Is freedom of speech under fire in 2015?
The new year was only a week old when two Muslim gunmen, said to be members of the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda, rained up to 50 shots on the offices of the publication Charlie Hebdo last Jan 7. Twelve were killed, including a Muslim policeman, and 11 others were injured.
The magazine was notorious for its satirical cartoons and articles mocking Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, and other faiths, as well as right-wing politics and culture, as part of its secularist agenda.
The global media community immediately took sides. Many, espousing freedom of speech and human rights, used as their slogan “Je suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie,” a show of support that bridged languages and culture.
The incident was a takeoff point for the renewed discourse on free speech, what it means, what it involves, and what its limits are. Also part of the conversation is the role of the journalist (whether writer, cartoonist, artist, or photographer) – is it to merely report the news? Dissect and analyze the news? Create news?
Freedom of speech and freedom of thought and religion are held to be inalienable rights under many legal and moral codes. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in its preamble, looks forward to a world where people “shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want.”
The 1987 Philippine Constitution says in Section 4: “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press…”
However, the reality is that in many parts of the world freedom of speech is suppressed and harshly punished.
Such cases that gained high profile this year include that of Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger and founder of the secular website Free Saudi Liberals.
He was almost sentenced by a court to die, but eventually received 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, a flogging of 50 lashes to take place every Friday until the entire sentence is carried out. His crime? “Insulting Islam.”
He has received the first set of lashes, and the second has been postponed for medical reasons. Some sources believe that the punishment will eventually kill him.
Another case that came to the fore early this month is that of artist and activist Carlos Celdran. In 2010, while advocating for the passage of the controversial Reproductive Health bill, he interrupted a Mass at Manila Cathedral dressed in 19th century clothing and holding up a sign reading “Damaso,” a nod to the reprobate priest in Jose Rizal’s first novel.
Celdran, through Facebook, asked Pope Francis to intercede in his case by “[having] a word with the bishops of the Philippines” in line with the pontiff’s “message of forgiveness, reason, and tolerance,” as he posted on his Facebook page on Jan. 6.
Convicted by a lower court for violating Article 133 of the Philippine penal code – “offending religious feelings” – a decision upheld last December by the Court of Appeals, Celdran will take his case to the Supreme Court. He and other free speech activists are advocating for a repeal of Art. 133 as unconstitutional.
The pope has not responded to Celdran, but his take on the Charlie Hebdo case was that there are limits to the exercise of free speech. He compared the mocking of religion to insulting someone’s mother – “he can expect a punch.”
“You cannot provoke,” he added. “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
But that is precisely the point of freedom of speech. It includes the right to ridicule other’s assumptions, opinions, actions, and beliefs, as part of society’s continued and unending construction and re-construction of itself.
What lifts up such expressions from the gutter is the intention and motivation.
The actions of the Charlie Hebdo staffers, Badawi, and Celdran explore the ramifications of the writer’s role as “righter” – righter of wrongs and abuses, exposer of scandals and crimes, fighter for truth and justice.
The press, considered the “fourth estate” vis-à-vis the medieval societal forces of clergy, nobility, and commoners, has the undefined but accepted responsibility to act as society’s check-and-balance by revealing abuses and oppression and advocating for positive change for the benefit of the people.
Freedom of speech, by its very nature as a “freedom,” requires that it be unlimited in terms of content to ensure the fullest discussion of a diversity of issues and opinions. Offended by something? Don’t watch or read it. Those who react to someone pushing buttons give that person power over them.
A writer, however, must also weigh common sense and prudence against the desire or need to exercise freedom of speech and action. There must be awareness of the implications upon others and self, as well as the risks involved in escalating levels from destruction of friendships to lawsuits to loss of life.
What all these cases have proven, as have others throughout history, is that the pen still cuts finer and deeper than any sword, and that it is a power to be wielded with integrity, otherwise it becomes, itself, an abuse.
*** Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Blog: http://jennyo.net