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Freedom of speech roundup

There have been a number of freedom of speech related stories recently that I’ve only just got round to covering, ranging from the UN Human Rights Council’s recent decision to gather information about “abuses” of freedom of speech to a prominent British blog being sued by an individual connected to Hamas. All over the world it seems to me that freedom of speech is being attacked. The details of these recent stories can be found below:

  • On March 28th, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution requiring its “special rapporteur” on freedom of expression to report “abuses” of freedom expression by individuals. According to Human Rights Watch:

    In the final moments of the session the council adopted a resolution which inappropriately alters the focus of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression away from violations by the state by requiring the rapporteur to report on abuses of freedom of expression by individuals. The council also adopted an amendment put forward by Cuba which states the �importance� of the media reporting and delivering information �in a fair and impartial manner.� With these amendments the rapporteur�s mandate effectively develops a policing function over individual freedom of expression and clearly calls into question the very essence of media freedom and independence.

    See also Reporters without Borders’ response.

  • In Canada, Alberta’s Human Rights Panel, recently ruled that an anti-gay Christian must never again make any “disparaging” remarks about gays in public or via email. Ezra Levant reports:

    The kangaroo court judge in this case is a Tory patronage appointee, a divorce lawyer from Lethbridge named Lori Andreachuk, (pictured at left). That’s her expertise: divorce law. Not constitutional law; not freedom of speech or freedom of religion. And it shows.

    Last November, she convicted Boissoin. Last week she ordered her “remedy”.

    It is the most revolting order I have ever seen in Canada. Ever.

    I’ll excerpt a few lines from her ruling:

    In this case, there is no specific individual who can be compensated as there is no direct victim who has come forward…

    That’s insane already. No-one was hurt. The complainant was an officious intermeddler, a busybody, the town scold, an anti-Christian activist named Darren Lund who had an axe to grind, and Andreachuk gave it to him.

    Dr. Lund, although not a direct victim, did expend considerable time and energy and suffered ridicule and harassment as a result of his complaint. The Panel finds therefore that he is entitled to some compensation.

    So a busybody with no standing spends time filing complaints — and gets a tax-free reward for doing so. Oh — and for his “suffering”. Not suffering at the hands of Rev. Boission, but “as a result of his complaint”. People in the community ridiculed Lund for filing the complaint — as they should. And so Andreachuk will get the pastor to pay for that. Why the hell not? Who’s going to stop her? Her political patron, Ed Stelmach?

    Mr. Boissoin and [his organization] The Concerned Christian Coalition Inc. shall cease publishing in newspapers, by email, on the radio, in public speeches, or on the Internet, in future, disparaging remarks about gays and homosexuals.

    There’s a lot there, starting with a small but telling point. Darren Lund is a not a medical doctor. He’s a professor. But Andreachuk refers to him as Dr. Lund. Stephen Boissoin is a pastor. But Andreachuk calls him “Mr. Boissoin”. No “Rev. Boissoin” for her.

    But look at the staggering order there. Boissoin can never — ever — communicate anything “disparaging” about gays. It’s a lifetime ban — and it applies to every conceivable medium, including his private e-mails.

    But nothing “disparaging”? That means nothing critical.

    She didn’t order him not to communicate anything “illegal” or even anything “hateful”. She ordered him to say nothing disparaging. Ever. For the rest of his life.

    The order itself can be found here. Now, I strongly disagree with the anti-gay stance Rev. Boissoin is taking, and regard his views as odious. However he has not been convicted of inciting hatred, nor has he incited violence. No criminal offence has been proven here.

    To order someone never to say anything in public, or via email, that is “disparaging” of homosexuals is an outrageous attack on their freedom to express their views. If this order stands then it seems to me that freedom of speech in Canada is dead.

