Category Archives: Free Speech

Statement on Charlie Hebdo attack – Free Society Institute

downloadThe Free Society Institute stands with Charlie Hebdo and all defenders of free speech and civil liberty in condemning the murder of two police officers, three cartoonists, and eight journalists in Paris on January 7.

As offended as those of the Muslim faith might find blasphemy to be, that offence pales into insignificance compared to the brutality of Islamo-fascist terrorism such as this. Being offended does not grant one warrant for ending the lives of others.

The right to free speech does not, however, say anything about when it is wise to exercise that freedom or not.Neither does the fact that these terrorists were recorded as shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet” during their attack tell us anything incontrovertible about Islam in general.

Tragedies such as these, that shock and confuse, can make easy answers attractive to us, in that they can lend themselves to stereotype and simplistic analysis. This is not the time for either of these.

Instead, this is the time for two simple things: to express our sympathy to all who are affected, and second, to recognise that we are all affected, in that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of civilised society, and is slightly more under threat to us all in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo attack.

Jacques Rousseau
Chairperson – Free Society Institute

IHEU report on social media and discrimination against the non-religious

The IHEU is today releasing a report on discrimination against non-religious people, with examples drawn from all over the world. It makes for interesting reading, because in addition to all the cases that get widespread media attention, the problem of discrimination against the non-religious is perhaps a larger one than many people realise. The report offers many examples of such discrimination, sometimes in the expected places, but also in jurisdictions where you’d hope for freedom from persecution on grounds of non-belief.


Blasphemy prosecutions rise with social media

New report highlights persecution of atheists

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has produced the first report focusing on how countries around the world discriminate against non-religious people. Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious (pdf) has been published to mark Human Rights Day, Monday 10 December.

Freedom of Thought 2012 covers laws affecting freedom of conscience in 60 countries and lists numerous individual cases where atheists have been prosecuted for their beliefs in 2012. It reports on laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.

The report highlights a sharp increase in arrests for “blasphemy” on social media this year. The previous three years saw just three such cases, but in 2012 more than a dozen people in ten countries have been prosecuted for “blasphemy” on Facebook or Twitter, including:

  • In Indonesia, Alexander Aan was jailed for two-and-a-half years for Facebook posts on atheism.
  • In Tunisia, two young atheists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for Facebook postings that were judged blasphemous.
  • In Turkey, pianist and atheist Fazil Say faces jail for “blasphemous” tweets.
  • In Greece, Phillipos Loizos created a Facebook page that poked fun at Greeks’ belief in miracles and is now charged with insulting religion.
  • In Egypt, 17-year-old Gamal Abdou Massoud was sentenced to three years in jail, and Bishoy Kamel was imprisoned for six years, both for posting “blasphemous” cartoons on Facebook.
  • The founder of Egypt’s Facebook Atheists, Alber Saber, faces jail time (he will be sentenced on 12 December).

“When 21st century technology collides with medieval blasphemy laws, it seems to be atheists who are getting hurt, as more of them go to prison for sharing their personal beliefs via social media,” said Matt Cherry, the report’s editor. “Across the world the reactionary impulse to punish new ideas, or in some cases the merest expression of disbelief, recurs again and again. We even have a case in Tunisia of a journalist arrested for daring to criticize a proposed blasphemy law!”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, welcomed the research. In a foreword to the report Bielefeldt notes that there is often “little awareness” that international human rights treaties mean freedom of conscience applies equally to “atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations. I am therefore delighted that for the first time the Humanist community has produced a global report on discrimination against atheists. I hope it will be given careful consideration by everyone concerned with freedom of religion or belief.”


An advance copy of the Freedom of Thought 2012 report is available from: Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella group bringing together more than 100 Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and freethought organizations from 40 countries.

For more information contact:

Bob Churchill, +44 207 636 4797,

Or Matt Cherry, +1 518 632 1040,

Staring into the abyss of special privileges

Take a vast chasm, a tightrope, pea-soup mists and swirling, vicious gusts of wind – then a person steps onto that rope, destination unseen. Such are the ingredients for the kind of ‘recipe for disaster’ if a country embarks on creating charter upon charter of special privileges for one or more interest groups – no matter how profound the interest.

Read more on the proposed South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms in the Daily Maverick.

Comment to the Press Freedom Commission on regulating the print media

The Press Freedom Commission “released a call for the SA public to voice its opinion about press freedom and the regulation of print media”. What follows is a submission made by the FSI Chairman (not a consensus statement by the FSI generally).


