Will 2009 Be Another Bad Year for Free Speech?

Will 2009 Be Another Bad Year for Free Speech?

By Janet Albrechtsen - December 31, 2008

THE media took great delight in reporting the encounter between US President George W. Bush and a pair of flying shoes during his final visit to Iraq two weeks ago. But the great bastions of free speech missed the true significance of an Arab reporter throwing his shoes during a press conference in Baghdad.

Bush has long maintained that it would be a fine thing to see the emergence of some basic Western values in the Arab world. Values such as freedom of expression. Perhaps the return to Iraq of a bit of shoe-throwing as the ultimate sign of Arab disgust is a healthy sign of a democracy, warts and all, taking hold. Iraqis had to wait until Saddam Hussein was dead before they threw their shoes en masse at his toppling statue.

Puerile as it is as a form of expression, Iraqis can now throw shoes freely at any leader, including the outgoing leader of the free world. So maybe Bush's final visit to Iraq is, after all, a healthy sign of democratic values taking root. What a shame those same values have, over a period of years, been uprooted in the West.

If 2006 will be remembered as the year the West rolled over when tested on free speech - think the Danish cartoons, which large swaths of the media refused to publish for fear of causing offence - two years on, things are worse.

The year 2008 deserves to be seen as a year of anticipatory surrender, a year when the West decided to roll over on free speech of its own accord. Just in case. No threats. No demands. Just suppress controversial speech in advance, just in case it causes offence. You understand, we don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. In fact, such a trashing of core Western values is difficult to understand.

In no particular order, an audit of 2008 must begin with the comments of Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, who announced in October that Islam deserved different coverage in the media compared to other religions because Muslims were an ethnic minority.

While a spokesman for Thompson tried to play down the significance of what the head of the British public broadcaster had said by claiming that his boss was not calling for preferential treatment of Islam by the media, it's hard to interpret Thompson's words any other way.

The fact that a religion is identified with one or more ethnic minorities should surely have no bearing on other people's freedom to probe, question and indeed lampoon that religion, in the same way that Christianity is regularly subjected to criticism and comedy spoofs.

It is deeply troubling that in response to claims by British comedian Ben Elton that the BBC would "let vicar gags pass but not imam gags", Thompson said that it did take a different approach to Islam. A public broadcaster that openly admits self-censorship of important issues may get a mark for honesty, but the price is taxpayer-funded vandalism of Western values.

The same rank capitulation occurred in the private sector when, in August, Random House pulled the publication of The Jewel of Medina, a book by Sherry Jones that told the tale of Aisha, the child bride of Mohammed.

The publisher had received no threats, just "cautionary advice" that publishing the book "might cause offence to some in the community (and) incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment".

Perhaps Random House took comfort, in a "we told you so" kind of way, that the publisher who did finally print the book in Britain, Gibson Square Books, was set on fire.

But instead of surrendering to perceived threats and real violence aimed at ideas and words, the West ought to be stiffening its resolve, declaring such barbarism unacceptable in a free society committed to freedom of expression. That is not happening.

When Somalia-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali arrived in Australia in early August to talk about free speech and her right to criticise Mohammed, she was still accompanied by security to protect her from those who regard violence as a legitimate response to words and ideas.

Hirsi Ali won't be silenced. Neither will Dutch MP Geert Wilders, who is also surrounded by security. The release in March of his short film Fitna, which is critical of Islam, wasfollowed by a fatwa from al-Qa'ida, boycotts against Dutch products, and attempts by Muslim countries to censor the film from the internet.

In the face of real threats, the tendency to curtail free speech even before threats arrive rather than offend minority sensibilities is spreading like a virulent cancer. Recall the case of the controversial Dutch cartoonist who was arrested in May and interrogated for his cartoons that mocked Islam. At least Gregorius Nekschot did not suffer the fate of Shafeeq Latif, who was sentenced to death in June by a Pakistani judge for insulting Mohammed.

But the West is killing free speech slowly - by more subtle means - through state-sponsored censorship under the grand name of protecting human rights.

The insidious role of human rights commissions was exposed in June when Mark Steyn and Canadian magazine Macleans were hauled before the Canadian Human Rights Commission for islamophobia.

While the complaint was ultimately dismissed, the fact that words warrant oversight by a state tribunal points to a rank attitude to free speech where a person is required to spend copious amounts of time and money defending words and ideas.

The same thing had happened in April, when the Ontario Human Rights Commission dealt with complaints against Steyn and Macleans. And in January, when conservative commentator Ezra Levant had to defend his publication of the Danish cartoons to the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission.

As Steyn wrote of his experience of heavy-handed state censorship, the media "seems generally indifferent to a power grab that explicitly threatens to reduce them to a maple-flavoured variant of Pravda ... As some leftie website put it, 'defending freedom of speech for jerks means defending jerks'. Well, yes. But, in this case, not defending the jerks means not defending freedom of speech for yourself. It's not a Left-Right thing; it's a free-unfree thing".

If large sections of the media - normally devotees of free speech - cave into what the BBC's Thompson called the "growing nervousness about discussion about Islam", that self-censorship ripples out to all corners of society.

After the Danish cartoons fiasco, the onus was on the West to show its spine, to reassert its faith in freedom of expression. So far it has failed on that score. Let's hope 2009 is a better year for free speech and the West's confidence in itself.

Postscript: It turns out I missed another episode of supine surrender. Gibson Square Books has so far rfused to publish The Jewel of Medina following the arson attempt. Instead, Beaufort Books of New York is the publisher. Miss Jones contacted me overnight saying the following:

Dear Ms. Albrechtson,

Your article on the West's capitulation to radical Muslims on free speech was very thought-provoking--and you could have included many more examples! I applaud you for speaking out on this crucial issue. Silence is consent, the saying goes, and if we don't exercise our freedom of speech to protest these attempts to muzzle it, we will certainly lose it.

I would like to make one minor correction regarding my novel, "The Jewel of Medina." Gibson Square Books has not published it--nor, as far as I can ascertain, does publisher Martin Rynja intend to do so. Shortly after the Sept. 27 arson attempt at his London home office, Mr. Rynja issued a statement declaring that I had decided to indefinitely postpone publication of my book. This assertion, of course, was untrue. Although we have corresponded with Mr. Rynja, neither my agent nor I have been able to coax from him a prospective publication date or any indication of his intentions for the book.

My only English language publisher at this time is Beaufort Books of New York. With my consent, this courageous publisher published my book in a hurry, on Oct. 6, in order to counter the dangerous rumors that my book was pornographic. Our strategy appears to have worked, for the threats and tirades against "The Jewel of Medina" and me have ceased for the most part.

"Jewel" has been published in five countries--the US, Germany, Denmark, Serbia, and Italy--with no repercussions. We have had good sales throughout. In Serbia, the book was the number-one bestseller for at least two months and continues to sell well. It will debut in Spain Feb. 4.

For more information, feel free to visit my new website.

Thank you for standing up for this most important of rights--freedom of speech and expression. And thank you so much for your attention here. I wish you a very happy and healthy New Year!

Warm regards,

Sherry Jones


Janet Albrechtsen writes a weekly column for The Australian.

Janet Albrechtsen writes a weekly column for The Australian. She is a member of the Foreign Affairs Council. In 2005, she was appointed a member of the Board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. You can contact Janet Albrechtsen by email at:

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