September 2008

The ongoing threat to international free speech

Regular visitors to this blog will (I hope) be aware of attempts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to enshrine a special status for Islam into international law. There is also an ongoing controversy over efforts by the same group to ensure that “religious defamation” is banned during discussion at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 60 in December and many Islamic countries are taking upon themselves to declare it unacceptable, preferring instead their own 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam which attempts to limit freedom of speech by insisting that opinions should be expressed in such a manner “as would not be contrary to the principles of the shariah.”

Every year since 1999 the OIC has succeeded in passing a resolution on Combating the Defamation of Religions in the Human Rights Council (HRC), and in March this year an amendment was passed which means the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression (an individual supposed to report instances where free speech is stifled in UN member states) to report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.

Over the past year, a number of non-religious organisations and Western governments have begun to wake up to what is happening, and concern has been expressed widely that the OIC are trying to introduce a prohibition against blasphemy sanctioned by international law. With this in mind, Im thankful to the New Humanist for pointing me in the direction of a report which has been written by Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske.

Islam and Human Rights (pdf) has been produced for the Center for Inquiry and analyses the issue in detail, discusses the dangers posed for free speech and offers recommendations for the HRC.

The conclusion of the report is worth repeating:

It is clear that if the ideals of the Universal Declaration are to be realized, nations and peoples committed to human rights must take it upon themselves to reverse the present trends toward the compartmentalization of rights and censorship of free speech. Therefore, we join with many civil society organizations around the world in opposing the Islamic human rights movement and denouncing the unnecessary, unwise, and immoral developments at the United Nations Human Rights Council and the restrictions on freedom of expression being entertained by the General Assembly.

The noble purpose of the International Bill of Rights and the United Nations is not to close any one matter off from discussion within society, but to open all societies to free, public discussion of every matter. Liberal rights are not guaranteed; we must constantly defend them against those who would trade our liberties for security, order, control, or conformity. A common standard of achievement, and not special cultural or religion rights, is the best guarantor of equal freedom and mutual respect.

The full report is well worth reading and can be downloaded by clicking here.

Animated self censorship

Based on the graphic novel by Claus Deleuran, Rejsen Til Saturn (Journey to Saturn) tells the tale of what happens when a Danish crew of misfits travel in space to find natural gas. The film is due to be released on Friday and promises a fart and belch fuelled lampoon of a whole host of political and religious beliefs. Except one (via).

The one Muslim character in the film has been exempted from any religious satire because the director was concerned about his own, and his familys, safety.

Its unfortunately been impossible to make fun of the Muslims religion. I think we make many jabs at the person Jamil in the film, but its correct that were not touching his belief.  Its simply too sensitive an area, that I cant take the responsibility to get involved.  I certainly need to think of both my family and my workplace.  Im not a fighter, and I dont like to have raging Muslims knocking on my door, says Thorbjørn Christoffersen.

I 100% support that people should be able to make fun of everything.  but this is not about special consideration for Muslims, its about consideration for myself and my family, says the director.

Brian Mikkelsen, Denmarks Justice Minister – and former Culture Minister – has expressed sadness at this:

Its sad it its become so that individual artists censure themselves out of fear of religious fanatics.  We have in Dnemark a strong and good tradition of satire, also in connection with religious subjects.  And we should hold fast to it.”

From the trailer, the film does look like it could be a lot of fun. It is a shame, though – to put it mildly – that the people behind the film should feel threathened into holding back.

Guzzanti avoids Pope joke prosecution

The Italian Minister of Justice said on Thursday that he had refused a request by the public prosecutor in Rome for permission to charge the comedienne and satirist Sabina Guzzanti with insulting the Pope.

The joke was cracked, in July, during a rally that was called to protest against alleged interference by the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Italian affairs. Guzzanti said that while in 20 years all teachers in Italy will be vetted by the Vatican, “In 20 years Ratzinger will be dead and will end up in hell, tormented by queer demons - not passive ones, but very active ones.”

Under the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican, an offence to the pontiff carries the same weight as an offence to the Italian head of state, with a penalty of up to five years in prison. However prosecution requires the go ahead from the Justice Ministry.

Justice Minister, Angelino Alfano, said he had decided not to proceed with a prosecution as Guzzanti had accepted full responsibility for her remarks, and he saw no point in adding further fire to the flames.

Fatwa Envy

Protestant pastor, Clemens Bittlinger is a gentle-voiced singing clergyman who wrote and performed a song mildly critical of the Pope.

The songs title is Oh man, Benedikt, a walk with the Pope, and asks two or three questions because theres a lot I dont understand.

Why do you revile other Christians? its lyrics ask. Why are you openly looking for a fight, saying: Yours is not a church. You ban condoms, even for the poor of this world. So you encourage the spread of AIDS even if you do not like it. Meanwhile you abandon limbo for babies who havent been baptised. Did you seriously believe that the Lord had something like that in the first place?

And the inevitable hate mail and threats have poured in (via), causing enough concern that Bittlinger is now receiving police protection.

“You dirty protestant pig, I shit on you and your dirty songs,” read one note.

“When a newspaper prints a Mohammed cartoon, entire cities burn, read another. But when the Holy Father is ridiculed in blasphemy, we are supposed to just accept that? No, not like that Mr. Bittlinger – you will surely receive the justice you deserve.”

Its was inevitable that the insane overreaction to the Muhammed cartoons would encourage other religious groups to adopt an equally aggressive stance towards perceived slights.

Nigerian TV station shut down

Nigerian TV station, Channels TV has been shut down, and six of its managers arrested, after it broadcast a hoax report claiming the president would step down due to his poor health.

