Free speech: What if Terry Jones went to Sweden?

A look at the global state of free speech.

Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
Muslims in Calcutta, India, protested American pastor Terry Jones’s plans to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11.
Cover Illustration by Laura Smith
This article is part of the cover story project in the Oct. 4, 2010 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine. Subscribe here:

In America, we can paint a Hitler mustache on the president's likeness without fear of the government's wrath.

But in Jordan, a poem critical of the king can get a writer jailed. Hatim al-Shuli, a university student, was arrested in late July 2010 for penning a poem insulting the king and causing internal strife, actions proscribed under Jordan's penal code. Mr. Shuli denies writing the poem, but remains in detention awaiting trial.

"[A]rrests for things like writing poems unfortunately are regular occurrences in Jordan," reports Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy organization.

Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." Today, decades after the UN's 1948 adoption of the declaration, Article 19 continues to be an ideal actively pursued in some countries and aggressively denied in others.

For example, in Turkey, a constitutional republic, expression considered insulting to the nation itself is a criminal offense under a 2005 penal code. And writers and journalists have been prosecuted for recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915-17 – an event the Turkish government officially denies.

Many European countries, on the other hand, have criminalized the denial of crimes against humanity. This summer, Hungary became the latest to do so, passing a law imposing three years' imprisonment for those who deny Nazi and Communist genocides.

In addition, much of Europe has also enacted hate speech laws that allow for prosecution of expression where the United States does not. Had Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., taken his "International Burn a Koran Day" overseas and arrived in Stockholm wearing one of the "Islam Is of the Devil" T-shirts that his church sells, he could have been charged under Sweden's prohibition on expressing disrespect for a group based on their faith.

In the Netherlands, ultranationalist politician Geert Wilders is currently on trial for illegally insulting Muslims and inciting hatred against Islamic immigrants. As grounds for the prosecution, the Dutch government has cited, among other statements, Mr. Wilders's comparing Islam to Nazism and producing a film that included a Danish newspaper's inflammatory cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the opening and closing frames.

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.

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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