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.

Cross-border censorship

The Wall Street Journal (via) has picked up the previously mentioned news that a Jordanian court is prosecuting 12 Europeans, including Geert Wilders, in an extraterritorial attempt to silence the debate on radical Islam.

The prosecutor general in Amman charged the 12 with blasphemy, demeaning Islam and Muslim feelings, and slandering and insulting the prophet Muhammad in violation of the Jordanian Penal Code. The charges are especially unusual because the alleged violations were not committed on Jordanian soil.

Among the defendants is the Danish cartoonist whose alleged crime was to draw in 2005 one of the Muhammad illustrations that instigators then used to spark Muslim riots around the world. His co-defendants include 10 editors of Danish newspapers that published the images. The 12th accused man is Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who supposedly broke Jordanian law by releasing on the Web his recent film, Fitna, which tries to examine how the Quran inspires Islamic terrorism.

The article goes on to point out that, far from being an isolated case, this attempt at criminalising foreign free speech is part of a larger campaign to use the law and international forums to intimidate critics of militant Islam.

In December, the UN General Assembly passed the Resolution on Combating Defamation of Religions; the only religion mentioned by name was Islam. And, in June, the U.N. Human Rights Council said it would refrain from condemning human-rights abuses related to a particular religion.

The ban applies to all religions, but it was prompted by Muslim countries that complained about linking Islamic law, Shariah, to such outrages as female genital mutilation and death by stoning for adulterers. This kind of self-censorship could prove dangerous for people suffering abuse, and it follows the councils March decision to have its expert on free speech investigate individuals and the media for negative comments about Islam.

In the Jordanian case, the prosecutor is relying on a 2006 amendment to the Jordanian Justice Act – passed in response to the Muhammed Cartoons Controversy – that allows for the prosecution of individuals whose actions affect the Jordanian people by electronic means, such as the Internet. This amendment, in theory, means anyone who publishes on the Internet could be subject to prosecution in Jordan.

Obviously, neither Denmark nor the Netherlands are about to start turning over citizens over to face a charge as repressive as this one, and it is unlikely that any other Western democracy would either. But there is no such guarantee if any of the defendants travel to countries that are more sympathetic to the Jordanian court.

Unless democratic countries stand up to this challenge to free speech, other nations may be emboldened to follow the Jordanian example. Kangaroo courts across the globe will be ready to charge free people with obscure violations of other societies norms and customs, and send Interpol to bring them to stand trial in frivolous litigation.

A new form of forum shopping would soon take root. Activists would be able to choose countries whose laws and policies are informed by their religious values to prosecute critical voices in other countries. The case before the Jordanian court is not just about Mr. Wilders and the Danes. It is about the subjugation of Western standards of free speech to fear and coercion by foreign courts.

The sort of libel shopping that UK courts allow is bad enough. An offendedness market such as this would be much, much worse.

Olympic censorship

The International Olympic Committee filed (via) a copyright infringement claim yesterday against a YouTube video of a Free Tibet protest at the Chinese Consulate in Manhattan Thursday night.

The video depicts demonstrators conducting a candlelight vigil and projecting a protest video onto the consulate building. The the projection features recent footage of Tibetan monks being arrested as well as riffs on the Olympic logo, representing them as handcuffs.

Inevitably enough, YouTube pulled the video, but it can still be seen on Vimeo.

Redefining hatred

First they went for the breweries, and now Catholic pressure group Hazte Oir is objecting to the gay community. Specifically, they have filed a complaint (via) with Spain’s Attorney General this week against the organizers of a July 5 gay pride parade. Some of the participants, they claim, “dress up in clerical or religious garb” which they seem to think amounts to “inciting religious hatred”.

JoJo’s Bizarre Fatwa

A Japanese publisher has been forced to suspend sales (via) of a series of comics, and the related DVD series, after Muslims decided to take offence. At issue is a 90 second scene in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure in which, Dio Brando, a villain, picks up a copy of the Koran as he orders the execution of the hero and his friends.

After a viewer posted negative comments and the still scene on a web forum, others started jumping on the bandwagon until Sheikh Abdul Hamid Attrash, chairman of the Fatwa Committee at Al-Azha in Cairo, decided to step in and call the cartoon an insult to Islam.

‘‘This scene depicts Muslims as terrorists, which is not true at all,’’ he said. ‘‘This is an insult to the religion and the producers would be considered to be enemies of Islam.’’

According to Shueisha, the publisher, the scene was ‘‘a simple mistake.’’

‘‘Neither the original comic nor the animation intends to treat Muslims as villains. But as a result, the cartoon offended Muslims.’’ said the official. ‘‘We apologize for the unpleasantness that the cartoon may have caused and will carefully consider how to deal with religious and culture themes.’’

The official said one of animators came up with the idea of using an Arabic book in order to give the scene a more authentic feel as the villain was hiding out in Egypt.

With that in mind he went to the library and found a book, which turned out to be the Quran and inserted it. No one realized the mistake as no one could read or speak Arabic, the official said.

Of context and apologies are irrelevant in the face of an opportunity to be offended and there have been calls to boycott Japanese products.

