Freedom of speech means the right to express ideas and opinions on a daily and public basis, without censorship or interference. But unfortunately, many people around the world still do not have this right. What responsibility does the EU have in terms of securing the freedom of all individuals, as well as the media, to speak out?
On 7th November, the World Solidarity Forum (WSF) hosted a panel discussion to explore three topical areas of this vast issue: social media and digital rights, the silencing of citizens by governments, and the blurred lines between freedom of expression and the endorsement of hate speech.
We have explored before how the media’s role is being forced to adapt in the increasingly unstable world. Indeed, here in the EU, we have witnessed recent tragedies where journalists such as the late Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta, and Jan Kuciak of Slovakia, have been murdered merely for attempting to report the truth to the public.
Of course, it’s not only journalists who are being silenced. With the rise of intolerant ideologies throughout Europe, we must address the difficult yet important questions regarding what constitutes as free speech, and to what extent authorities should be allowed to regulate this when the dignity and security of others is at risk.
The WSF states:
‘The confluence of freedom of expression, press freedom, and human rights, has through various means given rise unprecedented level of access to communication channels, be it through traditional media, or social networks… the freedom of expression has been crucial to the promotion of democratic values and the mobilization of people.’
Social Media & Digital Rights
Social media has proven extremely useful in terms of enabling civil society and young people to be heard, having provoked global political and social shifts; Greta Thunberg’s complete transformation to the world’s approach to the climate crisis via her online campaign is a prime example. But in spite of these benefits, how should governments respond to the unfortunate side-effects of misinformation and hate speech?
The first speaker, Diego Naranjo – Senior Policy Advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi) – opened the debate to comment how people are increasingly radicalised online, with an impossibly wide range of content and ideas more accessible than ever thanks to the next-level freedom of expression facilitated by social media. He explained that social media can cater to an echo-chamber effect, fuelling extremist ideologies. For instance, YouTube’s algorithms make it worryingly easy to fall into a rabbit-hole of increasingly radical content, to the point where it can become manipulative and harmful.
Naranjo pointed out that the usual policymaker response to this risk – especially at EU level – is to use technology to counteract such algorithms or flag potentially harmful content. However, he criticised that these only serve to target the symptoms rather than the source of the issue.
The attempted solution Naranjo did support was the implementation of pro-privacy data protection regulations. One and a half years after GDPR notification emails first filled our inboxes, the quest to attack the dominating ‘24/7 capitalist surveillance system’ is ongoing.
When citizens are silenced: The case of Kashmir
Khaoula Siddiqi, co-founder of the Student International League of Kashmir (SILK), then went on to explore the right to free speech in relation to the ongoing turmoil in Kashmir. This semi-autonomous region nestled between India, Pakistan and China has a long history of instability and repressed identity, and in the past three months citizens have been completely silenced.
Sixty years ago, Kashmir was given the right to self determination, in order to choose democratically whether be part of India or to become independent. However, an actual vote never happened.
Since the 5th August, everything has been on lockdown. Kashmir was demoted to Indian union territory overnight, and citizens were not even informed. Instead, they woke up that morning to find their land stormed by the Indian military. There was no-longer any internet, any phone connection, any access to the outside world. Their ability to communicate to anyone beyond hearing distance had been completely taken away.
Siddiqi, of Kashmiri origin herself, deemed this ongoing human rights violation a ‘scary precedent of what could happen in other countries.’ There is now still a clampdown on all communication channels and a restriction on mobility, civil liberty and religious rights. As you can imagine, life remains at complete standstill. Yet since the citizens are silenced, and the media are unable to enter the area, most of the world is either oblivious or indifferent to this crisis.
On top of that, in an attempt to take away the threat from the most educated and potentially powerful section of society, the Indian state has arrested lawyers, doctors, journalists, and businessmen. They have also arrested 20,000 young people as young as ten, and enforced a curfew to avoid any youth revolt.
Siddiqi stressed that the international community must intervene in these massive human rights violations.
‘Kashmir is a current case study and how the international community deals with it will set a precedent.’
She continued that the EU should respond by suspending trade partnerships with countries which violate human rights. Indeed, as long as money is being exchanged, any condemnation is no more than a tap on the wrist. But of course, since India is currently the world’s fastest-growing large economy – such a reaction will undoubtedly be met with reluctance.
Pressure from human rights organisations such as the WSF can also help. As such, Siddiqi called for the EU to push for NGOs and the media to be allowed to enter Kashmir, to both help Kashmiris on the ground, and to broadcast their current reality to the world.
Freedom of (Hate) Speech?
When it comes to freedom of speech in the rest of the world, there is a disconcerting blurred line between the individual’s right to express their opinions tipping over onto the side of hate speech.
In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting social dichotomies, Ruth Daskalopoulou-Isaac, Head of EU Relations at European Jewish Association (EJA) lamented how antisemitism is now often not taken seriously, despite increasing attacks in Europe. She proposed that on both the far-right and the far-left of Europe’s current political spectrum, anti-Israel standpoints are arguably trespassing onto antisemitic territory.
Daskalopoulou-Isaac acknowledged the controversial nature of the proposal that anti-Zionism is laced with antisemitism, presenting the argument that ven boycotts and protests against the Israeli government risk generalising all Jewish people in a worryling manner – perpetuating the Nazi-derived stereotype that they are ‘evil, in control, and out to harm humanity.’ Of course, even a subtle endorsement of these messages can have catastrophic consequences for Jewish individuals. She elaborated:
‘The belief that Israeli civilians don’t deserve our help and compassion is a form of racism – as it is discrimination against a group of people. There is a double standard in the West – many don’t want to be misinterpreted as pro-Israeli government, so they don’t want to associate with the human rights of Jewish people.’
Although we should all have the right to oppose, criticise, debate and disagree, freedom of speech shouldn’t be used to demonise others. As such, Daskalopoulou-Isaac stressed that the EU should act by not allowing any narrative against a specific group. But would this serve as a necessary protection against hate speech, or a slippery slope towards censorship?
Criticising a government is one thing – and the Israeli government has certainly made human rights violations of its own – but the problem is when Israeli and Jewish people as a whole are held responsible. In reality, as with any other government, there are those who support and those who oppose them among the population. No one should be judged as an individual for what their country’s politicians are doing. The case of Israel is even more complex, as Jewish people of all nationalities are often associated with this particular government’s actions.
On the other side of the coin, Naranjo added that many are now afraid to criticise the Israeli government, for fear of being labelled antisemitic. But overall, it was agreed by the panel that every individual should be allowed to openly criticise a government, as long as this doesn’t tie into criticising the civilians – or in this case the entire global community – associated with it.
With obstacles such as evolving communication methods, corrupt powers and blurred definitions, it is undeniable that the international community has a long way to go when it comes to securing the right to freedom of speech for all. However, looking back at the progress Europe and the world overall has made over the last decades and centuries, individuals and civil society must be fuelled by this motivation to continue fighting for such a fundamental human right.