Monday, 9 June 2008

Freedom of Expression: Where to Draw the Line?

Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In a bizarre co-incidence the online blogging community to which I belong erupted this week in protest against “extreme” bloggers, who were allegedly homophobic, racist and inflammatory. Many said the offending thread posters should be better “moderated” by Blogcatalogue. But some jumped to their defence and quite eloquently argued their freedom of expression, saying that individuals could exercise their own discretion and choose to read and respond or not. At the time I got on the highest horse in the virtual land and declared myself a member of the intellectual elite (I am ashamed).

Go back a few days and I was sitting in the World Conference Centre in Bonn listening to Noble Peace Prize winner Dr Shirin Ebadi speak about Freedom of Expression. We heard some horrific tales from her native Iran and when Ebadi argued that the only time our right to freedom of speech should be oppressed is if it inspired a “hated that would lead to conflict or war” there was a murmur of agreement.

In his speech at Berkeley in 1983 Michel Foucault famously said the issue “was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller, or of truth-telling as an activity....” I would disagree with Foucault (dare I?) and say that truth telling activity, is just that - an activity, and that the problem is with the truth teller (or, as if often the case, the lie-teller). If society is sick, then how it expresses itself will be equally unwell. The question is what do we do with our sick? If we gag the extremists and hate press, you can guarantee that they will find another way to express themselves. And, (although it is probably very un-cool to question a Noble Prize winner and Foucault in the same paragraph) I would ask Ebadi who can sit in judgement over what is deemed inflammatory speech? I am sure the Government of Zimbabwe feels it is doing the nation a service by preventing the voice of the opposition. Given a real insight into the truth, its people may come to understand their own oppression and yes, you are right, demand change possibly through violent conflict.

One thing we could do with our “sick” is to educate them. Extreme opinion likely to inspire violence is often born out of ignorance and intolerance. In their academic work on Why Templates for Media Development do not work in Crisis States, Putzel and van der Zwan advocate the establishment of professional associates of journalists, committed to an ethos of "journalistic integrity....which can eventually serve as the conscience". Again, this raises the issue of who judges the integrity of a journalist (or blogger) and gives him a voice? Freedom of expression is gifted to every one of us under international law through Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but its vagueness leaves it wide open to interpretation and its implementation and the use of media regulation in many countries remains patchy at best.

I still don’t have the answer to who judges that expression is vile enough to oppress it. Nor who judges journalistic integrity, but I have a sneaking suspicion it is the increasingly empowered "community". The blogger Woolfcreek blandly suggested that the bad apples on Blogcatalogue would soon "be bored with our middle ground crowd and try to run off to another site". But a far more robust approach was offered by the suitably named “Offended blogger” who said “(Blogcatalogue) has come too far for us to allow hooligans to run amok here, destroying the community. And it is OUR community, so if there is trash in the street we should all pitch in and bag it up”.

I guess it comes back to my theory on personal responsibility. There are undoubtedly grey areas in the Freedom of Expression debate, but if each and everyone of us understands our responsibility and acts with integrity (not just the bloggers and journalists) the world would be a better place. There is no room for apathy (she says, calmly dismounting from her very high horse).