Western hypocrisy over free speech


“Je Suis Confused” was American satirist Jon Stewart’s response to the news that

the French black comedian Dieudonne had been arrested for posting on his Facebook page

: “Je Suis Charlie Coulibaly”. Coulibaly was killed by Police after he had murdered four Jewish men in the kosher supermarket on January 9. Regarding objectionable Facebook posts, Stewart riposted: Isn’t that what the “unfriend” button is for?

Dave Zirin is another who exposed the “free speech” hypocrisy of the French government with this Twitter post: “France has arrested 54 people for offensive speech since Charlie Hebdo killings. In other news, French PM Hollande has outlawed irony.”

It’s important that we defend on-line free speech (including objectionable speech) as the pressure goes on Facebook not to provide, in David Cameron’s words,

a platform for terrorists


Instead we should treat the Facebook pages of political extremists, and the number of likes and friends they have, as something to be politically challenged, not criminalised.

At the root of the problem are opposed extremist currents responding to each other’s terror, feeding on each other’s murderous ideology and practice. For example, the governments of the United States, Britain, France and Israel

have bombed their adversaries in several Muslim nations

, killing and wounding many civilians in the process. Sometimes, out of the resultant despair comes a terrorist response, not only from within the affected Islamic communities but also from disaffected (and often marginalised) youth living in Western nations.

Rather than reconsider their military adventures in the Islamic world, the reflex Western response to terrorist incidents is to step up their own “terrorism” by increasing the number of air strikes – which is exactly what France did in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings. And so the vicious cycle of violence continues.

To treat terrorist incidents in the West as originating primarily from conspiracies by Isis or Al-Qaeda misses the main point.

Another problem with criminalising certain on-line posts is the inherent bias of Western governments, who will be the ones putting pressure on the Facebooks of the world. Such things as the US and Israeli drone strikes will never be considered terrorist, even though they strike fear into whole communities and kill so many innocent people. You have to be an adversary of America, or one of its allies, to be considered a terrorist.

To avoid any confusion, none of the above means that we shouldn’t continue to criminalise credible threats to the life of individual New Zealanders, whether by letter, email or posts on Facebook. Nor does it mean that the Human Rights Commission should stop its (generally non-punitive) work in challenging those who “excite hostility” towards a particular ethnic or religious group.