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Free speech: working our way towards the liberal minimum

openDemocracy’s Editor spends a summer afternoon in Oxford, catching up with the Free Speech Debate as it nears the end of its first phase. 

In mid-July I have the good fortune to visit St. Antony’s College, Oxford for a guided tour of the remarkable Free Speech Debate website - a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom. Director Timothy Garton Ash, whose brainchild it is, is to be my guide. He and his team of experts and graduate students from all over the world are nearly six months into the project and approaching the end of its first phase.

I had attended the launch in January, when the hall had been packed, its twitter feed up and running on a huge screen, and its Director clearly inspired by the opportunities for global free expression represented by the four billion “neighbours” newly connected online or by mobile phones in today’s world. I had much enjoyed listening to guest speaker, Jimmy Wales, justify blacking out Wikipedia the day before in protest at the two anti-piracy bills then going through the US Congress – a highly successful protest in which openDemocracy had participated. Shirin Ebadi, who was not able to be there in person, sent an inspiring message about not criminalising ‘hate speech’ but the need nevertheless for people to respect the dearly-held religious and other beliefs of others. It seemed clear that the project was off to a good start…

My host is swift to point out that a great deal of preparation had already taken place before this “huge experiment” consisting of a platform for the open debate of free speech in 13 languages was ready for the off: “Had this been a marathon we were already on mile ten having got the whole thing up ready for the moment of the launch.” The “whole thing” he is referring to is not just the challenge of how to construct a multilingual website which makes you think “generally accessible and attractive” – a challenge the Free Speech Debate shares with openDemocracy and maybe one of the reasons why I’ve been invited. There is also the small matter of the ten principles.

This project, at its most ambitious, revolves around the enunciation of ten limit conditions for global free speech which the peoples of the world, now that they are neighbours, might agree upon as the way forward – that is, if they weren’t engaged in fighting off all sorts of rearguard actions in their respective national cultures, in particular from authoritarian states determined to combat the effects of newly permeable frontiers. So these principles are draft universal principles to which we are all invited to subscribe, and the first phase is aimed at mapping the major disagreements with them which exist in different parts of the world, and also the quite large areas of possible consensus. These ‘norms’, not so long ago still determined by sovereign powers, are now increasingly defined by private powers such as Google and Facebook, and by the unstoppable exchange between people across cultures, languages, religions and national silos.

To start their conversation, the Free Speech Debate brought together over many months not only free speech experts, as you might expect, but also lawyers, philosophers, theologians, journalists, and netizens. The ten draft universal principles they thrashed out were then subjected to the further scrutiny of a team of thirty Oxford research students who between them speak as many of the world’s languages, bringing their different cultural expectations and reactions to the table. On the easily navigable website, young women with alert faces, from India, China and Pakistan, women who wear the hijab, a leader of the green movement in Iran who has stopped wearing the hijab, are now introduced to me as guarantors of diversity. At the same time the call went out for more underlying principles if anyone can think of them, and this was all before the first phase - of contestation - had begun.

So my guided walk begins with a closer look at some of these. Principle number one, for example – “We - all human beings - must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.”  This is a simplified version, in the “We” form, of Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as elaborated in Article 19 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which most countries in the world have signed up to if not ratified. But Timothy Garton Ash draws my attention to a significant difference, 

“ This says that we must be free and able – and that is new and opens up the whole debate about what it means to be able to express ourselves. So in one of the case-studies for this principle we have Tim Berners-Lee who says that while access to the internet is not in itself a human right, it is a precondition, as it were, for the enjoyment of that right, a pretty good example of the able part of the story. The same argument can be applied to the precondition of an enabling education, and also extends, for example, to the question of language. How can you have freedom of expression if you are a Kurd in Turkey? ”

I wonder out loud how such concise principles can convey some of the more subtle mental entrapments that inhibit our freedoms in societies commonly accepted as law-abiding and relatively free. My host sees no problem:

