Freedom of Speech - Abuse and Lose It

Category: World Affairs Topics: Freedom Of Speech

When was the last time you read in your local paper or watched on your local news, a report of a suicide? I don't mean a suicide where the victim was a public figure, such as Hunter Thompson or Michael Hutchence, but an ordinary suicide. The answer is most probably never. 

This is, of course, to say nothing of diagrams depicting the means of suicide or photos of the scene itself.

It is not because it is illegal to report suicides, but simply because the media recognizes that its responsibilities extend beyond to merely 'publish and be damned'. There is recognition that whilst freedom of speech guarantees certain rights, it is a mark of civility and civic responsibility that some things are better left unreported. The reporting of suicide is one such area where there is little public benefit, but the potential for considerable harm: if, for example, such reporting encourages others to commit suicide by describing techniques and methods by which one might effectively end one's own life.

Were the media to report suicides with the same level of detail afforded to murder cases, and there was a rise in suicides as a result, the public would soon be demanding that the media exercise greater restraint. There would also be calls for the government to intervene, perhaps through the passage of new laws limiting freedom of the press.

A freedom faces few threats greater than a freedom misused. The media has long understood that it must operate with some level of responsibility and moral maturity. At times, this even takes the form of self-censorship. Yet, this has not stopped the media discussing the problem of suicide but at the same time there is an appreciation that it is no more necessary to include photos or descriptions of suicides than the debate about pornography requires the publication of pornographic imagery.

The case of the twelve cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad - commissioned by a Danish newspaper and subsequently republished across the world - should be viewed in this light. The intent behind the cartoons was to ostensibly 'test' the limits of free speech: to determine if a set of gratuitously offensive cartoons, of no intrinsic intellectual or comedic value, would anger the world's Muslim community. The answer, as should have been obvious, is that Muslims do indeed react angrily when the Prophet Muhammad is seen to have been traduced.

As the backlash has grown and spread, so has the issue morphed into a debate about 'free speech'. However, there was never any risk or suggestion that the Danish newspaper would be prevented from publishing the cartoons. Despite the many problems that have resulted from their publication, the Danish government has, quite rightly, not moved to limit media freedoms.

It is, of course, true that freedom of speech guaranteed the right of the Danish newspaper to publish the images, and it is true that the Danish government could not legally intervene to stop their publication. 
Yet, it is misguided to suggest that because we are free to speak, everything must be spoken.

As with reporting suicide, the media must consider the ramifications and make judgments as to the worth of a particular story. In the case of the Danish cartoons, there was little to be gained and little debate to be furthered by publishing the images, yet the costs have been
substantial: the cancellation of millions of dollars of contracts; the boycotting of Danish produce; attacks on Danish embassies and consulates through the Muslim world; and, most importantly, providing extremists - finally - with what they will see as incontrovertible evidence of European (read 'Western') contempt for Islam.

Even if not entirely acceptable, the reaction of the Muslim world was entirely predictable. Voltaire, John Stuart Mill and the secular nostrums which afford Western media the right to mock religion mean little on the 'Arab street'.

Yet, perhaps the real damage to free speech comes not from a Muslim boycott of Danish cheese, but from the newspapers that published these cartoons. For as the economic damage and social turmoil unleashed by their publication increases and spreads, so will the argument be bolstered that, if journalists cannot exercise their freedom with due consideration for the obvious consequences, the state must assume a greater regulatory role.

This, of course, reflects a timeless truism: if man (or a newspaper) cannot refrain from harming others, then the state must restrain him - with the commensurate loss of liberty for all that always accompanies it.

Perhaps, this is the real threat to freedom of speech. The more that freedom of speech is invoked to justify irresponsible actions that serve no greater purpose than to offend and provoke others, the more that such freedoms are weakened and undermined.

 

Amir Butler is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia.


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  9 Comments   Comment

  1. Syed from Desert

    What is a civilized behavior ?

    Freedom of speech like that of an animal ?

    Is justice, respect, responsibility, thoughts is a civilized behavior ?

    I am sure all the animals have freedom of speech to speak what ever they want.

    But they can never have justice, respect among each other, and they will never be

    responsible of their own actions and certainly they don't have power of thought for others.

    Is west is the most civilized society or more getting like an animal kingdom.

  2. Romesh Chander from US

    To Omar Shareef Hussain:

    You write " -- but comes with responsibility and respect not to offend...this is an attack of islam.".

    I am surprised that you live in the US and make the above statement. Freedom of Speech means freedom to speak without worrying about whether it offends somebody or not. If you don't want to offend somebody, then the only choice you have is NOT to speak at all for entire life. Because, no matter how careful you may be, you are likely to offend somebody sometime; you are not expected to be a scholar of all religions or knowledgable about customs of everybody.

    People have tried all sort of ways to offend George Bush but have not been successful; he is extremely smart -- he refuses to read. At Correta King's funeral, he did not like the nasty remarks about him; but he did not have any choice but to take them even though he did not like them; he could have walked out (and made an ass of himself), but he did not do that.

  3. OSMAN SHARIF HUSSEIN from UNITED STATES

    but comes with responsibility and respect not to offend...this is an attack of islam.