  • On the 8th June, the Daily Times, a newspaper based in Pakistan, reported that officials from Pakistan’s government were going to lobby the EU to amend laws on freedom of expression to prevent “offensive incidents”:

    The delegation, headed by an additional secretary of the Interior Ministry, will meet the leaders of the EU countries in a bid to convince them that the recent attack on the Danish Embassy in Pakistan could be a reaction against the blasphemous campaign, sources said.

    They said that the delegation would also tell the EU that if such acts against Islam are not controlled, more attacks on the EU diplomatic missions abroad could not be ruled out.

    Note the threat of violence if the EU doesn’t do as they demand.

  • Apparently, the Attorney General of New York has managed to force internet service providers to restrict access to Usenet newsgroups:

    New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that Verizon Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Sprint would “shut down major sources of online child pornography.”

    What Cuomo didn’t say is that his agreement with broadband providers means that they will broadly curb customers’ access to Usenet–the venerable pre-Web home of some 100,000 discussion groups, only a handful of which contain illegal material.

    Time Warner Cable said it will cease to offer customers access to any Usenet newsgroups, a decision that will affect customers nationwide. Sprint said it would no longer offer any of the tens of thousands of alt.* Usenet newsgroups. Verizon’s plan is to eliminate some “fairly broad newsgroup areas.”

    It’s not quite the death of Usenet (which has been predicted, incorrectly, countless times). But if a politician can pressure three of the largest Internet providers into censorial acquiescence, it may only be a matter of time before smaller ones like Supernews, Giganews, and Usenet.com feel the squeeze.

    Cuomo’s office said it had “reviewed millions of pictures over several months” and found only “88 different newsgroups” containing child pornography.

    “We are attacking this problem by working with Internet service providers to ensure they do not play host to this immoral business,” Cuomo said in a statement released after a press conference in New York. “I call on all Internet service providers to follow their example and help deter the spread of online child porn.”

    That amounts to an odd claim: stopping the spread of child porn on a total of 88 newsgroups necessarily means coercing broadband providers to pull the plug on thousands of innocuous ones.

  • When the Terrorism Act 2000 was passed, I noted that some of its provisions risked constraining investigative journalism. The Shiv Malik case highlights exactly what is at stake. Malik is writing a book about Hassan Butt, a former jihadist who has renounced terrorism. Malik has had substantial cooperation from Butt in writing his book, but the police have demanded Malik’s notes. A court has ruled that Malik must hand over some of the notes demanded. Writing in the Guardian, Salil Trapithi highlights the problem:

    Balancing liberty and safety is difficult. Authorities say they want to prevent another 7/7-type bombing and argue that they should place safety over liberty at certain times. Letting safety needs trump liberty runs against the cornerstone of a free society. While a reporter’s notebook may not appear to have the same weight as what a priest knows in a confessional, or a doctor’s notes regarding a patient, or, indeed, a lawyer’s privileged discussions with his client, courts have recognised its quasi-privileged status.

    The police efforts severely affect the nature of investigative journalism. Even with some limitations, the police have now won the right to substantial access to Malik’s notes. Thus, anyone who has something interesting to say about terrorism will have to believe that talking to a journalist means, in effect, talking to the police.

    In free societies, governments do not, and should not, have the monopoly on information. A free press exists to act as a check on the government. Concentration of information in governments’ hands is wrong; governments often make mistakes. If the press is to become subservient to the government, and does its bidding, neither the government, nor the press, and certainly not society at large will find their interests are being served. And freedoms will not be secure.

  • The Pub Philosopher reports on how a Jordanian Muslim group has put pressure on Dutch firms in an indirect effort to try and stop the showing of the film Fitna:

    So, although a Dutch court has now declared that the Geert Wilders film Fitna has broken no laws in the Netherlands, a Jordanian Muslim group is still demanding the Dutch MP’s arrest. To put pressure on the Netherlands, ‘Messenger of Allah Unites Us’ has published a list of Dutch companies to be boycotted. All a firm has to do to get itself removed from the list is denounce Wilders and make a statement supporting an international law forbidding insults against Mohammed.

