Posts Tagged ‘Freedom of Speech’

An Inconvenient Necessity?

In Opinion on August 13, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you will be aware of the riots and their aftermath and the way they have been largely conducted over social media, for good and for ill.

I have already explained in a previous article, my idea that short, snappy soundbites that abound on social media sites largely foster a polarisation of public opinion (probably unintentionally). The good in the case of the riots is the proliferation of movements such as Riot Cleanup, Operation Cup Of Tea, Something Nice for Ashraf and Youth Against Violence, which aim to clear up the physical and metaphorical rubble. Alas, as much as these groups deserve more publicity than the bad, they are not nearly as controversial and in need of discussion.

The difficulty is what, if anything, to do about the fact that much of the criminal rioting was organised via social networks. Many rioters instantly (and selectively) communicated to friends the timings and whereabouts of the commotion, thus playing a large part in turning what was initially a small, localised demonstration into widespread civil disorder. In this manner, it is very similar to the Arab Spring, which spread exponentially with the help of social media after an equally particular catalyst (Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, in reaction to the confiscation of his goods and harassment and humiliation at the hands of officials).

While admitting social media can be used for ‘good’, Cameron asserted it can also be used for ‘ill’, such as the London riots which had been “organised via social media”. He also claimed and that the government was “working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality”. To this end, Cameron and his cabinet have communicated with social media companies such as RIM (the company that produces Blackberrys), Facebook and Twitter regarding the possibility of shutting down networks in emergency circumstances. All the above responded co-operatively, expressing a willingness to at least discuss the matter. While nothing to this end has been implemented so far (and looks unlikely to in the immediate future given the dissipation of the current riots), the idea is a very real possibility for the future. This is given the companies’ express willingness to co-operate and statements from the Prime Minister, such as: ‘When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them’. In a similar vein, the government may grant police greater freedom to remove scarves or hoods (so people may be identified by CCTV) and to stop and search.

This topical idea is very contentious because it is so intrinsically linked to the ever-controversial topic of civil liberties. Such curbing, even ‘denial’, of freedom of expression is always met with suspicion and condemnation in many quarters, and this situation is no different. The Open Rights Group – an organisation which aims to raise awareness of digital rights and civil liberties issues – has attacked the idea. Executive director Jim Killock claimed: “Clearly, a service will be used by people for legitimate activities, some of which will mitigate or deal with the problem encountered. In any case, innocent people should not be punished for the actions of others”. He furthered to declare the measures would be abused and generally “seized upon by oppressive governments to justify their own actions”. My posing of the issue on the aforementioned Youth Against Violence Facebook page was also met with disapproval, even vitriol: ‘helllll no’, ‘foolish’ etc. liberate? liberate?

So, on the surface at least, it seems like a somewhat scarily authoritarian idea. I, and I daresay nearly everyone else, is in general agreement with the right to freely express oneself, whether on social media, in person, on the phone or whatever. Indeed, this is a right is enshrined in the cornerstone of utopian governance – The UN Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. This is all gravy, until it is seen to conflict with other freedoms set forth in the declaration, as it often is in the argument about what views on race/cultural heritage it is acceptable to air. An infamous case of this is the debate over whether BNP leader Nick Griffin should have been allowed to speak on Question Time (he eventually was). Some asserted that he was a legitimate party member with the freedom of expression to air his views. Others claimed that his ‘racist’ views would unduly infringe upon others’ freedoms – variously, rights to freedom of movement, equality, even ‘life, liberty and security of person’ through the supposed increased racial hatred/violence. The latter freedom is probably the most conflicting in the case of the riots.

Look beyond the admitted slippery slope to nightmarish visions of Orwellian societies, though, and Cameron certainly has a point. By nearly all accounts, the riots were largely organised by social media, and with a consequent alacrity and spontaneity that made them very, very hard to effectively police. Moreover, social media companies are suggesting that such widespread censorship is at least technically feasible. Essentially, if we ignore all undeniably sensible considerations of ethics/principles and ‘slippery slopes’ for just a second, the idea is practical and would in all likelihood be effective at quelling violence.

