Freedom of expression… but it comes at a price

In the light of the devastating Charlie Hebdo attacks I wonder, what does freedom of expression actually mean?

Freedom of expression, as described under the European Convention of Human Rights, is a fundamental human right which we all apparently possess. It is a freedom that I believe should be actively enabled by democratic governments, especially in the aftermath of horrific events such as this, where a few individuals’ right to freedom of expression have been called into question – a question that a group of extremists chose to answer on their own violent terms.

I was listening to a discussion of this topic on the radio a couple of days ago and one man made the controversial suggestion that, “if you are going to be involved in a provocative publication then you have to accept the consequences, whatever they may be”. He went on to suggest that the victims of the attacks were “sort of asking for it”. My outrage was immediate – what an ignorant man, why has he been allowed to voice his clearly mislead opinion?

However, that is just what it was – an opinion. No matter how much I disagree with it, I cannot attempt to take away his right to expressing his personal opinion. Equally, I did not feel obliged to hold back with regards to my own personal opinion of him whilst ranting to the other passengers who were in the car with me at the time.

Since the horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, has publicly supported the publication and its employees on the basis of freedom of expression. However, since what is now being referred to as France’s 9/11, there have also been over 70 arrests made, each on the grounds of the offenders ‘defending terrorism’. This is an article of the new counter-terrorism law which was passed in November 2014, but is it possible that this article intended to keep us safe, could ultimately infringe our fundamental right to freedom of expression?

Many of these arrests and subsequent imprisonments have been as a result of people simply saying things which, whilst clearly offensive and unacceptable, do not have any real malicious intent behind them. One case, for example, involved an individual who must now spend 10 months in prison for saying, “The Kouachi brothers is just the beginning; I should have been with them to kill more people.” Considering this 21-year-old’s original crime was failing to buy a ticket for a tram journey, is it not possible that this individual is just an archetype of hundreds of dissatisfied and frustrated young people who may not always say rational things? Could it be argued that the French government is protecting, and indeed encouraging, some members of its population’s freedoms over others?

I am not suggesting that this is not an offensive thing to say, however I am sure there have been many comments not dissimilar to this with regards to the Muslim community since, and indeed previous to the attacks. It is important that we do not wear eurocentric-tinted glasses when dealing with these situations. Our justifiable outrage at this incident, and defence of the Charlie Hebdo publication on the grounds of freedom of expression should not be biased towards our own communities.

Whilst I cannot condone the man on the radio suggesting that the victims of the attack in any way deserved to be massacred, I equally do not feel comfortable in the knowledge that certain apparently ‘inalienable’ human rights may be biased towards western communities.

Freedom of expression is an important value, human right, and indeed law. Whilst it can provoke tension and ultimately sometimes lead to conflict, it is a freedom that must be upheld in any society that wishes to legitimately call itself a democracy.

Image courtesy of Getty Images


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