To whom it may concern,


This submission is intended to express support for the model of independent regulation, where a South African Press Council operates independently of both the media and government.

Regardless of the actual motives of proponents of measures such as the Media Appeals Tribunal, the Protection of State Information Bill, and the Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill, any constraints on free dissemination and access to information could be used for both noble and ignoble ends. It is for this reason that we’re wary of dictatorships, no matter how benign – if the framework for oppression exists, it would be naive to trust that such a framework will always be used to defend our best interests.

In a constitutional democracy, any presumptions made with regard to regulatory frameworks should favour freedom, with any limitations to the freedom of citizens and the press needing special justification. But there are nevertheless plausible circumstances in which some form of control over information could be merited. Even though one might be fully in support of adult access to pornography, restrictions on access by minors would be appropriate. Even though the citizenry should have access to as much information as possible about the workings of the state, it is nevertheless plausible that some information might present threats to national security, if widely broadcast. And while the media is rendered largely pointless if it can’t serve as a watchdog, there are legitimate questions to be asked about accountability and the reputational damage that might occur as a result of a media that thrives on scandal, and which is incentivised to publish news before their competitors do.

Neither the media itself, nor the state, should enjoy special authority with regard to press regulation. Not the media, for two primary reasons:
1. While some South African media attempt to uphold journalistic ethics, and to refrain from disseminating false, misleading or defamatory information, our media is not of equal quality in this regard. Yet, we cannot have different regulations for different media, in that these judgments are both impractical, and have no clear authority in terms of who would make them. The pressure to scoop your competitors can result in a deficit of prudence in this regard, especially for those media that thrive on scandal or controversy. In these cases, self-regulation will tend towards protecting the rights of those media to continue favouring sensation over more balanced coverage.
2. Second, the media is not populated by professionals to the extent that it once was. Pressures from Internet sources such as blogs, where information and analysis is frequently available without cost, have made operating a newspaper more difficult, and have cut profit margins to such an extent that the employment of a class of seasoned journalists, sub-editors and editors is now the exception rather than the rule. This raises an issue of competence, as increasingly junior (and often temporary) staff in newsrooms may lack the experience and wisdom to understand the long-range implications of what they report, even in cases where they don’t publish any actual untruths.

The case against the state having special authority with regard to regulation of the media is clear: A free society needs a fearless press to expose malfeasance or incompetence on the part of the state. The state has a vested interest in suppressing damaging information, or at least disincentivising its publication. We cannot trust that a state-controlled media will allow itself to be subjected to robust criticism, and their authority with regard to press regulation therefore needs to be restrained.

However, both the state and the media itself have legitimate interests in the regulation of print media, which need not be understood as an adversarial one. As any journalist would know, sound relationships with state officials can only contribute to the breadth and depth of coverage, and likewise state officials would know that the prospects of unfavourable coverage could be enhanced if the press media has no reason to regard them as honourable and fair participants in the production of press outputs.

A third party that also has legitimate interests in the regulation of print media is the public itself, many members of which desire fair and accurate reporting, and who might also abhor the sensationalistic tendencies of some of the press, particularly the tabloid media.

These three parties – the state, the press and the public – should therefore be participants in any regulatory process regarding the print media. Seeing as this regulation requires “passing judgement on complicated matters of journalistic reporting”, frequently involving ethical concerns, representation on any Press Council should also include those who have expertise in the area of ethics. Here, I would strongly caution against the frequent assumption – particularly in South Africa – that ethics and religion are easy bedfellows. In other words, it cannot be taken for granted that independent ethical opinion can be provided via the presence of religious leaders on a Press Council (even though they should of course be eligible). Ethics is after all a matter of academic enquiry, and our universities are well stocked with people who have this specialisation (as are various NGO’s).

The proposal here is therefore that a press council should contain representatives from all three sectors, including persons from outside the state and the press itself who have expertise in the field of ethics. The precise composition of such a council in terms of how many representatives it should contain, in what proportions, and questions of voting rights and veto’s is of course a complex matter, which can only be addressed briefly here. A summary of the composition envisaged here would be as follows:

A Council consisting of 10 members with equal voting rights, with
– 5 representatives from SANEF (or their delegated representatives)
– 3 members of the public
– 2 representatives of the state

Jacques Rousseau

Chairman: Free Society Institute

Stop Secrecy Week

Anyone in Cape Town and surrounding areas is encouraged to attend any of these events – but particularly the march on Saturday, in protest of the POI Bill.