Furthermore, the argument can be cunningly flipped around; since these companies are private, their owners arguably have the freedom to choose when to temporarily shut them down, as they occasionally do for maintenance. I’m sure that’d be in the small print somewhere. Despite this idea, I’d still tend towards the theory that these measures would in principle represent an ‘infringement of civil liberties’ (‘opinions without interference… through any media and regardless of frontiers’ etc.). Nonetheless, I still support these measures….

...or, to censor?

...or, to censor?

Very few would argue these ideas are ideal, but we quite fucking obviously don’t live in an ideal society (nor world). We live in Britain; not Utopia, and a fractured Britain at that. In this undoubtedly volatile social context (the reasons for this are a different argument altogether), I’m not sure we can afford the privilege of absolute freedom of expression. The cycle works both ways, but I do think we need to show responsibilities to gain rights. Frankly, some have not shown responsibility by thieving plasma TVs, burning buildings and throwing bricks. The fact is a minority – a significant one, but a minority nonetheless – have committed acts considered by the majority (including myself) to be reprehensible and exacted upon innocent people. Surely, given this, the greater good is to do our upmost as a society to protect and help decent people and livelihoods such as the late Haroon Jahan and the burned Reeves Furniture Shop of Croydon. If the result for this is having to not Tweet or write typically pithy status updates for a few hours, then, personally, so fucking be it.

Similarly, I view increasingly stringent security and CRB checks as necessary; annoying, but necessary. Being what most would class as a ‘white middle class’ Brit, it is hard to realistically put myself in the position of ethnic minorities being consistently stopped and searched. Alike above, though, I would like to think I would have the sense of perspective to see the police officers were merely stopping me being, to their largely unknowing eyes, statistically more likely to be carrying a dangerous weapon than a white person from Chelsea – to make a crass, but largely accurate, generalisation. This can of course be a vicious cycle, and just one of a very complex web of cause and effects of deprivation, but this is not the debate I’m focusing on here.

I sense many people attacking this idea are usually the same left-leaning people that, whilst generally ruing the riots, rightly or wrongly call for lighter punishment for rioters in favour of forgiveness, empathy and societal change (education, bridging the economic divide, re-integration etc.). I regard this view as slightly over-optimistic and unrealistic, but I do think it is an admirable view to hold (indeed, I would generally regard myself as a liberal ‘Guardian reader’, but in light of recent events I’m coming to gradually regard these views and values as somewhat merely hypothetical). Given this, I see an irony in these undeniably innocent people not willing to pitch in by being inconvenienced in their cyber activities for an hour or two. Maybe it’s the fact that Cameron and the ‘bloody’ Tories are proposing them….

Another objection is the supposedly Big Brother-esque implications of it, for which one only has to look to China for support. I, though, have the faith in the politicians and the parliamentary structure for censorship to be only used when some serious, bad shit is going down. This is fully compatible with my support of the popular view that in a democracy one has to be prepared to be ‘offended’, but not physically ‘harmed’. The other argument advanced in this camp is that the government would have to be sinisterly monitoring social media at all times to see when trouble’s a’brewing. They wouldn’t really, however, because they could be alerted to this by the companies themselves, who all cast a somewhat shadowy yet omniscient eye over the blogospheres. How else do you think those Facebook ads are targeted with such unerring accuracy?!

A wise man once said, “you can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.” I’m not sure this always true, but I think it has a lot of pertinence for this discussion. If in this case, it is the feasible and moral choice I’d incline to say it was, I would most definitely go for peace. ‘Hypothetical simplification’ it may well be, yet I would be perfectly happy to sacrifice for a night virtual organisation of some party, or proffering my two cents worth on things, if there was any realistic chance of stopping some dickhead assaulting just one unwitting bystander or destroying just one innocent person’s business. Wouldn’t you?

