THE BLOG

Let's Not Repeat Past Mistakes - Restricting Free Speech will Fuel Radicalisation

29/01/2015 13:00 GMT | Updated 31/03/2015 10:59 BST

Three weeks on from the Hebdo attacks, across France judges have been putting the recently approved Anti-Terror Act to use. This is, or should be, a law geared primarily at stopping terrorists and their sympathisers from condoning terrorism and attracting new recruits to their cause on the internet. A large number of people have already been detained and hundreds more could be under investigation for expressing views deemed to justify or excuse terrorism.

On the 14 January French comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala was arrested, reportedly on suspicion of publicly condoning terrorism. The arrest is believed to be connected to a Facebook post Dieudonné wrote saying "tonight, as far as I'm concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly", in reference to Amedy Coulibaly, who prosecutors say killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

We at ARTICLE19 are deeply concerned not only about the large number of arrests for comments made on Facebook, Twitter and social media, but that an excessive crackdown on perceived hate speech, extremism and anti-Semitism in France seems to be spreading across the EU, and even US wide.

In the last few weeks EU and US talks have resulted in calls for internet providers to create a means for 'swift reporting' and removal of material that aims to incite hatred and terror - a 'reporting' mechanism which could be used to stifle legitimate, albeit often highly distasteful or offensive, speech without due process safeguards.

And in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to block online messaging services which offer encryption, if conservatives win the upcoming general elections. Not only will this make internet users vulnerable to interception of their communications by criminals, it will also expose them to routine surveillance by domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.

This latest crackdown on freedom of expression and privacy isn't new. In times of crisis, public officials often make promises to increase security in response to public fears and indeed their own need to be reacting to the crisis. The most notable example in recent years was the introduction of the US Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks. But too often, this means greater State control over our lives and less accountability for that increased power. In our experience, anti-terrorism and security laws are often far too broad, and not narrowly tailored to specifically deal with genuine threats to national security. They restrict freedom of expression or justify State intrusion to our lives when the cost to our liberties far outweighs any supposed benefit.

Disproportionately, these laws, such as France's 2014 anti-terrorist legislation, have the effect of targeting minority or unpopular groups, including limiting their free expression rights. This discrimination raises serious human rights concerns. Additionally, it can further stigmatise and marginalise certain groups, exacerbating other human rights violations and sowing divisions that undermine security rather than advance it.

If the past is any guide, we could expect further violations of our privacy rights, and our freedom to impart or receive different ideas and opinions. We don't want to see a repeat of the post-9/11 mistakes in tightening anti-terrorism legislation. We certainly don't want to see restrictions on expression unequally applied against minorities worldwide, and leading to further marginalisation and ostracisation. Knee-jerk responses are not the answer. Surely the correct response to complex, partly home-grown, security threats is not to erode individual rights, spy en-masse and suppress, but to engage communities that feel marginalised?

We need far-sighted leadership to break this reoccurring cycle. Leadership which also recognises that there is no human right to be free of offence, and that the right to freedom of expression means that those who feel offended also have the right to challenge others through free debate and open discussion, or through peaceful protest against what one disagrees.

Although an undeniable tragedy, we must not allow the Charlie Hebdo killings to be used as a justification to further erode our freedoms.