  4. muneerudeen from BAHRAIN

    Yes ISLAM preaches patience .Islam does not force anyone to believe in their faith of 1.3 billion Muslims or 1/5 th of the Human Race ! Islam is against torture, kidnapping, murder, theft , and harming another person. UNLESS he is harmed !Well let us put it this way . in the Western World FREEDOM of SPEECH is sacred and written in Stone ! - No offence BUT what happens when this freedom tramples on the Freedom of another person.- There is an immediate .Reaction.... !And why cant a billion Muslims protest the false caricature of the Holy Prophet - when there were NO BOMBS during his time ! It is not Freedom of Speech - IT is Freedom of Falsehood and Deception with a view to create unrest ! That cartoonist should be Jailed to protect his freedom of Speech ! His reaction would almost be in a flash. He would take a gun and put a bullet through me ! Easy for him ! His laws would get him out of Capital Punishment!- for Muslims their Quran and the Christian Bible and the Jewish Thorah are all sacred Texts- to read and understand ! All the Christian and Jewish Prophets right from Adam to Noah , Abraham Moses, David, Jesus - all are as Sacred as Prophet Mohamed! No military or police force can control the emotions of human's - if they want to express their Freedom - of speech - OR actions and it is left to us as Human Beings - the superior Race to use our brains for the right purpose - before writing or drawing caricatures and publishing them again and again. If this is not provocation - then what is !Lets hope the west realises the power of the human race and not force a showdown with arms and ammunitions BUT with tact and Diplomacy ! If the arbiter is neutral - then any disagreement can be overcome ! But if the arbiter is biased - then naturally dreaded results will follow.- stay neutral in all their thoughts-words and Deed- if real peace is to be achieved in this world and we see a secure human race live in peace and tranquillity !

  5. Erin in America from USA

    ... People are offended by what they read in the papers EVERY DAY. And now because you're offended you think papers should stop what they're doing. Sorry, but NO laws will be passed to limit the freedom of speech in America without a Constitutional ammendment. Do you know what that is? It's only been done 27 times in America's history. We value freedom of speech-- it's a natural right of the people.

  6. Sanford from USA

    The article is absurd. There is nothing stopping the news in the U.S. from reporting on the suicides of ordinary people. The only reason why they don't is because nobody cares. The sad truth is that the news is only interested in their ratings. If it doesn't sell, they won't report it. Duh! It's all about freedom of speech. Are the Europeans supposed to pass a law that prevents freedom of speech in just one area because one group of people don't like it? It's ridiculous and it is also how radical governments operate. They dictate what and how people can say and do. No one will tolerate oppression forever.

    I have one more very important point to make and I wish that the news agencies in every country in the world would report this so that Islamic countries stop using it as their defense. Islamic countries continually say that Christian countries would never allow the printing of a blasphemous cartoon of Jesus. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Have you ever watched the cartoon called Southpark from Comedy Central? A number of episodes of that show depict cartoons of Jesus fighting with Santa Claus and cutting off his (Santa's) head. What could be more blasphemous than that? You didn't see anyone rioting in the streets about that, did you? What about all those shirts people are wearing that say, "Jesus is my homeboy." I don't like these things and I will say so to people, but I'm not rioting about it. No true God would ever tolerate his people rioting or murdering for something like this. Nor would God or his appointed messenger ever command his people to do something so atrocious. It is acceptable to protect your people and family from true physical harm with aggressive force when necessary but that it. Non-violent action, no matter how unacceptable, should never be responded to with violence.

  7. Mohamed from Canada

    Assalmu Alikum.

    I would like to add that the media often like this Danish paper always trying to turn the table around by telling us that we Muslims also use freedom of expression in our Arab media to demean the Jewish faith... come on!!! Muslim brothers and sisters when they throw this reasoning towards you it is very easy to reply to this lie. Real Jews are good but it is the Zionist who cover themselves under there true and peaceful Jewish faith . one example they say in a cartoon in one Arab newspaper shows a fat Zionist (they say Jew) with a star of David happily floating in a river of blood representing the blood of Palestinians in the occupied territories (TRUTH because what do you call it when they use Tanks, Bulldozers and Helicopter gunship against innocent people and flatten whole neighbourhoods... yes mostly innocent Palestinian victims. Remember Janin Palestine or Qana Lebanon and the likes of it). We all got to admit that terrorism comes from both sides but it is by far more disproportionate from the Israeli side by far. What I'm try to get at here is quite simple, I'm disappointed that very few Muslims counter this Argument with Truth verses a Lie. The Danish Cartoons about our most beloved Prophet (PBUH) are a simple massive Lie and the terrorism of the Zion's are a truth. If the Danish News paper used the Picture of Osama bin Laden then they would be telling the truth But NO they insult the most influential and respected man in all human (not just Muslim, Human History) the last or the seal of all the profits (Peace and blessings be upon him and All prophets) to MANKIND, these cartoons go a step that goes beyond the practice of freedom of expression. To make a lie and portray it as truth quite frankly deeply angers me... any lie! Our reply should be 'prove if what you say is the truth'... history and many historians will shatter there lie.

  8. Romesh Chander from US

    I don't know about Australia where the author lives, but here in US, we take our freedom to the extreme. Here is a web site which contains no anti-islam photos, but plenty of anti-Bush, anti-war, anti-US, US flag burning, US flag with Star of David, etc. Enjoy the site.

    http://www.zombietime.com/hall_of_shame/

    If anybody feels offended, he does not know the meaning of freedom in a secular society.

    There is no such thing as abuse of freedom. Don't use it, you lose it.

  9. Romesh Chander from US

    Sorry. You lose freedom if you don't use it. There is no such thing as abuse of freedom as long as you comply with CIVIL law. In the west there is no such thing as "God's Kingdom"; here, the countries are governed by laws made by man.