The French satirical paper Charlie-Hebdo has just been acquitted of publicly insulting Muslims by reprinting the notorious Danish cartoons featuring the Prophet. Influential Islamic groups had sued it for inciting hatred. Is free speech really in danger worldwide?
The understanding and practices of freedom of expression are being challenged in the twenty-first century. Some of the controversies of the past year or so that have drawn worldwide attention have included the row over Danish cartoons seen as anti-Muslim, the imprisonment of a British historian in Austria for Holocaust denial, and disputes over a French law forbidding denial of the Armenian genocide.
These debates are not new: the suppression of competing views and dissent, and of anything deemed immoral, heretical, or offensive, has dominated social, religious, and political history. These have returned to the fore in response to the stimuli of the communication revolution and of the events of 9/11. The global reach of most of our messages, including the culturally and politically specific, has rendered all expressions and their controls a prize worth fighting for, even to the death. Does this imply that stronger restrictions on freedom of expression should be established?
Freedom of expression, including the right to access to information, is a fundamental human right, central to achieving individual freedoms and real democracy. It increases the knowledge base and participation within a society and can also secure external checks on state accountability.
Yet freedom of expression is not absolute. The extent to which expression ought to be protected or censored has been the object of many impassionate debates. Few argue that freedom of expression is absolute and suffers no limits. But the line between what is permissible and what is not is always contested. Unlike many others, this right depends on its context and its definition is mostly left to the discretion of states.
Under international human rights standards, the right to freedom of expression may be restricted in order to protect the rights or reputation of others and national security, public order, or public health or morals, and provided it is necessary in a democratic society to do so and it is done by law. This formulation is found in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under article 19, and in the European Convention on Human Rights.