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Year In Review 2012: What Did Leveson And Twitter Prosecutions Do For Free Speech?

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Was 2012 the year it became too risky to post a risqué joke on Twitter?

It was the year of the mob rule on social networking, when trolls attacked politicians and celebrities, such as Tom Daley and Louise Mensch.

It has been the year when holding a lighter next to a poppy, in a picture on Twitter, has been enough to see a young man arrested.

Even with new prosecution guidelines from the Department for Public Prosecutions, aimed at limiting whether people can be prosecuted for saying stupid and offensive things online, free speech campaigners have had their work cut out this year.

2012 has seen the Leveson Inquiry, new communications legislation in the pipeline, prosecutions for hate on social media, and the clamping down on freedom of expression in countries like Mexico, Russia and across the post-Arab Spring region.

tom daley

A 17-year-old was arrested for abusive tweets allegedly directed at Tom Daley, Team GB diver

Campaign group Index on Censorship has produced an indepth report into freedom of speech in the UK, a "scorecard", identifying key areas like media freedom (7/10) and digital freedom (6.5/10) that have an uncertain or negative outlook in 2013.

Mike Harris, head of advocacy at Index, told The Huffington Post UK that the "societal impulse to censor" online was troubling.

Once offensive comments are posted, many clamour for them to be censored, report them to the police, or try to get their accounts closed down.

"People use Facebook as if it's a private conversation, and will say things on their to friends, that might be really offensive, written when drunk.

"And if other people see something offensive, then they feel the need to express outrage, to take it upon themselves to become censors, to report it to the police.

"Trivial, offensive comments on Facebook should not be going through the court process. People are being sent to prison, losing their jobs for some joke they write on Facebook."

Free speech campaigners have cautiously welcomed the new guidelines by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer.

Starmer said last week that a prosecution was unlikely to be necessary, proportionate or in the public interest if the communication were “swiftly removed, blocked, not intended for a wide audience or not obviously beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in a diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression.”

“We welcome these guidelines and hope that they will be used to end the excessive prosecutions that we have seen in recent years,” said Index on Censorship CEO, Kirsty Hughes.

“In a plural society that respects free expression, there is no right not to be offended, and these guidelines acknowledge that.”

keir starmer

New prosecution guidelines for hate speech online have been devised by the Department for Public Prosecutions' Keir Starmer

Robert Sharp, campaign manager for English PEN, which lobbies on free speech and art internationally, said the prosecutions for hate online had been "all young men between the ages of 18 and 22, they are all from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the things that they have been prosecuted for have been immature and inarticulate.

"There's almost a criminalisation of adolescence, and of poor literacy, that's one issue that seems to have emerged.

"The communications laws being used are for grossly offensive messages. Offence as the trigger for prosecution is still a big problem.

"The case that is the most important is that of Azhar Ahmed, he is the only case of an ethnic minority. He posted something silly and illiterate about how soldiers were going to hell.

"He was prosecuted because far-right activists made a co-ordinated campaign to have him arrested.

"So by using offence as the trigger for prosecution, you are putting the power of censorship into the hands of people who may chose to be offended for political gain. That's a big deal for censorship."

Our current law on communication makes it harder for his organisation to speak out against censorship internationally, Sharp told The Huffington Post UK.

"In Saudi Arabia, Hamza Kashgari wrote a poem, imagined dialogue with the Prophet Mohammed, and some far-right clerics are pushing for him to be executed.

"But it's hard for us to campaign on his case while the DPP is consenting to the social media prosecutions here in the UK, because the Saudi embassy will say, you do exactly the same thing here. Offence is the trigger.

"The consultation [by the DPP] is welcome, and it is pleasing that the DDP made a specific reference to the role of free speech in his interim guidance.

"However, the current laws were drafted before the existence of online social networking, and it remains to be seen whether they are fit for purpose in era of Twitter and Facebook."

bnp

The BNP is much harder to censor, or deny a platform, with the growth of online forums

For Nick Lowles, head of Hope Not Hate, which campaigns against far-right extremism, censorship online is problematic, and means the anti-fascist tradition of never giving extremism a platform, has become old-fashioned.

"I think you have to look at the mindset at the person behind it. The tweets against Tom Daley were horrible, but some people's lives are made an absolute misery every day by this abuse. We have to pay that attention.

"There's been a long history in the anti-fascist movement of "no platform", but a lot of those principles have become outdated, because of new technology, people have a platform online.

"I'm not going to sign up to a Twitter debate with Griffin, that's beyond the pale. But at the same time we need to do more to take on their ideas in the blogosphere, there are ideas are out there in swathes. Or we sit on the sidelines, condemn them, and refuse to engage, that's when we look like the pro-censorship group.