Joel Durston


Freedom of Emission

In Opinion on April 12, 2011 at 4:09 PM

Browsing through my Facebook newsfeed the other day, as you do, I chanced upon a hilarious link sent by a friend to another titled: ‘Malawians outraged at the new farting bill’. I couldn’t not investigate….

It transpired that the article and news clip were about a new Local Courts Bill in the Malawi’s financial capital Blantyre, which legislated that: “Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public, to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighbourhood or passing along a public way, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.” The bill will also attempt to deal with citizens who hinder the burial of dead bodies, as well as people who pretend to be fortune tellers.

The locals were rightly outraged at the new bill. They cited both the political reasons, such as the corrupt government wrongly focusing on trivial matters like public flatulence, rather than more pressing matters, such as child immortality, violence and illiteracy. And the practical reasons, such as the difficulty in tracing the culprit. College student Matthews Phiri claimed: “We all fart in public and it will be difficult to tell who has done it. Some do it silently. In some cases it is like teargas which goes like shhhh! Our legislators need to concentrate on discussing development projects. They should not waste our time and money on childish issues. It would make sense if they talked about defecating and urinating anyhow but not farting. This will not work. We will keep on farting.” Good for you, Matthews; keep up the gassy resistance, I say! It’s enough to make one think that ‘freedom of emission’ should join ‘freedom of expression’ in that hallmark of Western moral liberalism; the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

As funny as this new motion undoubtedly is, it highlights a more serious, age-old political trend…and a rather worrying one it is too. Namely, the penchant for governments to, if you will, sweep all their problems under the carpet, masked by various perfidious ploys; in this case, perverse legislation totally unrelated to other efforts. It happens all the time at the Olympics and other such sporting tournament. The spectacular ‘Bird’s nest’ arena that admittedly played such a wonderful host to the 2008 Beijing Olympics was the product of what was in aspects a very tough construction effort, with very poor working conditions and pay, forcible reinforcement and even related deaths (The Times reported ten, whilst Reuters, in a rather suspicious-sounding  ‘association’ with the Chinese government, claimed two).

But the prime example, of course, has to be the, quite frankly, madhouse that is North Korea. To quell concerns about (especially rural) poverty and political violence, to name but a few, Junior and Senior Kim Jong-Il have created the myths that North Korea is the best country in the world, fighting off the dominant evil forces of the rest of the world; that they are fittingly godly leaders with powers similar to that of the Judaeo-Christian God. My personal favourite myth is that Junior Kim was conceived and delivered immaculately by his mother from whose ‘birthing passage he strode out magnificently, already aware of his own brilliance.

During the last World Cup there was a hilarious blogger’s mock report of North Korea’s 50-0 victory over Brazil, just google ‘North Korea beat brazil 50-0’. It describes Kim Jong-Il’s incredible performance as he scored 49 goals almost single-handedly in the first half then, just to make matters fair, subbed everyone else off, put himself in goal and invited Brazil’s all time greats to come on. Needless to say, the great Kim kept a clean sheet for 45 minutes before scoring a heaven sent 50th goal. The game had to be stopped because no-one could stop the tears of admiration stemming from everyone in the stadium. On first reading of this, I laughed…a lot. Then, after a little research, I got the impression that this article was in fact probably pretty similar to the kind of shit that North Koreans are mercilessly fed on a daily basis and thus felt rather bad for using my freedom of expression to laugh at those who are tragically without this Western world luxury. Indeed, it is suspected that the North Korean government edited the footage of their team’s efforts in the World Cup such that they were presented as the winners of the thing!

This is far from the only time football has been used as a propaganda tool. During the 1978 World Cup, dictator of Argentina Jorge Rafael Videla is believed to have threatened violence, even death, to ‘his’ players had they not won the coveted Jules Rimet trophy in their own back yard. Thankfully for the players’ sakes, they did, but only after allegations of intimidation of opposition and suspicious results and decisions, including a very doubtful 6-0 win against Peru in their final group game which edged Argentina through by virtue of goal difference (Peru were decidedly under-par and several decisions went Argentina’s way which probably shouldn’t have).

