Is There a Crisis of Confidence in Representative Democracy?

By Julia Mason

Participatory democracy is the new trend. With the European parliament elections on the horizon, do citizens still have faith in representative democracy?

The Rise of Participatory Democracy

At a recent European Parliament event to celebrate the International Day of Democracy (18 September), statements proclaiming the merits of participatory democracy abounded. This might seem strange in the meeting rooms of one of the world’s biggest houses of political representatives, but participatory democracy is making waves in Brussels and beyond.
Citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting, public consultations…These are the buzz words that are bringing legitimacy to contemporary democracies. On the model of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, propelled to fame thanks to its role in bringing about the Article 8 referendum on abortion rights, citizens’ assemblies have begun to pop up across the continent.[1] The number of municipalities setting up participatory budgeting is on the rise,[2] with some cities, such as Paris, handing over as much as 5% of their resources to publically-decided projects.[3] And of course, high-profile citizen consultation processes have started across the EU, largely inspired by Emmanuel Macron’s consultations citoyennes.
In his recent article, Stephen Boucher even goes as far as to propose that, post-Brexit, the remaining forty-six British seats in the European Parliament be reassigned to “a contingent of ordinary citizens from around the EU to examine legislation from the long-term perspective.”[4] But isn’t this precisely the role of an MEP? What happened to the concept of electing a trusted figure to represent your views in parliament on your behalf? Continue reading “Is There a Crisis of Confidence in Representative Democracy?”

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Who Polices the Internet? Content Removal v. Freedom of Speech

 

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Napalm Girl, an iconic image of the Vietnam war

Julia Mason

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?

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The European Court of Human Rights

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 [2015], 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’.

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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 [2012]). And yet, the question we must ask ourselves is, if governments aren’t checking online content, then who is?

Net neutrality: a commercial myth?

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One of the many images associated with the campaign for net neutrality, but is there more to it than open internet?

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:

  1. this leaves internet providers and website hosts – i.e. private companies in charge of monitoring content;
  2. 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.

Click here for more by Julia Mason.

The Euroculturer Recommends:

NO HATE SPEECH MOVEMENT: The youth department of the Council of Europe is currently running an international campaign to reduce the level of acceptance of hate speech on the internet.

“Immigrants, Visas and Silver Bullets: How will UK migration work post-Brexit” Eoghan Hughes examines the promises, pledges and pitfalls surrounding the UK’s immigration policy in a post-Brexit reality.

“The EU’s Game of Thrones: Who Will Be The Next President of the European Parliament?” Bastian Bayer introduces us to the contestants in this game and gives us insight into the rise of Martin Schulz.

“All hail President Trump: How Brexit will lead to Trump’s Victory in November” Emily Burt shows us how the Brexit referendum has Trumped Clinton’s bid for the Presidency.

The Burkini Ban: Unveiling the Prejudice

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Julia Mason

The Conseil d’Etat might have overthrown the burkini ban but the debate rumbles on.

Despite the ruling of the Conseil d’Etat (France’s supreme court for administrative justice) on 26th August that the ban on wearing burkinis in public in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet should be suspended, mayors in cities such as Nice, Cannes and Sisco have vouched to maintain a hard-line against “beachwear that ostentatiously displays religious affiliation” (une tenue de plage manifestant de manière ostentatoire une appartenance religieuse).

In the wake of the ruling, Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve called a meeting about the status of Islam in France. Cazeneuve, who is against the ban, urged that “France is now more than ever in need of a peaceful relationship with Muslims” (la France a plus que jamais besoin d’une relation apaisée avec les musulmans).

The fallout from the burkini ban has been causing waves not only in France but across the Continent. But have external condemnations and accusations of prejudice been too harsh?

A manifestation of French laïcité?

First and foremost, the burkini ban has to be seen in the French context. Whilst similar measures in other Western democracies would bear the hallmark of right-wing extremists, in Oye-Plages near Cannes, it was a Socialist mayor who sought to ban the burkini. France’s very strict rules on laïcité coupled with a very disturbing wave of Islamic-motivated terrorist attacks over the past year might cause us to soften our view on the matter.

France’s 1905 law separating the church and the state has formed the basis of French actions towards religion ever since. The controversial ban on wearing the burqa or the niqab in public places, justified on the grounds that showing one’s face in public is a fundamental part of living together in society, was passed in 2010. So is the current burkini ban just an extension of the ban on the burqa?

There’s at least one reason why it’s certainly not. A confusion of terminology has led to an outfit which scarcely resembles the long, dark, face-shielding, head-to-toe veils which are the object of the 2010 ban being seen in the same way. The misleadingly-named burkini might better be dubbed Al-Amirakini or the Hijabini but Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who owns the trademarks of the words Burkini and Burqini, clearly had poetics rather than politics on the mind at the point of conception.

Lots of the photos we’re being confronted with in the media show colourful, wetsuit-style outfits with water-proof headscarves which leave the face fully exposed. This surely undermines the argument forwarded by many that the burkini ban is simply an extension of the burqa ban.

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The Burkini, scarcely reminiscent of the Burqa (compare below)

Emancipation for women

Is wanting to dress modestly at the beach really such a bad thing? It seems that it is if you’re Muslim. Why should it be that dressing modestly at the beach should be acceptable if you wish to wear a kaftan, a salwar kameez, or even a body-covering catholic habit, but not if you wish to actually go in the water or wear beachware associated with Islam.

Oppression of women in any form certainly has no place in 21st century Western democracies but at some point, enforced emancipation steps on the toes of freedom. The well-versed counter argument is that creating modest swimwear appropriate for Muslim women gives them more freedom, by allowing them to undertake that activity that the majority takes for granted, namely swimming in public.

Is it not a little patronising of the French, and others who hold the view, to tell women what they can and can’t wear? Whilst such bans in favour of the emancipation of women may just about hold for the burqa and niqab, the more extreme ends of Muslim dress code, applying the same logic to the Burkini seems to be flawed.

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Do the Burqa and the Burkini fall into the same category?

The fact of the matter is, burkinis are not being banned because of a desire to suddenly emancipate Muslim women. No, they’re being banned on the basis that they might lead to terrorism. As the mayor of Nice finely put it, the ban covered “Clothing that overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.” If this isn’t prejudice, then I’ll eat my headscarf.

Click here for more by Julia Mason.

The Euroculturer Recommends:

For more on Europe and Islam, read Sabine Volk’s fascinating piece on European right-wing rhetoric here

To learn about recent terrorist attacks in Europe, read Eric Hartshorne’s brilliantly concise history of terrorism here