Freedom of Expression

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It would be very easy for me to start off this blog post with a sentence like: So long as we don’t insult or intentionally offend others, free speech and the right to it, should be a universal right. But politeness shouldn’t prevent the truth from being told.

Art is truth, we’ve all heard that before. The truth isn’t always pretty, in fact more often than not the truth can be downright ugly. And ugly needs full exposure. Art, be it through film or written word, has helped expose many an ugly truth.

In the last two years the right to freedom of expression through the media and free speech has come under the hammer. There have been a few cases that challenged the right to say what we really think, and say it out loud.

Wikileaks and Julian Assange brought the right to free speech into a new electronic age. The Wikileaks cables put thousands of global top-secret government correspondences on the internet. Not since the Pentagon Papers have we witnessed such a hullabaloo about what governments do behind closed doors.

Assange is a reminder of what life was like for Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. That book brought a fatwa order directly from Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran which kept Rushdie in hiding for over a decade. To this day Rushdie insists on the right to freedom of expression, “even when it comes to religions.”

Terry Jones, a preacher in Florida, invented Burn a Koran day, and he did. One Koran caused a “deadly attack and violent protests across Afghanistan,” according to the Washington Post.

Caricatures of Mohammad have caused death threats and protests in Denmark and France. Denmark is also where the film maker Theo Van Gogh, was assassinated for his short film “Submission,”  written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The film shows Koran verses written on the bodies of four naked women, some of the verses stating that men have authority over women.

The recent anti-Islamic movie “Innocence of Muslims” incited protests across the Muslim world that are still erupting two weeks after the initial 9/11 American embassy burning in Libya and causing wide-spread danger to foreigners abroad, whether they are American or not. Was this movie hate speech? Was this movie racist? Or is it a satire?

The actors and actresses involved in the movie were told its title was Desert Warrior. One actress even tried, unsuccessfully, to have YouTube remove the movie. Sam Bacile, or is it Nakoula Basseley, or Robert Brownell?, one of them is the real director of the movie, is in hiding, and no one in the movie industry has ever heard of him.  Why hide from the truth, if indeed art is truth?

I don’t agree with the idea of a director hiding away from his movie, lying to his actors about the title: but I have a hard time understanding why the Muslim world can’t understand satire. I grew up Catholic. I’ve seen Jesus lampooned and satirised many times. Yes, sometimes devout Catholics hit the pavements with placards in protest, as they did for the release of The Life of Brian back in the early 80’s, but the actors, directors, and producers, all the Monty Python team themselves, articulated their reasons for doing the film in eloquent and intelligent debates. They stood behind their film even though some people in the Christian faith protested against it.

Why not take movies like ‘Submission’ or ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ or actions such as Terry Jones burning a Koran and cartoons and just laugh them off? Maybe Muslims do not have a sense of humor? If there is a movie that is more relevant than Albert Broooks’ Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World regarding this, I’m hard pressed to think of it right now. Maybe Mohammad is no laughing matter? Maybe the real guy was a comedian? Who knows.

Today we learn that 3 bloggers in Vietnam were issued  jail sentences ranging from four to 12 years on Monday for blogging about human rights abuses, corruption and foreign policy.

Should we run from the truth when it is ugly? Should we hide it away, pretend it doesn’t exist so that at least our world is a pretty place?

Freedom of expression is important, it gives citizens the freedom to speak their minds against regimes and not remain a cog in the wheel. However, if a law allows the media in France to publish a cartoon of Mohammad then why does that same law not grant the right to citizens to peacefully assemble to protest that cartoon? That’s unfair and it’s a double standard.

My own guess is that the people who protest violently against freedom of expression are not allowed that freedom in their own countries. The regime picks an enemy and they are united against a common enemy. Freedom of expression requires deep, critical thinking and analysis. Regimes don’t want people like that, they want more cogs in the wheel. Don’t question, just do.


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