Timothy Garton Ash, the director of Free Speech Debate
London – Arabstoday
An event was held last night at London’s Frontline Club in Paddington, entitled: ‘Is it time for a Global conversation on Free Speech?’
The speakers at the event included:
Timothy Garton Ash, the director of Free Speech Debate, a multi-lingual online platform for discussing freedom of expression, who is also a professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford.
Marie Gillespie, professor of Sociology at The Open University and co-director of the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change.
Khaled Fahmy, professor and chair of the American University in Cairo\'s Department of History.
Kirsty Hughes, the chief executive of Index on Censorship, which is an international freedom of expression non-governmental organisation.
Timothy Garton Ash started off by stating that we now live in a world where, essentially we are ‘all neighbours’ as two billion of us are connected online, while another two billion are connected via mobile phones. He argued that as a result, old ways of free speech have by and large broken down. However he stated that this is not the case for all nations, as Iran and China still try to control online activity.
He added that as a result of a huge rise in online discussion, connectivity, the need to have new guidelines for on-line co-existence become essential.
Garton Ash added that private power, ie online activity or membership of an online network such as Facebook, is in a sense more powerful than a country such as France. He argued this by saying that this was due to the fact that in the online world, people govern themselves and communities set their own rules.
Garton Ash also presented his \'Free Speech Debate\', which is a multi-lingual online platform for discussing freedom of expression. He focused on the 10 draft principles of the publication, stating the points that looked at key areas of freedom of expression, as well as mentioning that the pamphlet is published in 13 languages, but that these 13 languages cover a reach of more than 80 percent of the world’s online community.
Regarding principle 7 of his online pamphlet, he questions how we discuss religion, asking \'do we respect the believer but not the content of the belief?\' Garton Ash related that when he brought this issue up with a group of Indian MP’s, asking if it could work in India, he got a universal ‘no’. According to Garton Ash, the Indian MP’s argued that it would never work due to the fact that this question comes across as an insult to the Hindu’s core belief tenets, thus if these issues are insulted, then their belief systems are also insulted.
Garton Ash also spoke of structured inequalities online, stating that most of the content written about and debated, comes from the US and Western Europe. Referring to article 19 of his publication:: “we- all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to receive and impact ideas, regardless of frontiers”.
Khaled Fahmy, spoke of the media\'s openness which made the Egyptian revolution possible, stating that the opening up of the media, including independent print and TV 8 years ago, was critical in opening Egyptian’s eyes to the inequalities and injustices going on around them. Fahmy stated that the Egyptian revolution was not a revolution of the poor and hungry, but a revolution of open access to information.
He backed this up by mentioning Khaled Said, the detained and murdered blogger and activist who became an icon for the revolution and a rallying cry on Facebook.
Fahmy went on to say that the main threat to freedom of expression and information in Egypt is the military, who use the excuse of national security to quash any potential bill dealing with freedom of expression.
However, Fahmy, in response to an audience member\'s criticism of the debate as being too intellectual and that the vast majority of people have more pressing issues such as food, water and survival, Fahmy agreed and pointed out that Mubarak told the Egyptian people that freedom of expression was a luxury, and that they needed to worry about more important issues such as food and health. Khaled Fahmy even made a funny analogy, naming certain Salafists in Cairo who are tech savy and congregate in modern premises such as Costa Coffee, as \'Costa Salafists\'. It is interesting to point out that Salafists are a hardline sect Islam, who adhere to a very pure and strict version of the Qur\'an.
Marie Gillispie spoke about the relationship between big and small media. She also argued that it is more difficult to engage people thoroughly in social media, as most online discussions were monologues and not dialogues. She argued that structures and inequalities are replicated and even intensified online, raising the question “who is talking to who, and who is listening?”
Gilliepie also said that online criticism is part of everyday free speech.
Kirsty Hughes, spoke of freedom of expression as a fundamental right but questioned how this compares in an international setting. She highlighted the point that Fahmy made, that national security and public disorder are often used as an excuse to shut down freedom of expression. She highlighted the case of Turkey, which is often lauded in the West as a role model for democracy in the region, pointing out that Turkey still imprisons and arrests journalists.
Hughes also questioned whether we want the internet to be regulated, pointing out filters already do this, and companies such as Facebook are already privatising freedom of expression through their settings.
She added that we tend to forget the vast majority of people who are excluded from this online debate, such as the poor, illiterate, minorities and others.
She concluded by saying that we don’t need a global code for freedom of expression as we already have a universal declaration of human rights. However she argued that there is a need to fight to promote freedom of expression, challenging firewalls and online censorship. Hughes also stated that society as a whole has become too politically correct and as a result moving towards tolerance, respect and shutting down debates and discussions.
Garton Ash summed up the debate by saying that as society lives in a world that is more interconnected and with more opinions, as a result society should be more thick-skinned to different opinions, take it with a pinch of salt, as well as take on the different ideas and beliefs out there.