Friday, September 21, 2012

Freedom of expression questioned

Hundreds of thousands of anti-austerity demonstrators took to the streets in cities across Portugal last weekend united under the slogan ‘Que se lixe de troika!’ This appeared in most English-language Internet reports translated as ‘Fuck the troika!’
Que se lixe’ is slang, but much more subtle than the bluntly profane English version, and so Portuguese newspapers had no qualms about quoting it on their front pages. As to the f-word, should it be confined to f*** - or not used at all?
Questions like this are cropping all the time in our increasingly permissive world.
The peaceful demonstrations in Portugal coincided with public outrage in Muslim nations about a video made in the United States. The video insulted the prophet Mohammed and was offensive to most Muslims.  
While not illegal in the United States where freedom of expression is held in high esteem, the video was clearly divisive and inflammatory. Was it also unethical?
Clearly there is no uniform agreement on freedom of expression. It varies not only in legal terms from country to country, but also in moral terms between different cultures and between people of the same culture. Increasingly, there are divisions of opinion even within families between those who embrace and those who shun the unfettered social media.
Judgements about freedom of expression are sometimes influenced not only by what is actually said or shown, but by perceptions or biased viewpoints. The Mohammed video was followed by publication in a French magazine of cartoons depicting the Prophet naked. The cartoons were supposed to be satirically funny, but the French government has felt obliged to temporarily close its embassies and schools in 20 countries for fear of a violent international backlash.
Many of those in non-Muslim countries think the violent reactions to the video were grossly exaggerated and perhaps deliberately promoted. In any case, is physical violence more excusable than blasphemy? Is racial abuse or deliberate provocation more permissible than suppressing freedom of expression?
Readers chastised the New York Times last week for publishing a photograph of the American ambassador to Libya in an unconscious state after the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. The more liberal minded asked why it was deemed to be wrong to publish such a picture when the US news media have no compunction about showing photographs of enemy dead?
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” according to the UN’s universal declaration of human rights. “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.”
In practice, it is not quite so simple.
In Britain, the publication by a French magazine of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge elicited widespread indignation, even in the notorious British tabloid press. Prince Harry naked in a Las Vegas hotel prompted smiles, but Kate exposed while sunbathing in a private estate in France provoked anger.
Was Kate not fair game since the pictures were taken from a public thoroughfare, albeit with a telephoto lens? A French court ruled not. In the court of public opinion, however, many people outside the UK found it was not worth getting hot under the collar about. Publications in Ireland, Italy, Sweden and Denmark were ready to satisfy their readers’ innocent curiosity about a royal celebrity.
Would the British public have reacted less indignantly before the mood-changing Leveson Inquiry into tabloid phone hacking and bribery? To what extent are attitudes being caught up in prescribed customs, fashionable causes and propaganda?
Even in the United States there is no clear line about what is admissible in the media and what is not. For example, ABC News has just been sued by a beef company for describing their products as not beef at all, but “an unhealthy pink slime, unsafe for public consumption.”
Back in Portugal, the McCanns v Amaral libel action was postponed yet again last week. The parents of Madeleine McCann insist Gonçalo Amaral libelled them in his book A Verdade da Mentira (the Truth of the Lie). Plenty of people, especially in this country, believe Amaral was within his moral and legal rights to publish his opinions on the investigation he once co-ordinated. Plenty of people, particularly in the UK, believe Amaral’s actions have been criminally reprehensible, even though the ban on his book has been lifted.
The Portuguese constitution declares: “Everyone shall possess the right to freely express and publicise his thoughts in words, images or by any other means, as well as the right to inform others, inform himself and be informed without hindrance or discrimination.” 
So why is Amaral, who is said to be ill and broke, facing a claim for well over a million euros in damages?
In principle, freedom of expression in free societies is a fine thing. But how free are we really?