Sunday, February 19, 2006

Jyllands-Posten: testing the limits of free speech

The editors of Denmark’s newspaper Jyllands-Posten were deliberately testing the limits of free speech (and as a result being damned for signing their own death warrants) by publishing cartoon images of Prophet Muhammad, the most provocative of which shows Mohammad with a bomb in his turban: the caricature directly links Mohammad and Islam faith to “terrorism” as defined by the West.

So was peace advocate Cindy Sheehan who was first roughed up, then arrested and jailed when she wore a t-shirt with the message “2,245 dead. How many more?” while seated in the front row of the House gallery before the start of George W. Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address (“I get hauled out of the People’s House because I was, ‘Protesting’,” she later wrote): Mrs. Sheehan openly holds Bush accountable for those dead heroes, her son, Casey, among them.

And so as well was netizen Shi Tao, the Chinese journalist now serving a 10-year jail term for e-mailing his notes (about overseas Chinese returning to China for the anniversary of the Tiananmen uprising) to a democracy group in New York, and whose IP address was provided to Chinese authorities by Yahoo!: Shi’s audacity is adjudged by Chinese authorities as an affront to his country’s “customs” on how information ought to flow.

Intellectual liberty occupies the highest rung in the pecking order of the permanencies of humanity. At least, this is what undergirds the conceptual schemes of liberal Western traditions. Accordingly, the mind is free to roam wherever it yearns, whether in secular or religious realms. For, man can believe in anything however bizarre or foolhardy and within that sphere his thoughts are beyond the reach of any law posited by the state (positive law). Not so when the physical manifestation of one’s yearnings encroaches upon the equal yearnings of others, in which case, the law of the state will have to regulate the expression for the greater good.

The Danish editors, within the context thus framed, have all the right to criticize or lampoon anyone, or any beliefs or ideologies for that matter, subject to the laws of their country on libel, protection of national security or possibly of the independence of the judiciary and thereby to curtailment whenever there is “a clear and present danger of the substantive evil that the state has the right to prevent.”

But what happens when the exercise of one’s legal right to express his thoughts creates consequences that go beyond the borders of the state or otherwise impact the conceptual schemes of other traditions or the very way of life of the outsiders or the non-natives in the absence of a global sanctioning authority? May not the aggrieved resort to self-help, which, in the name of self-preservation, could take the form of defensive violent actions, such as war?

Could something in this regard be seen as some kind of moral equivalent to George W. Bush’s dictum to the effect that the 9-11 attack was one against America’s way of life, and out of self-help, America and allies may then punish the perpetrators with or without authority from a world body like the UN? And was the supposed breach of that way of life enough justification for destroying cities, innocent lives and hallowed places of the perpetrators in the same way that the desecration of the Islamic way of life or of the Prophet Mohammad sufficient reason to smash windows or torch buildings and other representations of the desecrators?

What defies simple understanding is that in apparent show of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten and to press the issue further in the direction of advancing the values of modern Western society (i.e., the privileged position of free speech) daily newspapers in France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, and Spain (all colonial powers) have stoked the firestorm through intentional and calculated disregard of the religious sensitivities of their societies’ “outsiders” by republishing the irreverent caricatures on “journalistic grounds” or to point the “hypocrisy” of the Islamic World, all in the face of the ongoing War on Terror or the still fresh embers of the Parish riots. If this is not “clear and present danger” in the global scale, it is no less tantamount to speechifying “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium.

We haven’t seen much of that solidarity in behalf of Cindy Sheehan who was “protesting,” by way of her sacred right to free speech, the war of choice being waged by President Bush in Iraq. Yet I will say here that while the testing of free speech boundaries by Cindy Sheehan has solid fundamental footing, the avenue so chosen ignored the “sensitivities” that is attached to the occasion during which the constitutional right was exercised. I do believe Bush deserves the full respect any president of the United States is entitled to at the now traditional State of the Union address in Capitol Hill. Speak, Cindy did at the House gallery, then she be damned. Now, where are the cold advocates of free speech?

Yes, “Where are they?” Shi Tao must be querying himself about his daring attempt to test the limits of free speech in China, and getting damned for it and for trusting that Yahoo! would keep the torch of free speech burning. Chinese authorities explain that Chinese “customs,” perhaps in the tradition of Western conceptual schemes, deny the full extent of the right to citizens like Shi, in the name of self-preservation, in the manner that President Bush asserts executive privilege to curtail that same right to American citizens by “spying” on them for the sake of national security.

Alright, after betraying Shi, can Yahoo! still claim as one of the pioneers of information revolution and Internet democracy without being a hypocrite? Who else?


Blogger Publius said...

Companies like Yahoo and, more recently, Google say that thier presence in China is making that nation a better place.

I am a journalist, and for a recent story on the new — the Chinese version of its search engine — the response I got from Google is that it would rather be able to give some people a broader access to information than they may have had before than to not give any Chinese people a quality search engine because the company is not willing to censor search results on things like human rights and democracy and Tibet.

We both know the real motive for companies like Yahoo and Google ultimately is money. China has more than a billion potential customers and in the traditional American way of doing business, it would almost be irresponsible to try and tap that market. If you have to censor search results, or aid the government in putting away a few activists or journalists, so be it.

I'm with you. Google and Yahoo and other companies should have the moxie to stand up for what is right when called upon to do so. That kind of statement is pie-in-the-sky, however, and we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for them to do what's right.

February 19, 2006 7:15 PM  
Blogger Abe N. Margallo said...

Publius, you seem to have missed the tag. Anyway here's what I've written:

"Well, the great white knights in shining armour of the Internet (Microsoft, Yahoo and Google), from whose god-like personification in the Internet realm a sea of devotees derive their newfound religion and Net-era democratic culture and values, obliged too – not out of obeisance to the 'rule of law' (and TRO proceeds from it) but out of submission to the rule of the jungle where 'In the end, sir, we all kill for profit' (to lift some words once attributed to General Nathaniel Greene addressing George Washington)."


"There are, as of 2005, 111 million Chinese Internet users (and growing geometrically), doubtless an enormous business opportunity no other country in the world could offer the world’s Internet giants? The China market has always been an enchanting behemoth of a dragon (at the turn of the last century the Americans were willing to cause the death of nearly a quarter of a million Filipinos to set foot there) whose growth and full unfolding Yahoo, Microsoft or Google cannot afford to smother; to dare is to stunt their own. Hence, not to submit to the Chinese demand for censorship would be bad for the same old ambitions by American business. Concern for the Chinese people (as for 'the half devil and half child') is an old refrain."

February 20, 2006 10:29 AM  
Blogger rave said...

The desecration of the Prophet sure violated the most sacred religious sentiments of the Islamic world. One can also clearly comprehend the hurt and consequent reactions of the Muslims. However, the question arises as to why reactions to desecration always manifest in violent forms. Do not innocent bystanders, the society, and the nation also suffer exhibition of such rage? Could we hypothesize that religious desecration leads to heightened security threats to the perpetrators?

February 25, 2006 11:13 PM  
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