    Last week, two Dutch companies, Friesland Foods and the Zwanenberg Food Group placed adverts in Jordanian newspapers doing just that. It remains to be seen whether other Dutch companies will follow suit.

  • On a more positive note, the Observer reported that a blogger won a recent court case that had freedom of speech implications:

    Murray’s blog, www.holylandswarzone.blogspot.com, details allegations of violent drunkenness involving university students in what was once the most religiously integrated area of the city during the Troubles. The two-year-old blog also criticises university authorities, landlords and the local housing authority for allowing the Holy Land district, where all the streets have names from the Bible, to become a ’student ghetto’ that has driven out residents who have lived there for decades. He also claims the area has become mono-religious, as most of the students come from Catholic areas of rural Northern Ireland.

    Last year, however, a member of the local residents’ association objected to Murray’s blog and also made allegations against him, claiming he had given her a dirty look and made a verbal threat. Murray, a mature psychology student, has always denied any intimidation.

    In an interview with The Observer this weekend, Murray said he felt ‘totally vindicated’ after Mr Justice McKillop threw out all three charges against him.

    ‘During my testimony in court I said I was only trying to criticise those in power or those that would speak for us. That right has been upheld by the judge’s decision. If the judge had ruled against me, then every blogger would have been vulnerable to charges of intimidation because those at the end of their criticism could claim they were being picked upon. A very bad precedent would have been set,’ he said.

    Murray said the ruling also established that bloggers had the same rights to freedom of expression as journalists. ‘Bloggers don’t have legal departments and large media organisations to back them up. They are vulnerable people and would have been even more open to censure if this case had gone the other way.’

  • On the 10th July, Harry’s Place, a prominent political blog in Britain, reported that they were being sued for libel by an individual associated with Hamas:

    Mr Sawalha claims that we have “chosen a malevolent interpretation of a meaningless word”. In fact, we did no more than translate a phrase which appeared in an Al Jazeera report of Mr Sawalha’s speech. When Al Jazeera changed that phrase from “Evil Jew” to “Jewish Lobby”, we reported that fact, along with the statement that it had been a typographical error.

    Mr Sawalha says that the attribution of the phrase “Evil Jew” to him implies that he is “anti-semitic and hateful”. Notably, he does not take issue with our reporting of the revelation, made in a Panorama documentary in 2006, that he is a senior activist in the clerical fascist terrorist organisation, Hamas. The BBC report disclosed that Mr Sawalha “master minded much of Hamas’ political and military strategy” and in London “is alleged to have directed funds, both for Hamas’ armed wing, and for spreading its missionary dawah”.

  • George Monbiot recently wrote an article pointing out both how heavily loaded English libel law is against the defendant and how it can be used against people across the world:

    If someone launches a sustained and malicious campaign of false charges against another person, and that person is given no opportunity to demonstrate that he is being wronged, he should be allowed to seek redress. But the libel laws of England and Wales are tilted so heavily against the defendant and involve such monumental costs that they amount, in effect, to censorship by private interests: a sedition law for the exclusive use of millionaires. While in the United States the plaintiff must prove that the claims against him are false, in English law the defendants’ claims are presumed false until proven otherwise: he has to demonstrate his innocence. If his defence fails, he must pay both costs and damages. The plaintiff’s lawyers make little attempt to limit their costs: the partners at one well-known firm charge £750 an hour. The bill can rise to millions.

    Perhaps you don’t live in England or Wales, so you think this has nothing to do with you. You’re wrong. English libel law now applies to everyone on Earth. Make any accusation, anywhere in the world, and if the subject can demonstrate that a single person in England or Wales has read it, you could be sued here for every penny, cent, rouble, rupee or renminbi you possess. The internet and the global nature of publishing ensure that these medieval laws have become the most powerful extra-territorial legislation ever drafted.

It seems to me that freedom of expression is under constant attack these days.

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