"The more controversial things they say, the more attention they get. It's actually easier with people like Nick Griffin and David Irving. But there's mainstream hatred of Muslims all over Twitter. We have to be in the argument, expose their ideas. "

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For Index's Harris, self-regulation is also key. "We are all getting used to social media, but we regulate ourselves when having a conversation in a public place, I believe over time, people will begin to think twice about saying defamatory or violent things online.

"There is a difference between writing something defamatory on Twitter, and it being on the news. The main difference is that we don't believe everything we see on Twitter is true. You'd have to be totally incredulous to think that.

"We are exposed to more and more content, some of which we will find objectionable, and eventually, we will self-filter.

"People have just got to become more robust towards free expression. A really fundamental human right is free expression, and to close down speech we find offensive, we get into a bind."

But as public opinion seems to favour censorship online, Harris does not believe it is the same when it comes to the free press.

"I think the British public do not like an overly censorious culture, on the whole. Look at what happened with Trafigura, where Twitter users broke a super injunction.

"They don't want the rich and powerful deciding what they can and can't see. Any polling data which seems to suggest the public are in favour of statutory regulation of the press, has all been done by the Media Standards Trust, a body in favour of statutory regulation.

hacked off

Brian Cathcart, a founder member of press ethics campaign group Hacked Off, speaks during a press conference

"Support drops off a cliff if you ask 'should politicians regulate the press?'

"We actually have some of the most restrictive laws on journalists anywhere in the Western world, defamation laws, the Official Secrets Act, which has no public interest defence, the bill to introduce more secret courts, there is whole swathes of legislation, where you cannot report something even if it is in the public interest to expose it.
"It has a serious effect on investigative journalism.

"I was told by a journalist recently that one of the most well-known corporations who avoids taxes, have threatened them with a libel suit over ways they avoid tax.

"Many banks, before the financial crisis, when people tried to warn the crisis was coming, banks used defamation action to silence their critics. We found out way too little about what went on. Anything that chills the freedom of the press would be hugely damaging.

"The government have committed to a new Defamation Bill, it's not the reforming bill the government had promised, but if they get this right, it will be a massive step forward for free speech.

"It will be the one thing the government can point to and say, we have made major steps for free speech in this country.

Sharp said that English PEN would be looking at the government's action on the Leveson proposals with great interest in 2013.

"We are concerned about Lord Leveson's proposals for a regulatory backstop, we worried this will lead to a form of licensing for the media, which would not be good for free expression. It's an ongoing issue."

press standards

Members of the protest group 'Avaaz' - dressed as cowboy caricatures of David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch in a press regulation protest

Internationally, free speech groups are working against the potential of a religious defamation law at the UN. Muslim leaders from the Council of Mosques and Muslim Action Forum, told The Huffington Post UK in the wake of the Innocence of Muslims film which sparked protests across the world, and in the UK, that they would like to see a religious defamation or blasphemy law brought in.

Sharp said he would be campaigning to make sure the UN "doesn't acquiesce".

Countries PEN have highlighted as a particular area for concern worldwide are Mexico and Russia. "Mexico really stands out as the most dangerous place for journalist. And it's not government doing the censorship, its the cartels and the drug lords.

"Russia as well is concerning. Pussy Riot are emblematic of a wider problem of the erosion of free speech in the country.

"I think we do need the cause celebre because it's a way into the conversation, it's incumbent upon human rights campaigners such as PEN to draw attention to the wider issues in that country.

"People who have engaged with our campaign have got a sense of the context of the political climate which led to the Pussy Riot case. There have always been cause celebre, but it can be problematic, people think since Aung San Suu Kyi was freed the problem in Burma has gone away, it hasn't."

pussy riot

Pussy Riot's trial put free speech in Russia in the spotlight

According to Harris, from Index, 2013 could be an even bigger year for free speech. "In 2013, we'll be prioritising digital freedom.

"There's a push by Russia and China, and an attempt to get the UN to regulate the internet. That would be a total disaster.

"2013 could go one of two ways, we have raised a number of points of concern, Leveson legislation will be next year, the Defamation bill is going through parliament, the CPS guidelines will be enforced, the Communications and Data bill, the Justice and Security Bill on secret courts.

"Most troubling of all perhaps is the draft Communications Data Bill (aka “Snoopers’ charter”) that will bring in the possibility of state surveillance unparalleled in any western country and on a par with Kazakhstan, China and Iran.

"If our emails are stored by the state, people will self-censor. The possibility the government will significantly curtail freedom of expression with an ill-considered law in the UK is real.

"Next year is going to be really, really important for free speech, possibly even more than this year. We want to push the cause forwards, not backwards."

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