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World of difference on right of expression

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2011, 12:00am

In Athens, 1,500 years ago, freedom of speech existed. It formed a strong pillar of the Roman Republic and was part of Islamic ethics in the seventh century under the Caliph Umar during the Rashidun period. In Europe, after the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity, there was little in term of laws in regards to the rights of a person.

It was not until the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe that many people began to think of themselves as more than merely God's ?sheep?. Progressive philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Baron de Montesquieu developed theories on social contract, individualism and human rights. The Enlightenment movement, coupled with the French Revolution, led to The Declarations of the Rights of Man and Citizen in France.

Its Article 11 states: ?The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.?

This passage is still relevant today. It enshrines freedom of speech as a basic and vital human right.

However, the second part is just as important: words have weight and people should be held responsible for what they say. In other words, what kind of statements should be punishable by law?

Individual countries have different limits on free speech. Most ban hate speech, some have outlawed such things as Holocaust denial, while others have banned blasphemy against God.

??The Press Freedom Index is an annual ranking of countries published by Reporters Without Borders. The report evaluates countries on their level of free speech and freedom of the press based on feedback from local journalists, human rights activists, and researchers. These are last year's results:

Finland

Press Freedom Index: 1

Finland was ranked top of last year's Press Freedom Index, along with Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Finns are free to express a large range of opinions. Yet recently there have been some concerns that political correctness was eroding Finland's freedom of speech.

A local blogger, who criticised Prophet Mohammed, was arrested on the grounds that he had engaged in hate speech. Yet he wasn't prosecuted for critical statements about Christianity. People said that fear of a backlash from local Muslims was the real cause of the blogger's arrest.

Germany

Press Freedom Index: 17

The German Basic Law, written in 1949 and amended in 1990, grants citizens the freedom of speech. Yet because of the country's Nazi past, Germany has one of the more extensive limitation lists in Europe. Nazism is illegal in Germany and, to stop it from developing, laws preventing Nazism, anti-Semitism, and racism are frequently used. Holocaust denial and hate speech are punishable, as are insulting of faiths, religious societies and organisations dedicated to a philosophy of life if they disturb public peace. The most obvious censorship is left for the swastika, which is illegal to display in Germany. For instance, advertisements for the Brad Pitt war film, Inglourious Basterds, removed swastikas from posters. However, an exception to this rule exists in art, so the film was played uncensored in cinemas. Other than these instances, Germany has rarely impeded on freedom of speech since its unification.

United States of America

Press Freedom Index: 20

Freedom of Speech is stated explicitly in the Constitution of the United States and protected by the First Amendment. Apart from that, many state and federal laws go at great length to ensure freedom of speech. The exceptions to this right include obscenity, defamation, incitement to riot, and fighting words. Blogs by military personnel describing military practises have also been censored in the past. In recent years, the extent to which American freedom of speech exists has been under scrutiny, especially in light of the WikiLeaks incident. WikiLeaks, which published 779 secret files relating to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay in April 2011, is banned in the Library of Congress and among federal employees. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, advocates open government through greater freedom of speech.

Canada

Press Freedom Index: 21

Canadians are guaranteed freedom of expression in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in section 2(b). However, it is subject to reasonable limitations prescribed by law. Instances of these limitations include promoting genocide and inciting hatred against people based on their colour, race, religion, ethnic origin, and sexual orientation. In media, Canada is relatively lenient towards explicit sexuality and violence. Instead it receives most complaints over race-related stereotyping. In print, books are rarely banned, but there is controversy about the supply of books from Indigo, a nationwide chain store that holds a virtual monopoly on the book market. The company's Jewish chief executive took Mein Kampf, the memoir by Adolf Hitler, off its shelves. Although not censorship, this lack of supply removes information that many scholars cited was a valuable resource to examining hatred.

Hong Kong

Press Freedom Index: 34

Hong Kong has a very liberal media, which is rarely censored. Entertainment is usually more conservative, but its rating system for movies is less strict than some Western countries. The main worry over freedom of speech stems from the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23. This security law states that Hong Kong has the power to enact its own laws to 'prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government'. Subversion - the undermining of significant political or social groups - is a sensitive word since subversion of state is the common charge against dissidents. Hong Kong citizens were adamant about not enacting this law; a huge demonstration on July 1, 2003, involved 700,000 people, 10 per cent of the population. Books banned on the mainland are easily found here. One such book, Prisoner of The State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, is the most sought after, a Hong Kong distributor says.

United Arab Emirates

Press Freedom Index: 87

Freedom of speech is granted in the Constitution of the United Arab Emirates, but the UAE has been known to censor blogs on sensitive topics, such as alcohol - forbidden under Muslim law - and anything against the political, moral, or religious values of the country. Independent filmmakers have also been known to self-censor. The UAE censors use its grants system; it gives grants only to local filmmakers whose films, unlike foreign works, do not require censorship at the Dubai International Film Festival. Religion is embedded in the UAE's way of life, while each of the seven emirates has an absolute monarchy.

Malaysia

Press Freedom Index: 141

In recent years, Malaysia has been balancing the conservative Muslim population with their moderate population. In this, they have been inconsistently exercising their blasphemy laws. Blasphemy involves insults made regarding a religion. In Malaysia, upholding conservative Muslim ethics means that films are censored, to different degrees, concerning swearing, violence, and alcohol. In light of a Danish newspaper publishing caricatures of Prophet Mohammed, Malaysia's then prime minister Abdullah Badawi rejected the idea of unlimited freedom in 2008, saying that 'media should not be abashed to voluntary censorship to respect cultural norms'.

China

Press Freedom Index: 171

In the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, Article 35, the freedom of speech and press are guaranteed. But it is no secret that the country imposes strict censorship laws. Sensitive topics include the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Tibetan independence, democracy, and police brutality. In recent years, censorship has eased, but is still far from Western standards; the high-profile departure last year of Google from China was the result of disagreements over censorship. The government censored information following widespread anger after 40 people died and 192 were injured in July's fatal high-speed train crash in Wenzhou. Newspapers were asked to 'calm down' reports and print only approved information from Xinhua, the state news agency. The government uses its strict 'subversion of state' powers to sidestep the constitution and control the media.

Eritrea

Press Freedom Index: 175

Eritrea, an independent state in northeast Africa, has a one-party political system and was ranked the lowest in the world - below even the totalitarian North Korea - in the Press Freedom Index. It has not one private media outlet and many independent journalists have fled the country. The few foreign correspondents stationed there before have left the country, either because of harassment, intimidation, or expulsion. There are no longer any foreign correspondents. All media outlets are state run, including the television. A minimum of 15 journalists have been deprived of their liberties and jailed since 2001. All media portray the ultra-nationalistic views of the government and President Isaias Afewerki, who was elected in 1993. Internet use is strictly monitored and available only to a select, privileged few. In 2009, Eritrea had 200,000 internet users out of a population of 5.2 million - only about 3.8 per cent.

Hate Speech

Hate Speech laws exist around the world. In China, this is expressed in Article 249 and 250 in the Criminal Law. It defines it as speech that 'incites ethnic hatred or discrimination... where a publication carries an article designated to discriminate or humiliate an ethnic group, the circumstances are flagrant ...' Hate speech can be defined as words used against others to incite hatred. The point of hate speech laws is to protect people from discrimination by race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or other characteristics. In America, conservative Catholics held up signs at funerals condemning homosexual soldiers that had died while serving their country. In Britain, there has been much debate about whether censoring hate speech goes against freedom of speech.

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