Double standards at YouTube over Scientology

Two weeks ago YouTube deleted a 10,000-subscriber channel run by well-known Scientology critic Mark Bunker. The reason they gave for pulling Xenutv1 was that they had already axed Bunkers earlier account, Xenutv, for infringing a few copyrights. The Register points out:

YouTubes terms of service clearly say A user whose account has been terminated is prohibited from accessing, possessing or creating any other YouTube accounts.

But the worlds largest video sharer hasnt applied this rule to the brand new channel launched by Scientology itself - and trumpeted with an official Scientology press release. Like Bunker, Scientology had an earlier account erased after it violated site policy.

In March, the New York Post reported that Scientology launched a YouTube channel in an attempt to discredit members of Anonymous, the internet group intent on making life difficult for the cult. Dubbed the Scientology Official Report on Anonymous Hate Crimes, the channel identified individual members of the group, describing them as terrorists.

YouTube doesnt allow videos that broadcast personal information. And the account was suspended.

In a conversation with The Post, a Church spokesperson confirmed the organization was behind the channel. We absolutely made the videos, they said. We have researchers that have found these men. When you get death threats and bomb threats directly going after the church, we dont take it lightly.

A similar statement was made by a church minister speaking to The Battle Creek Enquirer after an alleged Anonymous bomb threat.

And now, in contravention of YouTubes terms of service, Scientology is back on the video sharing site. And not only are they back, they are also paying for ads on the site, looking to drive some traffic onto its new channel.

Not surprisingly, Mark Bunker is annoyed. I hope YouTube does the right thing, he said. It certainly looks like theres a double standard at work.

Motoons II: Man in cave issues threats

Bearded cave-dweller, Osama bin Laden has released a five minute audio message warning Europe that it faces a severe response for publishing the Muhammed cartoons, claiming that they are “part of a new crusade in which the Pope of the Vatican had a significant role.”

No love among Hindus

Mike Myers latest film, The Love Guru has outraged (via) some of the more sensitive sections of the Hindu community for lampooning the Indian based religion.

In a spirited opinion piece on popular Indian news website, calls are being made for outraged Hindus to rise up in protest against the Canadian comedians creation.

With all the ridicule showered at our holy men and women in the film The Love Guru, we should not only brace ourselves against Hollywood comedian Mike Myers, but also assert our rights to not let aliens poke fun at us when we revere our revered ones!

There is, of course, no such thing as a right not to be poked fun at. That hasnt stopped Raja Zed, President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, and teacher at a U.S college from asking Paramount Pictures for a special preview screening that can be viewed by Hindu leaders.

OIC seeks international censorship

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is drawing up plans (via) to demand legal redress from nations, like Denmark, that allow freedom of speech.

The new charter, drafted at a meeting in Dakar commits the OIC to protect and defend the true image of Islam and to combat the defamation of Islam. The report urges the creation of a legal instrument to crack down on defamation of Islam, although the nature of such a legal instrument has not been spelled out.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union in Geneva released a statement accusing the Islamic states of attempting to limit freedom of expression and of attempting to misuse the U.N.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that objectionable depictions of the Prophet Muhammad do not give them the right under international human rights law to insist that others abide by their views.

David Thompson gets to the heart of the matter:

[P]erhaps we should peel away the rhetoric of victimhood, used so indecently, and look at what’s actually being demanded here: A right not to hear that one is being irrational, dishonest or mortifyingly stupid, regardless of just how irrational, dishonest or mortifyingly stupid one actually is. That’s a license of no small magnitude, and one that a person of good faith would neither grant nor desire.

Freedom of Speech: Hirsi Ali calls on the EU to put our money where our mouth is

In light of the renewed threat against Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westegard, Ayaan Hirsi Ali - who has also been on the receiving end of death threats - has called on MEPs to set up an EU fund to pay for security for citizens facing such threats.

Appearing before a small audience of MEPs - several of whom are petitioning for the EU to foot the bill for Ms Hirsi Alis security team - the Somali-born Muslim said: The threats to my life have not subsided, but she had found herself in the embarrassing situation of having to fundraise for her own security.

Her case is being picked up by the media - especially in France where she arrived last week, with the backing of prominent French intellectuals, to request French citizenship. According to the French media, Elysee Palace has been considering establishing a European fund to help people like her and there is speculation that Paris may suggest something during its EU presidency in the second half of this year.

Ms Hirsi Ali has been under high level security since 2004 when Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamist extremist. A letter found on the Dutch film-makers body threatened her by name.

She left the Netherlands for the United States in May 2006 following a row over the details of her original asylum request for the Netherlands and, in October 2007, the Dutch government stopped paying for her security detail.

The Dutch position is that she that is no longer based in the country and the US government says it does not pay for personal protection of citizens.

This leaves her in the position of being unable to remain in the US and unable to return to the Netherlands because of the continuing death threats.

She has some high-profile backers for her campaign to get a European protection fund set up.

French writer Bernard-Henri Levi referred to the Fatwa death sentence issued on British author Salman Rushdie, noting that the British government continues to pay for his protection although he resides in the US.

He said the shame should be put on the people [in the Dutch government] who took this decision [to stop the funding] and called on Europe to prove itself.

The petition for a fund, initiated by French socialist MEP Benoit Hamon, has around 100 signatures.

Mr Harmon is intending to take the issue up with leaders of the parliamentary political groups to try to persuade them to launch a pilot project using the parliaments own budget. This would release about €50 million for the fund.