“ That’s where the deceptively small phrase in Principle Three – “We require and create open, diverse media”- comes in. What does ‘open, diverse’ mean there? After all, if you had a discussion about freedom of expression which was purely about what the law allows or does not allow when it comes to ‘hate speech’ or even ‘violent intimidation’, you would miss out on the huge story of the role played by the media, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail  - and how certain views hardly get an airing or only in very small spaces in societies that pride themselves on their freedom of speech…”

He suggests that this carefully-crafted phrase goes way beyond classic human rights language in its implications, and not only for the developed world: “ Look at Rwanda, where you had Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines pumping out inflammatory broadcasts and no-one able to counter that effectively.”  

I should have known of course, the minute philosophers and theologians were mentioned, that one should put on one’s spectacles and attend to the minutiae. I have now got the message that every one of these words in the underlying principles counts. 

Phase One

After the launch, the team has set to work matching case studies to each of the principles, and opening up their controversial aspects. Examples are solicited from visitors to the website, and at weekly editorial meetings of anywhere between fifteen and thirty-five “absolutely wonderful students”, suggestions are filtered and successful cases duly commissioned and packed around their respective principles. I am shown the extensive list of case studies to date, but my host is particularly proud of the map of the same: “What distinguishes it at once is that there are still a lot from the west, but there are an awful lot from the non-west, and that is obviously crucial.” He insists that the openness of the project is a core feature: “I am very very genuine when I say that we are reaching towards a more universal universalism. We are actively looking for voices from other cultures, and then listening to what they have to say, however different it might be.” I, meanwhile, am impressed by the format for many of the case studies – a short video interview or statement, accompanied by a summary of the author’s opinion. These pack a great deal of food for thought and passion for argument into a small, very attractive space. Richard Stallman, we agree, is superb on camera.

Among the list of topics, ‘anonymity, blasphemy, civility, copyright, denialism, Facebook, genocide…’, one may detect a scattering of countries. Quite a few of them have been visited this year by Timothy Garton Ash as his contribution not only to generating the debate but also mapping it - a lightening tour of the world, talking about the project in Cairo, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Beijing, Berlin, the US, the UK, Poland… in a series of panel discussions held in order to try to understand what the issues are in place x or place y:

“Here is the discussion on ‘free speech at the heart of the Arab Spring’ in Arabic and English in Cairo, just off Tahrir Square, 150 yards away from the great place for Egyptian freedom of expression and the wall with grafitti: what should we be free to say?, what shouldn’t we be free to say?, can we criticise the army?, what can we say about Mohammed? – all these issues. She’s a journalist; he’s a blogger and human rights researcher; he’s another blogger and Khaled Fahmy is a historian. As so often, people started from their own local and absolutely immediate front line issues which they were most passionate about. And then you say, OK – but what is the underlying principle behind what you are saying: why allow this and ban that? – and then it gets very interesting… .” 

As indeed it does, over and over again - in Istanbul, where Halil Berktay calmly explains why the treatment of Armenians at the hands of Turks should be talked about as genocide, before recollecting a gathering of his old school mates where one of his school friends suddenly said, “ I remember my grandfather who was a butcher, putting on his butcher’s apron and going out to butcher Armenians…”. In India where MP’s across the political spectrum said they could agree with 90% of the content of the ten draft principles, but that none of them for one moment would endorse Principle 7 - “ We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief ” – as a viable limit condition. They all agreed that, “India works because everybody respects each others’ taboos – otherwise there would be total mayhem.” Some could be persuaded that one day insulting someone’s religion in India would no longer lead to murder. Others insisted that the true principle must be , “insult my religion and you insult me!” But all agreed Principle 7 as formulated was simply not on. 

It became interesting in Britain the moment that Mark Thompson, the then Director General of the BBC, conceded that he would not have given the go-ahead to airing a satire like ‘Jerry Springer, the Opera’ aimed at Islam rather than at some of the cultural habits of contemporary Christianity, eliciting a furore over respect for religion that no-one had expected, and that The Spectator greeted with the natty headline, “Should Christians kill Mark Thompson?”

