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Free speech: What if Terry Jones went to Sweden?

A look at the global state of free speech.

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While the First Amendment protects such expression in the US, Americans may still find themselves to be targets of violence for their speech. Molly Norris, a cartoonist for the Seattle Weekly, has taken the FBI's advice to change her name and move after her "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" cartoon last spring landed her on an Islamic cleric's hit list.

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Indeed, as Middle Eastern and European governments create free speech loopholes – for better or worse – justified by national security, or historical or civil rights concerns, some governments constitutionally committed to free speech have become too weak to protect their citizens from violent nonstate forces hostile to dissent.

Two young journalists were gunned down Sept. 16 in a shopping mall parking lot in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city on the US border. There, powerful drug cartels at war with one another and the state have sought to co-opt the press and intimidate those who dare exercise their free speech rights to challenge the cartels' authority.

"Unfortunately," says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, such shootings have become "typical" in Mexico. This year, 11 journalists have been murdered there.

Accordingly, says Mr. Simon, "stories of huge importance as well as bread-and-butter crime reporting are simply not getting covered because it can get you killed."

The recent shootings prompted El Diario, a local newspaper, to run a lengthy editorial repeatedly asking, "What do they want from us?"

Meanwhile, Iceland is erecting a legal framework to protect from prosecution those who seek to expose governmental and corporate whistle-blowers.

Already one of the countries most protective of free expression, Iceland wants to be the most protective. In June, its Parliament passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), a proposal that promises to turn the small North Atlantic island into a "transparency haven" for whistle-blowers, journalists, and concerned citizens.

The creators of the IMMI believe that in addition to inspiring other countries to follow suit, the initiative will also encourage media organizations and human rights activists to use Iceland as the operational hub for their Internet-based communications.

The IMMI includes an "ultramodern" Freedom of Information Act inspired by the laws of Estonia and Britain; whistle-blower, libel tourism, and legal process protections inspired by US federal and state laws; and source protection laws inspired by those in Belgium.

These measures may not save the Russian reporter from assassination, the Iranian protester from torture, or the Chinese blogger from imprisonment. However, the IMMI does aim to provide cutting-edge protections for "the wide range of media and human rights organizations that routinely face unjust sanction," notes the IMMI website.

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