Recent events have created a new series of attacks on freedom of speech in a way that government censorship has not. These new threats do not come from established governments, but from ordinary people censoring themselves out of fear.
For most of the industrialized world, gone are the days of outright censorship. This new means of censorship has come in the form of overt terrorist actions. In the United States, this was demonstrated in the infamous Sony hack, where hackers released confidential information on Sony employees. After this leak of information, the hackers threatened to engage in terrorist acts at movie theaters if Sony were to release “The Interview,” which depicts the death of Kim Jong-un.
Just weeks later on January 7, a far more deadly attack was launched in France. A group of terrorists attacked the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, known for controversial depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, leaving 12 dead and 11 wounded. Later, the German printing company that prints Charlie Hebdo was firebombed.
After the events in France, the world rallied together against the attacks in one of the largest demonstrations in history with more than two million in attendance and additional demonstrations around the world. People across the world stood in unity for the cause of free speech. World leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, were all in attendance together, despite political differences.
This embrace of free speech was short lived and clouded by the official government policies of some of the world leaders in attendance. For the rally itself, the French government represented by President Francois Hollande didn’t invite the far right National Front party leader Marie Le Penne for fear attendants of the party would stoke anti-Islamic rhetoric. In America, almost the entire media has censored the publication of the cartoons.
After the attacks, France arrested 54 people under charges of “apology for terrorism,” one of whom is controversial comedian, actor and political activist, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. The French government alleges those arrested publicly supported the attacks. Of the 54, 12 have been given prison sentences.
France is not the only European country that does not see freedom of speech as absolute. Germany has statutes that ban Nazi-affiliated imagery, such as the book “Mein Kampf” written by Adolf Hitler. Additionally, several European nations have enacted anti-hate speech laws that have no equivalent in the United States. In Britain, certain forms of pornography are banned and several Americans aren’t allowed in the country because of perceived hate speech. Right wing radio talk show host Michael Savage was banned from the country in 2009.
In Israel, a post exists known as the “Israeli Military Censor,” which has the power to prevent media outlets from printing news items, particularly those relating to military issues. Israel also has bans on hate speech, similar to its counterparts in the European Union. Palestine also has major issues with censorship, unearthed in 2012. During this year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation discovered a list of sites being censored by Internet service providers. The same day the EFF report was released, The Tor Project uncovered signs of politically motivated censorship, particularly websites critical of President Mahmoud Abbas.
As we enter 2015, there are two central questions regarding freedom of speech. Will other industrialized nations follow the US’s role of nearly unrestricted free speech or continue to arrest those who say something that could be construed as hateful? The second question will be whether or not we censor ourselves due to terrorist threats.