"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Not-So-Free Speech in Europe

The trouble with laws like this is that they criminalize misinterpretation. This is not to say that historians, newspaper editors or anyone else should make false statements, but is it reasonable to make being wrong a criminal offense? Emily Messner, The Washington Post

Liberal democracies can't afford in today's world to create a crime of political heresy. Insult to religion and to the feelings of groups of people ought to be incorporated, albeit with accompanying debate and protest, as part of the dialectic of freedom. Farrukh Dondy, The Asian Age

I read somewhere recently that comparisons with Hitler tend to obscure more than they illuminate. I think the same about descriptions of political views as "Orwellian". But I can't help referencing Orwell's Animal Farm, on hearing that historian David Irving has been sentenced to three years' imprisonment in Austria for denying that the Holocaust took place: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." Coming so soon after the newspaper cartoon debacle, this decision makes European protestations about free speech look hollow hypocritical. For example, European states have been prevailing upon the Turkish government to introduce liberal democratic reforms, before its wish to see its country join the European Union can be granted. One of the objections was to the Turkish law banning denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Austria's law is no better than Turkey's. However, it must be said that such laws are the exception rather than the norm in the Western world. Across much of the world, political speech is rountinely restricted and suppressed.

Roger Boyle of the New Statesman has written in favour of Irving being sentenced to imprisonment. Boyle writes that: "Irving may not have a hook but there is not much else to distinguish him from other hate preachers who are being put behind bars." In my opinion there is a distinction. It is this: Irving's speech is deliberate historical mendacity; Hamza's crime was to incite violence against his fellow citizens - he was, after all, convicted of soliciting murder.

It cannot be justified to make factual error, political heresy or historical inaccuracy (even on such a large scale and of such a bizarre nature) illegal. This is especially so today, when it has never been more important to impress upon the non-democratic world the value of democratic freedom. Today is not a good day for that cause.


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