And at the previous World Cup in ‘74, the dictator of Zaire (as it was then), worried of national embarrassment and consequent unrest and upheaval, threatened the national team with execution should they concede more than ten goals.  This is the team infamous for the hilarious scenes of players continually running out of the wall prematurely to disrupt the Brazilians taking of a free-kick (do yourself a favour and Youtube it). These are scenes that caused me to mock and look down at the Zaire players as disobedient, even stupid, until I learnt of their horrific plight (this was the 70-somethingth minute and they had conceded 9 goals in the tournament), thereafter seeing them as heroic members of the political resistance, running out of that wall to hoof the ball up the pitch as if, well, because, their lives depended upon it. You will be pleased to know they survived. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a film adaptation including Denzel as the inspirational talisman, Cuba Gooding Junior as the willing debutante and Morgan Freeman; the wise, world-weary manager. The Oscars would practically be in the bag.

Anyway, back to my original point; in whatever combination of sheer ignorance, or blatant indifference, of ‘their’ citizens’ conditions, governments have done and continue to do shocking things to cover domestic problems. That’s hardly a revelatory piece of political analysis I realise, but hear me out if you will. What worries me about this is that it means that all the respective Western government’s admirable statements of intent, be they genuine or not, to increase aid to developing countries could prove ultimately pretty futile. Comic Relief and other such charities present a ‘Disney-fied’ account of the developing world, whereby it is nigh-on guaranteed that x amount of pence will pay for Mary’s education for a month and x amount of pounds will pay for Lulu to drink clean water for at least a year. Now don’t get me wrong, I have a huge amount of admiration for such charities, I try to give and think they are right to portray charity and the developing world in such a way; I’m just not entirely sure it’s a particularly accurate representation.

Obviously it is in neither the respective LEDCs governments’ nor the charities’ interests to say so, but it is always alleged (quietly) that developing countries’ governments cream off so much of the aid money in spurious taxes that that charities (or MEDCs’ governments’) efforts are rendered unproductive. The same could be said of the money for or from sporting events. Such financial aid is arguably counter-productive if the money is used to prop up corrupt officials and businessmen, whilst maintaining the image of the poor country, that just needs to be ‘helped to help itself’.

While I don’t deny this is a noble mantra for helping countless specific communities, I do wonder how easy it is to get into such communities due to government interference. For example, I remember watching a show maybe a year ago where the presenter, as far as possible, travelled across the world along the titular line. He very bravely ventured into Burma, whereupon just over the border he encountered a tiny destitute community, many of whom were in very poor health. Not only were the government and the militia doing nothing to help this community, they were actively preventing a small group of Christian health workers from getting to this community, and no doubt countless similar ones too, when the only possible agenda they had was to gently preach the message of a 2,000-year-old Jew. The presenter and cameramen soon got the hell outta there!

In many countries, I get the impression that senior politicians who want to keep hold of their leadership are in cahoots with the police or militia, who want a subordinate populace, who in turn are in league with heads of business who want to retain a huge sub-strata of society, willing to work for next to nothing. And these businessmen conspire with the politicians in the whole murky network where ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

So, in addition to rueing the injustices of imperialism (especially throughout history) and Western apathy, I feel a lot of the blame for wealth differences lies with those at the top of the hierarchy, too self-interested to see or do anything about the strife on their doorstep.  In his new book The Chosen One, Sam Bourne writes: ‘politics would always rise up and strangle hope, like a weed choking a flower’….

So as I draw to a close, and seek to unite my many digressions, for which I am sorry, I start to hope that the above is the misguided ramblings of a cynic; that the world isn’t rife with unremitting corruption and pain. Or that this state of affairs doesn’t harness its power to entrench and self-perpetuate itself. Otherwise it may well be an accurate and depressing reflection of the world’s geo-political state; as we fail to disinfect the stagnant injustice that continues well into the 21st century.

Joel Durston