western societies, these freedoms have been established, through clashes, conflicts and wars, which lead to the establishment of democracies, where the value of freedom is one of the greatest intrinsic values of society.
If we look at the young generations in western modern societies there is a dilemma with all these freedoms. What do I mean by this? One could argue that there can never be enough freedom on an individual and society basis these days. Yes and no.
“There is a dilemma with all these freedoms…”
Young adults enjoy a life of freedom in many areas of their lives. Not only that they are able to vote freely, speak out loud what they feel or think or choose their life partners liberally with no societal restrictions. They are also able to travel the world, connect via social media with more than half of the earth’s population, take and find jobs all over the globe, and make individual choices to have friends without any restrictions aside from individual choices. Continue reading “Lost in Freedom? The Dilemma of Having Too Much Freedom”→