Students Against Secrecy, a coalition of student organizations have put together a week of action to raise awareness about and activism against the Protection of Information Bill. Through a series of discussions, debates and campus displays we seek to provide a platform to engage UCT students in this vital question, which is at the very heart of our continent’s most vibrant democracy.


MONDAY 1PM – Business on Secrecy: Why Information is the Lifeblood of the Economy – Viola Manuel (Executive Director of the Cape Chamber of Commerce) – Leslie Social 2B

TUESDAY 1PM: The Secrecy Bill: An Introduction – Nkwame Cedile and Murray Hunter of Right2Know explain why the Protection of Information Bill still fails the freedom test. – Arts 100

TUESDAY 6PM – A Case Study: Uncovering and Reporting on the Arms Deal – Paul Hoffman (Director of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa), Christi van der Westhueyzen (award-winning journalist author of White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party) and Hennie van Vuuren (head of the Institute for Security Studies) – Beatie 115

WEDNESDAY 1PM – Academics on Freedom – Dr. Max Price (UCT Vice-Chancellor) and Professor David Benatar (Head of the UCT Department of Philosophy) – Leslie Social 2B

THURSDAY 5.30PM – The Great Debate – Chair: Judge Dennis Davis. Panel: Martin Welz (Editor of Noseweek), Fatima Hassan (Co-Director of Ndifuna Ukwazi [Dare to Know]), Dario Milo (Senior Partner at Webber Wentzel) and Dennis Dlomo (Special Adviser to the Minister of State Security) – Jameson Hall. NB: Tickets must be collected from the SRC Office, Level 7, Steve Biko Building from Monday

SATURDAY 10AM – Right2Know March to Parliament from Kaizersgracht Street

Moralistic outrage chills free speech

The Kuli Roberts column, Bitch’s Brew, has been cancelled by Avusa and the Sunday World newspaper following the publication of a “racist” column which expressed various stereotypes related to a subsection of South Africans sometimes described as ‘coloureds’. But as offensive as the column might have been to some, is there ever a good reason to deny free expression of views? Read more at Synapses.

Leo Igwe arrested (again)

As reported on here, the harassment and intimidation of Leo Igwe continues. Despite the stated commitment of Awka Ibom State Governor Goodswill Akpabio to rooting out the exploitation of children for the Pentecostal witch industry, people like Leo – who are allies in that cause – are frequently arrested and subjected to other rights violations. Any who have contacts in the Nigerian government, or any other form of influence there, should be aware of this and exert what pressure they can to bring a halt to these attempts to limit Leo in his campaigning for basic human rights in Nigeria.

For some background on Leo’s troubles:

South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms

The South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms was publicly endorsed in October this year, at a ceremony attended by Constitutional Court Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. Fortunately, it is not (yet) law – merely an expression of what all the major religious groupings would like to see enacted in law.

Clause 6.4 expresses the view that

Every person has the right to religious dignity, which includes not to be victimised, ridiculed or slandered on the ground of their faith, religion, convictions or religious activities. No person may advocate hatred that is based on religion, and that constitutes incitement to violence or to cause physical harm.

This clause is one of many that should be of concern to all who are committed to South Africa’s Constitutional values, particularly those endorsing and defending freedom of speech. While limitations on free speech can be justified – and are currently provided for – in the case of hate-speech, words like “victimised” and “ridiculed” are absurdly broad, and could be used to justify limitations on any speech act that is offensive to believers. As we know, the bar for offense in these areas is set very low.

Download/read the Charter

Freedom of speech and burning holy books

What is missing in the protests against Terry Jones’s plans to burn a Quran, as well as Mohammed Vawda’s plan to burn a Bible, is why anyone else should care about your beliefs, or desist from offending those beliefs. We can agree that doing so is rude, offensive, insensitive and all the rest, but these are all issues of personal and social morality. They are not issues for the law. Or at least they shouldn’t be. Read more at Synapses.

Threats to a free media

Free speech is not the only value that democratic societies subscribe to. Nor does, or should, our commitment to free speech always have to trump competing values such as national security or personal dignity. But the principle of free speech nevertheless stands in need of exceptional, and exceptionally strong, counterarguments in cases where we are told that it is not permissible to broadcast or publish any particular point of view…

Read more at Synapses.