The big challenges 

One of the conclusions that Timothy Garton Ash draws from these travels is that different societies will have their one or two significant differences in approach which he thinks of in terms of, “what you get het up about”.  Thus, “Obviously, in the Muslim world, it really is religion. But equally in China it’s absolutely not about religion – except for the special case of the Falun Gong – but issues like what’s banned in the name of national security or public order are very salient indeed.”

There is something that strikes me as overly neat about this. But it is exactly the schematic precision and clarity of purpose with which he zooms in on his many varied interviewees that makes for the revealing, crystalline discussion-openers that ornament the site. He seems to know what he’s after better than they do themselves. Have a listen, for example to the moment when Garton Ash puts the ‘killer question’ to Mark Thompson in the interview cited above: “Would the BBC have broadcast Jerry Springer if it had been about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad?" The minute he says it, whether or not it is the case, one feels as if we have been circling towards this point all along.  I begin to be interested in the moments in his journey which have most taken my host by surprise, and discover that this is one of them: 

“When we set up, the typical remark would be, ‘I look forward to your fatwa…’  - everyone thought Islam and religion was going to be the great controversy. And sure enough there was quite a lot of controversy about religion. But unlike ten years ago - with 9/11 - or twenty years ago with the Rushdie affair - first of all, people have been around that issue so many times. Secondly the Arab Spring really does change the context in the sense that I could have that discussion just off Tahrir Square and all their issues could be aired. But I also think in our domestic debates in western society it has become much more nuanced and differentiated, and there are lots of Muslim voices… I think the way the debate about Islam has moved on is very encouraging.  So interestingly, the biggest controversy around religion was not about Islam but it was about Mark Thompson saying that it wasn’t just the threat of violence that made him treat Islam differently from Christianity, but also because Muslims in Britain are a vulnerable minority and discriminated against for other reasons, and, ‘by the way, I, Mark Thompson as a practising Catholic understand how they feel because religious feelings are like this…’ ”

Again I sense some loose ends. None of the storm that broke out around Mark Thompson’s unsuspecting head seems to me to have adequately addressed his point that it is, “very different to talk about Christianity in the UK, which literally but also metaphorically is an established part of the political landscape, compared to religions which have a very close identity with ethnic minorities, so that it is not as if Islam is randomly spread across the UK population, but rather almost entirely practised by people who might already feel isolated in other ways, prejudiced against and where they may well regard an attack on their religion as ‘racism by other means’.”

How much, I wonder, has been truly resolved in the issues that underpin the Islam debate?  For my host, Principle 7 is holding up well: in civilised countries one should be able to make jokes, even bad jokes, about all beliefs, as long as one respects the believer. 

In his view, were you to take an overview, the real challenge now is China:

“China, which is after all not a small case, stands out as a fundamentally different approach, because you can see that the premise of the whole project is: ‘Let’s have a conversation about what should be universal norms and what should be determined locally…’ But if your starting point is, ‘There is no point in having that conversation: you do it your way – we do it ours’ – then that in one sense is one example of the challenge of China’s emergence in the international system. What I would say is that China is testing the proposition that a powerful determined state can erect a new kind of wall and control the internet in various subtle ways, and it’s just, but only just hanging on.” 

Visiting Beijing, Garton Ash couldn’t officially go and give a lecture at the university on free speech,“You wouldn’t have expected to find many takers for that - it would be too controversial.” He could talk about it in interviews in the context of China and the west. Lots of the interviewers were keen: the students were very interested, “I gave a reading in a bookshop where people were very interested. I did an interview on sina weibo, which is a microblogging site – there is enormous seepage and enormous popular appetite.”

