COVID19, Free Speech and the Right to Receive Information

In 2004, the writer Orhan Pamuk gave the inaugural Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, at the Prague Writer’s Festival. Among his remarks, he said this:

I have personally known writers who have chosen to raise forbidden topics purely because they were forbidden. I think I am no different. Because when another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free. This, indeed, is the spirit that informs the solidarity felt by PEN, by writers all over the world.

Orhan Pamuk

I would often use the highlighted bit of that quote in English PEN’s marketing communications. I thought it would appeal to the worldliness of other writers, their solidarity and empathy with fellow wordsmiths.

But occasionally I would worry that the proper meaning of that quote was properly understood. Because taken literally, it’s obviously untrue. The fact that Ahmet Altan (to pick another Turkish novelist) is currently in prison and censored does not stop me writing my derivative science fiction or my bad poetry.

In its proper context, however, the true meaning becomes clear. If another person, somewhere else, has been prevented from saying something, then it’s abundantly clear that my freedom to say that thing in that place is curtailed too. Either: I too would be censored (arrested? attacked?) or, more likely, I would simply self-censor.

The writers Pamuk was referring to were those contrarians who sought to disrupt that chain, by saying the unsayable. Such people hope to prove either that the censors have no teeth, or (if needs must) become a free speech martyr by inviting some the censorship onto their heads too. I’ve written before about how our rights are won and maintained by the outliers who test and push at the authorities.

The point here is that other people’s rights are our rights.

When we talk about freedom of ‘expression’ it’s tempting to think of it as pertaining to people’s feelings and opinions. The nebulous but real need of individuals to ‘express’ themselves. But of course the phrase, and the human right it refers to, also covers the dissemination of facts, too. Freedom of speech is freedom of information, and vice-versa.

The global COVID-19 crisis of the past few months has rammed home this point. It is become clear that the censorious nature of the Chinese state hindered those who wished to alert the world to the presence of the virus. At the end of March, Reporters Sans Frontiers published an article on how the Chinese doctors who first encountered the virus in Wuhan were attacked by the authorities for spreading ‘rumours.’

Armed with the photo of a test, [Dr Ali Wenliang] spoke about the ongoing epidemic for the first time on 30 December with former faculty of medicine students in a private discussion group on the messaging service WeChat. The alarm was sounded. His messages were shared very widely on the microblogging website Weibo.

But they were also seen by the authorities. Two days later, on 1 January, Li and seven other doctors were questioned. Li was grilled for several hours and, on 3 January, the police forced him to sign a statement recognizing that he had “spread false rumours.”

Li Wenliang subsequently died of the virus. His story elegantly and tragically demonstrates just how important free speech is to our global health and well-being. The censorship regime of the Chinese government prevented us from properly discussing the disease and it’s implications. When Dr Li was censored, we were all censored.

When we talk about the value of free speech a.k.a. Freedom of Expression, it’s easy to slip into high-minded rhetoric about ‘human spirit’ and what literature can do for the soul. But such intangible arguments do not persuade everyone. The story of Dr Li and the Coronavirius should remind us that there is a practical, selfish aspect to free speech too. Securing the free speech rights of others just might save your own life.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.