The report was attributed to the News Agency of Nigeria (Nan). The agency has denied that the report came from them and said a false e-mail address had been used.

According to Channels TV:

The armed state security personnel got into  the master control room and ordered men at the control room to stop  transmitting and sent every one they found to the Station’s News room.

Members of staff, clients and innocent  bystanders were held hostage in the Newsroom for about three hours.

The News agency claimed that [the story] must have  been the handiwork of impersonators who they said sent out the message in their  name.

Channels also promptly reported the refutal  by the Presidential spokesman Mr. Segun Adeniyi who described the report as a  blunderous lie. The refutal was aired within minutes of the earlier scrolled  news report.

The same SSS treatment was meted out to the  Channels staff in our Abuja station. The security men arrested six top members  of staff and four are still being held in the SSS offices in both Lagos and  Abuja.

Rumours have surrounded the presidents health and his ability to do the job for some time. He has twice been flown to Germany for emergency medical treatment in the last 18 months and, last month, went to a hospital in Saudi Arabia for treatment.

Saudi judge calls for murder of satellite channel owners

Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan, 79, chief of the Saudi Arabias highest tribunal, the supreme judiciary council, has issued a fatwa (via) authorising the murder of owners of satellite TV networks that broadcast bad programmes.

The judge was answering listeners questions during a radio programme in which he and other clerics make rulings on what is permissible under Islamic law. One caller asked about Islams view on satellite TV channels that broadcast bad programmes during Ramadan.

What does the owner of these networks think, when he provides seduction, obscenity and vulgarity? said Al-Lihedan. Those calling for corrupt beliefs, certainly its permissible to kill them. Those calling for sedition, those who are able to prevent it but dont, it is permissible to kill them.

Al-Lihedan did not specify particular channels in his judgment but one of the most viewed Arab satellite networks is Rotana, which broadcasts films and music videos. It is owned by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman and member of the Saudi royal family. Several other networks are owned by Saudi princes.

Matthias Rath fails to censor Bad Science

Ben Goldacre of the Bad Science blog has, for the past year, been fighting a libel case brought by “alternative medicine” quack Matthias Rath who made a fortune by lying to AIDS sufferers in order to sell his pointless vitamin supplements. The case has now been settled in Goldacres favour.

This is great news for Goldacre, of course, but its also an important victory for medical journalism, as this article from The Quackometer points out:

Ben Goldacre had been documenting the horrors in South Africa in the Guardian. Rath decided to sue. The result has been that the Guardian has been unable to discuss the calamities in South Africa for about a year now. Rath had managed to effectively silence one of his chief critics. One can speculate that Rath thought that the Guardian would not defend one of their non-staff minor columnists, but to their credit, they did. Rath has failed and he now faces a mammoth legal bill. The Guardians bill was £500,000. His own must have been similar.

Using the law to silence critics is a typical cowardly quacks trick.

Freedom of speech matters, more so in medicine than many other areas, and when some peddler of pills is accused of not having the evidence to support their claims then they should either produce the evidence or admit that their claims are untrue. If said peddler reaches for a libel writ, it is generally safe to assume not only that their claims are untrue, but they are also fully aware that their claims are untrue.

Malaysia blogger arrested

Raja Petra Kamarudin, a prominent internet campaigner was arrested on Friday amid a crackdown on dissent. The blogger is being held under the countrys controversial Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial.

His arrest comes a day after the countrys army chief warned people not to make remarks that could damage race relations. Raja Petra is accused of posting an article that insulted Islam.

He was detained by police at his home near Kuala Lumpur, two weeks after his anti-government website Malaysia Today was closed down. The countrys Interior Minister, Syed Hamid Albar, claimed that he had been arrested because his writings somehow posed a threat to national security.

The detention has sparked fears that the freedom to publish online currently enjoyed by Malaysians is about to end. Within hours of Raja Petras detention, an ethnic Chinese journalist was reportedly arrested and a wider crackdown is feared.

Pope joke prosecution heralds “a return to the Middle Ages”

Italian comedienne, Sabina Guzzanti is facing up to five years in jail (via) for for cracking a joke about the Pope. Addressing a Rome rally in July – that was called to protest against alleged interference by the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Italian affairs – Guzzanti said that while in 20 years all teachers in Italy will be vetted by the Vatican, In 20 years Ratzinger will be dead and will end up in hell, tormented by queer demons - not passive ones, but very active ones.

She is now facing prosecution under the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican, which stipulates that an insult to the Pope carries the same penalty as an insult to the Italian President.

Many people have been strongly critical of the move, including Paolo Guzzanti, Ms Guzzantis father and a centre Right MP who said the move was a return to the Middle Ages”.

Antonio Di Pietro, a senator and former anti-corruption magistrate, who organised the rally, said that Ms Guzzanti had only exercised her constitutional right to freedom of thought.

You can agree or not agree with what she said — and personally I didnt — but to put people in prison for what they think is reminiscent of a time when those who thought differently had castor oil poured down their throats — a reference to the Fascist era, when the Laterna Treaty was enacted.

Fear of fatwas

The Bookseller (via) is reporting that a feature-length documentary marking the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Satanic Verses and the fatwa on author Sir Salman Rushdie is struggling to persuade some of those involved in the original publication to take part.

The Guardian quotes a publishing source as saying: “Most of the core people involved feel very strongly even today that they should keep quiet on any matters relating to The Satanic Verses and that it was enough that the hardcover [of the book] was kept in print throughout.”