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Friday, April 19, 2024

Freedom of expression comes with responsibility

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No world faith could or would justify the inexcusable shooting of journalists at Charlie Hebdo and the individuals shopping in the Jewish supermarket in Paris. 

But was the response by millions of people, led by world leaders in some cases of questionable integrity, in Paris and in other countries around the world entirely appropriate?


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It seemed that the two predominant motives for these marches were firstly and rightly solidarity with the people who had been murdered and their families, and secondly the defence of ‘Freedom of Speech’.


I am daily thankful for living in a country where we have the freedom to express our beliefs and our opposition to others’ beliefs whether political, social or religious. This freedom is the foundation of democracy. A truly democratic society is one in which people can openly challenge Government policy and kick that Government out at the next election if they disagree with and disapprove of its policies. In the UK there is every chance that our current Conservative Government will be voted out in May.

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But surely with freedom comes responsibility and with freedom comes the need for a legal framework within which that freedom operates. Is it justifiable for a magazine to print material which is gratuitously offensive to millions of people and is not even humorous and in the final analysis is about selling copy?


In 1992 I was in Berlin for a conference on international community partnerships, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the unification of East and West Germany. I was chatting to an East German journalist at the conference and asked him how it felt for young people in East Germany to be free at last. His response was immediate. “Freedom is great! The problem is that our young people don’t know how to use that freedom.”


Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. 


Article 19 additionally states that these rights carry “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions  e.g. in expressions of hate or pornography”.  Surely there should be an ongoing universal debate about where the boundaries to the right to freedom lie. 


Different societies are constantly changing and at different rates, not least through the extraordinary global migration of people from different cultures and different faiths. If you had told my Grandfather in 1910 that within a century London would be the sixth largest French city in the world, that only 35% of the population of London would be white British and the Muslim population of England would be 3 million, he would not have believed you.


Therefore surely it behoves us all to recognise that what is freedom of speech to one person can mean gross offense to another and the only way to overcome this is by properly engaging with each other in the recognition that we all belong to one human family in which there are differences in the colour of our skin, our social means and our political or religious beliefs. Without that engagement there can never be a true understanding of “other” or the opportunity for reflection on our own society, personal beliefs, faith etc. And without that reflection and understanding there is the risk of unquestioning, dogmatic belief leading to extremism.


If there had been proper engagement with, understanding of and support for the environment and society in which these criminals who created mayhem and murder in the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket  in Paris were operating, maybe they would not have committed these crimes. While condemning their activities, do we not have a responsibility to ask the question “what were the contributing factors that produced such outrageous behaviour?” 


Nick Maurice is the founder and president  of Gunjur Marlborough Link


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