Newsletter 4: Freedom of speech 2020

Free speech in 2020 COMPRESS.DSL

Hellooooo there, happy October!

As Spring finally makes it way to the tip of Africa, we welcome every moment of warmth and sunshine – while trying to remain grateful for the seemingly endless rain that has now filled our dams to 100% capacity for the first time in nearly a decade. It is good to have nature on our side for this next stage of the battle against COVID-19, and we feel for our friends and colleagues in the northern hemisphere who are going into winter now.

The topic for this month’s newsletter is based less on the work we’ve been doing for clients this month – which has mostly been annual reports, and other private documents that cannot be shared – and more about the erosion of our freedoms, including freedom of speech, that has taken place across the globe during this time of crisis.

Freedom of speech

This < speech > by Rowan Atkinson in the British Parliament in 2012, the launch event of the Defend Free Speech campaign, should be heard by every politician, journalist and campaigner before they start calling for laws to silence those they regard as extremists. Eight years after this speech was made, in a time of global pandemic and the silencing of dissenting voices, these words ring truer than ever. Make a cup of coffee, and donate nine minutes of your day to listening to this most inspiring speech.

‘My starting point when it comes to the consideration of any issue relating to free speech is my passionate belief that the second most important thing in life is the right to express yourself freely. The most important thing in life, I think, is food in your mouth, and the third most precious is a roof over your head. But a fixture for me in the number two slot is free expression, just below the need for food to sustain life itself.’

What resonates with us in this speech is just how fine the line is between political correctness and censorship. The ‘no-platforming’, which has become commonplace in universities around the world, where someone holding views considered offensive or unacceptable is prevented from contributing to a public debate or hearing, is an example of this. The polarisation of political views worldwide has reached the extent where we do not so much disagree with someone’s political views, as despise that person: we deeply question their moral and intellectual standing, and consider them to be either an idiot or a crook. Where has the tolerance gone; where is the respect?

Free speech in 2020 COMPRESS.dsl

Another view on free speech is the following article from The Washington Post, which sets out five myths about free speech. Some of them are a challenge for me – but I wouldn’t want to prevent the author from expressing her opinion. Suzanne Nossel is the author of ‘Dare to Speak: Defending free speech for all’.

Free speech in the time of Corona

Free speech in 2020 COMPRESS.dsl

It seems that this polarisation is getting worse in this time of extreme restrictions on freedom brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. As multiple democracies battle political upheavals at the same time as the virus, the choices on how to contain the virus have become increasingly central to the political debate. As Kenan Malik states in The Guardian, ‘The pandemic is a major public health emergency that makes restraints on liberties inevitable. Such restraints ought, however, to be proportionate. And they should involve measures that work.’

A fascinating comparative study on the freedom of the press has been prepared by the Law Library (Library of Congress). It surveys legal acts regulating mass media and their ability to distribute information freely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report focuses on recently introduced amendments to national legislation aimed at establishing different control measures over the media outlets, internet resources, and journalists in 20 selected countries around the world where adoption of such laws has been identified.

The report concludes by saying: ‘It is difficult to draw direct connections between the pandemic crisis and the worsening media climate. However, in some countries, pandemic-related restrictions on the media and the fight against fake news coincided with adoption of other legal acts, which make the work of journalists more difficult. In Armenia, new rules allow the government to withhold environmental information and limit the broadcast of foreign TV channels; in Moldova, the length of the period when government authorities are required to respond to public information requests became three times longer than before the pandemic; and in Kazakhstan, a newly passed law restricts the work of court reporters and limits the tools journalists may use while working in courts.’

Most of us are relieved that Twitter and Facebook have finally woken up to the amount of hate speech, fake news and downright lies spread on their platforms, But we mustn’t forget that freedom of speech is a central tenet of what makes us free – and, as Rowan Atkinson said, one of the most important things in life. We would do well to remember that, even as we cheer on the removal of hateful posts and the blocking of accounts. Silencing those with whom we do not agree is a tempting, but dangerous, path to follow.

Free speech in 2020 COMPRESS.dsl

Next time

Our next newsletter will take a closer look at the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on police brutality in South Africa and elsewhere, and how to address it, reduce it, and who to hold accountable when it happens.

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