Last week I was invited into the Sky News central London studio to discuss free speech and ‘trolling’ on social media. The segment had been prompted by a report by Sky journalist Martin Brunt into a ‘dossier’ of alleged abuse of Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing Madeleine.
During the discussion I made the distinction between tweets that were abusive or threatening on the one hand, and others that were merely ‘offensive’. I cited the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on when to prosecute, and also warned at the development of ‘privatised censorship’ where different ideological groups use poorly-worded laws to threaten each other with prosecution.
Robert Sharp, of freedom of expression group English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign, said: “The worrying gap between protections in England and Wales and Scotland is allowing a chilling loophole to exist and this is especially concerning after Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom.”
The internet, and in particular social media, means that defamatory statements published in England, for example, could almost certainly be deemed to have been published in Scotland. So somebody who believes they have been defamed online – in, for example, the electronic version of a newspaper, story can now choose where to sue.
Mr Sharp added: “We have every respect for Scots law and understand that it is not the same. But as long as the loophole exists, the chill exists. As long as we have the UK, we can say that if somebody has a reputation in England that can be tarnished, they have a reputation in Scotland too. This is a real constitutional issue and we hope Scotland will adopt a defamation act quickly.”
Today I am quoted in the Guardian, blasting the Maldives‘ ridiculous new law that insists all books be passed by a board of censors:
At English PEN, head of campaigns Robert Sharp called the “sweeping new law” a “disaster for freedom of expression in the Maldives”.
“The parliament should be acting to expand the space for freedom of expression, not enacting laws that will stifle debate and dissent,” said Sharp. “These new rules will also damage Maldivian culture. How can Dhivehi authors flourish when all novels and poetry must pass a board of censors? Maldivian literature will stagnate under these new rules. We hope the president and the parliament of the Maldives will think again.”
WE ARE DRAWN TO THE EXPERIMENTAL, STRONG, EQUAL AND FUN. WE PROMOTE FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION FOR ALL.
Me too. I was delighted to be asked to write for the launch issue (which takes ‘The Body’ as its theme) on the censorship of art and culture. My article takes in erotica, Google algorithms, 3D models of vaginas, Instagram’s terms & conditions, and Rupert Bear’s penis.
Yesterday’s news carried reports that the government may act to criminalise ‘revenge porn’. This is when an angry, jilted person posts private, explicit photographs of their ex-lover online.
At the moment, those who have been exposed in this way can try suing for a breach of privacy in the civil courts, but it’s not currently a criminal offence. For something to constitute ‘harassment’ it has to be a pattern of behaviour, which does not capture the one-off posting of consensual photographs. Continue reading →
On Tuesday I was quoted in a Belfast Telegraphreport on the rise of super-injunctions in Northern Ireland. Super-injunctions, you will recall, are those special types of gagging-order where the judge not only stops you from reporting certain facts, but also bars you from even telling anyone you’ve been censored. As a rule of thumb, this tends to be a bad thing. Continue reading →
Vladimir Putin has this week signed into a law some measures to ban swearing in films, books and music. Films with obscene content will not be granted a distribution certificate and exisiting books and music with foul language will have to be sold in special wrapping.
I spoke to Alison Flood of the Guardian about the new law, and what it says about the state of Russian politics:
Writers’ group English PEN has already condemned the move. Robert Sharp, its head of campaigns, says: “Swear words exist in every language and are part of everyday speech. Russian artists will no longer be able reflect genuine, everyday speech. Instead, they will have to sacrifice authenticity in order to please a committee of censors. This new law sends the signal that law-makers want to sanitise and silence the voice of ordinary Russians.”
In recent years, Sharp adds, we have witnessed Russia’s slow slide into authoritarianism, with impunity for the killers of Anna Politkovskaya, the prosecution of Pussy Riot, and the ban on discussing homosexuality. “These things have all squeezed the space for free speech in Russia. The government claims it is ‘protecting and developing culture’, but the effect will be to ensure that culture becomes staid, uniform and boring.”
Today I was interviewed by Pete Woods for Good Cause TV. We discussed English PEN’s campaign to reverse the Ministry of Justice’s ridiculous restrictions on sending books into prisons. We discussed the ‘Catch-22′ aspects to the policy, and the idea that literature should be a human right.
Social media is supposed to be the great enabler of free speech, but in fact it’s full of paradoxes. Posting on Twitter or Facebook is sometimes the quickest way to get censored. Governments like China and Vietnam closely monitor the online space for any sign of dissent, and a recent law passed in Saudi Arabia means a simple retweet could land you in prison for a decade.
Life is better in the UK, but the contradictions persist. Caroline Criado-Perez received misogynistic threats when she launched a campaign to keep a woman on the £10 note. Jane Goldman felt compelled to leave Twitter after receiving a torrent of abuse – ironically because her husband Jonathan Ross was perceived as sexist. Rape threats, hate speech and racism are common on social media. Women and minority voices are being forced off the platform: precisely the people who we need to hear more from in our political and cultural discussions.
These contradictions are a challenge to anyone who values free expression and open rights online. If we do not act to fix this problem – with either social or technological solutions – then those in parliament who are less concerned with protecting human rights will simply introduce tougher legislation to fix the problem for us.