January 7th was a sad day. The Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris was both an attack on free speech and fuel for more aggression against Muslims. And controversially also fuel for even more attacks against free speech.
The western society’s relation to free speech is very complicated nowadays. Officially it is still valued as a fundamental right. But it is also seen as a threat, even if politicians are very keen to masquerade free speech reductions as necessary security improvements. British PM Cameron’s recent debacle is an excellent example. In his opinion, there must not be any form of communication that the authorities can’t listen in to, which would mean restrictions on encryption. Non-digital metaphors are usually a good way to explain things like this. This is as smart as banning helmets because they make it harder to recognize criminals riding motorcycles.
French president Francois Hollande wanted to join the party and proposed a law making internet providers responsible for users’ content in their services. The idea was to make companies like Facebook and Twitter monitor all communication and call Paris as soon as someone talks terrorism. This goes even further than Cameron as it actually would force companies to do the police’s work. But should the phone company also be held responsible if it turns out that a terrorist has been allowed to place calls? And maybe even send mail delivered by the postal service? Hollande did of course not include those as they would help people understand how crazy the idea is. Anything can be misused for criminal purposes. But trying to make providers of things responsible is just madness and hurts the whole society and economy.
The important point here is naturally that freedom of speech is a much broader concept than what Charlie Hebdo utilizes. The caricatures express our freedom to communicate publicly without censorship. But there is also another dimension of free speech. Everybody has the right to choose whom they communicate with and whom a message is intended for. This is not just about secrecy and privacy, it is really about being free to exchange opinions without worrying about them being used against you later by some third party. This dimension of free speech would of course not exist in Cameron’s ideal society.
So no Cameron and Hollande, you are definitively not Charlie! It’s sad that the great “Je Suis Charlie” -movement has become a symbol for both freedom of speech and hypocrisy. Didn’t you really see anything wrong in first marching in support of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and then immediately attack freedom of speech yourself?
It takes courage to be a leader and balance between security and freedom. Today we really need leaders like Benjamin Franklin, who had guts and said things like “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.” and “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Image by Markus Winkler @ Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Benjamin Franklin quotes from wikiquote.org
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