This week, two Reuters journalists working in Myanmar were found guilty of breaking official secrets laws and sentenced to seven years in prison. Officials from the British Embassy in Yangon attended the trial and report that there was scant evidence that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had done anything wrong. They have clearly been imprisioned as a means of silencing their reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
I wrote about the convictions, and how (I think) the campaign for their release should be run, in an article for the New Statesman.
A frustrating fact about human rights campaigning is that the release of a celebrated political prisoner usually happens not because the law is amended, but on the whim of an authoritarian politician. The power to arbitrarily censor is retained, and anxiety remains among activists and journalists, over what can and cannot be said. Fear and self-censorship persists, and tragically, many other people remain in prison. Presidential pardons rarely extend to equally deserving prisoners who have less of an international profile.
The news that conspiracy theorist and inciter-to-violence Alex Jones had been simultaneously banned from several social media platforms sparked several days of debate and comment – on both mainstream and social media. At stake were questions about the wisdom and efficacy of such a ban, and the acceptable limits of free speech.
I’m really enjoying ‘Clear and Present Danger: The Free Speech Podcast’ hosted by Jacob Mchangama. Its a comprehensive tour of the concept of freedom of expression. It begins in ancient Athens and there are episodes on the Romans, early Christianity, freedom of thought in the Islamic world, and how heresy was persecuted in medieval times.
One crucial piece of information about the concept of freedom of expression, which I think is desperately relevant to our modern debates and disputes, comes in the first episode. Mchangama points out that there are actually two philosophical idea embedded in the Athenian conception of free speech and which drove their democracy. Continue reading “Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens”
Last week I posted a quote from Dr Alex Mills of University College London, on Facebook’s woefully inadequate Terms & Conditions that related to defamation. That was drawn from a panel discussion I participated in on 22 March 2018 hosted by UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies, entitled ‘Defamation – A Roundtable on Lies and the Law‘.
The propaganda website InfoWars has been banned from Facebook, the Apple iTunes podcasting platform, and Spotify. Most people have welcomed the fact that these technology companies have finally acted to enforce their own terms and conditions, though others (including, obviously, InfoWars itself) says that this is an infringement of free speech.
Back in March, I participated in a round-table discussion hosted by the University College London’s Institute of Advanced Studies, on the subject of defamation. I will post my remarks at some point, but for now (primarily because of a media appearance I made today) I wanted to share a remark made by Dr Alex Mills about the state of Facebook Terms & Conditions.
What you have when you look at Facebook’s community standards is a defamation law that you would write on a postcard if you were trying to explain a sort of version of American defamation law to someone who wasn’t a lawyer.
Government Minister Sam Gyimah begins an op-ed in The Times today thus:
I wholly disapprove with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
Voltaire’s famous words reflect my opinion on free speech. It is an essential part of a thriving democracy, a civil society and a fulfilling university experience.
Except Voltaire never wrote those words. They are a paraphrase, a summary, written by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote under the pen name Stephen G. Tallentyre.
The phrase appears in Friends of Voltaire and is in reference to Voltaire’s contemporary Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l’Espirit (On The Mind), which had been declared heretical and burned.
On The Mind became not the success of the season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now. (Pages 198-199)
According to Wikiquote, the misattribution to Voltaire happened in the June 1934 edition of Readers Digest. In repsonse, Hall was quoted in Saturday Review (11 May 1935), saying:
I did not mean to imply that Voltaire used these words verbatim and should be surprised if they are found in any of his works. They are rather a paraphrase of Voltaire’s words in the Essay on Tolerance — “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”
6/ You may think me naive, or things are too far gone. But I believe – fundamentally – that no problem is beyond solving, particularly where both sides contain good people who want things to be better not worse. But it will be difficult – the above is as minimum to succeed. /end
In the past few weeks I’ve been having debates with good people whom I respect deeply about the limits of freedom of expression. When Britian First were banned by Facebook I suggested that the extremists in our society might be moderated and rehabilitated through dialogue.
When I have made this point, my friends have criticised me for being naiive. The bigots are irredeemable (they say) and the best strategy is therefore to cauterise their movement by silencing it wherever we can.