I am not very surprised that China is ungenerous towards ‘western universalism’, even one aspiring to be a universal universalism. There is no doubt plenty more to be said about the very complicated grey zone marking the boundary between what can be said and what cannot in China, and the ways in which this grey zone is itself in the interests of the state.  I find myself wondering how unusual the Chinese Government is in wanting to keep control over the rules, a suspicion fortified in reading a fine piece recommended to me by Garton Ash on China’s impact on Africa’s media world by Iginio Gagliardone, in which the author finds that: 

“while significant attention has been focused on China’s role in providing tools to autocratic regimes to control citizens and filter content, it is companies based in the west that still dominate this market. Software produced in North America continues to be the cyber-weapon of choice for many authoritarian regimes trying to censor the Internet, and it is a programme produced in Dublin, not in Beijing, that has been recently used by the Syrian government to disrupt SMS used by demonstrators to mobilise.” 

But time waits for no man, and while we are trying to work out these complexities, another crunch issue is looming. One of the biggest issues now, according to my host, is whether Facebook will go into China: “Facebook is obviously hugely tempted by the scale of the Chinese market. But also frightened, and I think rightly so, of the reputational damage, because in effect they would be helping the Chinese state to learn a very great deal about the private lives of a lot of their citizens.  We had a meeting with a very interesting and articulate guy who is Facebook’s European head of public policy, Richard Allan, and he recognises the dangers of it. In my own mind, I would come down against. Everyone talks about arms embargoes, but in a way, Facebook in China is as big an issue.” 

This, Garton Ash continues, illustrates another major challenge which runs through the whole site: “something we capture in the second principle when we talk about ‘illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers’ - that in this online world, Google is more important than Germany and Facebook is more important than France. What these big private players do is just hugely important and there is a vast democratic deficit there.” 

A cornucopia 

So what has the Free Speech Debate achieved so far? Three months into the first phase, its experts gathered to check their draft principles against the criticisms they had invited and provoked. This was their opportunity to learn. Had fresh winds blown into the academy and rocked a few assumptions? Not at first sight. The ten draft principles looked pretty intact. But I sensed that this was the time for me to put my spectacles back on, and so it transpired. Closer inspection disclosed two entirely new references to ‘freedom of information’ in Principles One and Ten, and the addition of a reference to intellectual property in the latter, “We must be free to challenge all limits to freedom of expression and information justified on such grounds as national security, public order, morality and the protection of intellectual property.” (my italics)

These were “quite small changes”, my guide agreed. But as he explained the reasoning behind them, they began to look more like the first, precious fruits of openness to the world at large. Freedom of information had emerged from several of the suggestions on the ‘suggest a principle’ page. The experts had been convinced that as a limit condition this was of major importance both to developing countries, “where knowing where the money has gone is an important part of that story”, and “in unfree countries.” They had been persuaded by a Chinese contributor who pointed out that if governments are obliged to publish certain information, then you can’t get locked up so easily for treason or subversion simply for discussing that information. 

And intellectual property? Well, the internet revolution in the post-Gutenburg world had been one of two originating impulses behind the entire project, the other being the question of how to accommodate Muslims in Europe, which has turned out to be just one of the myriad questions of freedom and diversity that arise from our all getting much more mixed up together. But everyone working on the project had been surprised that so many people, so many netizens, have become so active on the issues of intellectual property. As Timothy Garton Ash put it to me: 

“I’m not sure that I’d have anticipated that a year or two ago. If you look at the free speech literature it is not up there as one of the great classics – thinking about copyright and intellectual property. But the salience of the issue of intellectual property both in North America with SOPA and PIPA and in Europe with ACTA, where the social mobilisation is in many ways as remarkable – these were the biggest mass mobilisations on free speech issues of the lot. It is probably one of the biggest mass movements in Poland in the last ten years - not Russia or Christianity or independence, or any of the classic issues. And one of the possible reasons is precisely that – that here you have a younger generation of Poles. It clearly is a huge and mobilising issue.” 

