Europe and free speech: A race to the bottom?
By Jacob Mchangama
BRUSSELS, 03.08.2015 (EUObserver) – Since European politicians post-Charlie Hebdo stood arm in arm in the streets of Paris and pledged undying allegiance to the principle of free speech, much has come to pass concerning that very freedom. Starting with a (few) positives, parliament in both Norway and Iceland has decided, as a mostly symbolic measure, to scrap each country’s respective blasphemy laws. This is to affirm that freedom of expression must not surrender to religious feelings that in some instances cause extremists to believe murder is justified.
Unfortunately, however, there are significantly more negative developments than positive ones. In fact whether dealing with terrorism, extremism, racism, or privacy concerns, the European default solution seems to involve chipping away at freedom of expression.
Unlike Norway and Iceland, Denmark has decided to uphold its blasphemy ban, citing among other reasons fear of violent backlash from extremists at home and abroad. This is hardly the most heroic response considering that 14 February Copenhagen attacks were aimed specifically at a debate on blasphemy and a prominent “blasphemer”.
The attacks against Charlie Hebdo prompted the magazine’s managing editor to declare that it would no longer depict and publish the prophet Muhammed. While that decision is certainly understandable given the level of risk, this step would most likely never have been taken place had Charlie Hebdo not been forced to pay the ultimate price for its previous publicist’s courage.
As such, the French magazine has adopted the same editorial stance that just about every other major Western print media had already accepted prior to the attack; a stance where depictions of the Prophet form a red line not to be crossed out of fear of violent retaliation. On that basis, one might ask whether the Kouachi brothers did not indeed fully achieve their goal by both “avenging” the prophet and forcing the hitherto provocative and fearless Charlie Hebdo to submit and change its editorial line in accordance with the Jihadist’s veto.
However it is not only islamists that seek to protect religion from offense. The Austrian prosecution service recently announced an investigation into whether Dutch politician Geert Wilders violated Austria’s law against denigration of religion and hate speech. This action was made in response to a speech on Austrian soil made by Wilders in March. In it, as he has done so many times before, the prominent politician compared the Koran with Mein Kampf and, (ironically but characteristically for Wilder’s lack of principles), insisted that the former book be banned.
Hate speech and Holocaust denial…
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