Hence the six words added to Principle 10. The question did arise of whether an 11th principle on intellectual property was required. In fact there was a two-day debate about it. There was even a possibility that Principles 8 & 9 could have been combined into one, leaving a tenth principle free for a new occupant: “We worked out a way of combining privacy and reputation - 8 &9 - in one principle. So if anyone comes up in the course of the debate with a real stunner which we really feel is really important – we can do it.”  It was a close call. But in the end it was decided (no matter how many people went out onto the Polish streets) that the genuine balancing act between intellectual property and free speech was no more nor less than that – and did not justify being enshrined in a stand-alone dictum. 

Suddenly I understood something Timothy Garton Ash had said right at the beginning of our tour, in trying to explain the significance, the drama - really - of having a platform of this kind for the open debate of free speech based in a university. “You are constantly trying to combine expertise and openness, and right through the whole project that runs as a theme,” he said. Hence his warm admiration for Wikipedia – “a remarkable example of this completely open model… but then quality control.”

I am assailed, on the one hand, by the vision of Oxford professors in some Senior Common Room, pouring over the riddle of how to fit 11 dancing principles onto ten pinheads; and on the other, by the sheer vertiginous unpredictability of the world out there.  I have some sympathy with my good friend Kirsty Hughes, of the Index on Censorship, who at a Frontline Club discussion on whether it is time for a global conversation on free speech asked, “Do we need a global code?” 

In an unequal world, might it not become just another hostage to top-down manipulation? Couldn’t we, indeed, wouldn’t we be more likely to be involved in an ongoing, maybe even gathering, global conversation about freedom of speech where a series of political compromises are fought out in relation to specific conflicts, and where diverse voices continue to explore and express the pros and cons of different ways of moving towards that elusive ideal ?

Garton Ash argues that this mapping venture allows us to stand back from whatever our local issues are, and to ask ourselves and each other, “OK – so what do I think should be genuinely universal and the liberal minimum on which there is no compromise – and even if there are an awful lot of people in country ‘x’ who think differently – I still want to insist upon it. Then I can turn to what is a reasonable area of compromise… ” But will people, and not just the Chinese Government, ever be willing to play by the rules of the game put quite like this? What would have happened to the ten draft principles, if instead of having the experts conduct the three monthly review, they had been handed over to the research students from the corners of the world, or to the team at Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia, or wholesale to the comments spaces on the Free Speech Debate website, to be picked over as the subjects of an open conversation? Would it have mattered had we ended up with 43 or 430 principles with many local adaptations, as long as we had understood ourselves and each other better? What exactly does expertise and authority, consensus, even truth, contribute to this process of different people learning how to live side by side more effectively – which is what the search for justice in the world has come to be about?

The fact is, we need all the opportunities for self-enlightenment that we can get. Having visited the Free Speech Debate I can formulate my question in a slightly different way, asking who and what is best equipped to help the peoples of the world to be sufficiently free and able to rise to these challenges? I have learnt a lot in a most enjoyable way, (not least about my own opinions). And I will no doubt learn much more from future visits to what Timothy Garton Ash alternatively describes as a “huge exhibition hall, or a multi-hour performance, or a multilanguage library – a cornucopia.” 

My guide, who has been more than generous with his time and his expertise, has of course been thinking this through as well, and comes up with an intriguingly dialectical reformulation: “ I think I said at the outset that the line between expertise and openness is the trick – the trick being not, as many people imagine, that you have to have a single line here with expertise at one end and openness at the other, and you simply take a point somewhere in the middle of the line – but the trick being, how you manage to combine the two.”

Let’s face it - there will be a global debate, and power will be involved in the business of managing our changing norms as we find ourselves juggling new freedoms and diversities. One would rather have an influential process from which everyone learns. Moreover, any code which includes Principle 6: “We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation” has my eternal devotion, regardless of whether or not it takes the form of a liberal minimum. This is the only mode of survival I can imagine for a world of neighbours, and as a debate or as a credo, I can only hope Principle 6 will spread itself far and wide.  

About the author

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy.


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