In a column for Saudi Gazette — here picked up by Asharq Alawsat — Samar Fatany writes that Arabs and Arab governments don’t understand free speech. She then proceeds to show that her understanding of free speech is also limited. I think she may have been writing for Saudi Arabia’s media too long to realize her error.

She is utterly correct that free speech is a fundamental human right. She is also correct that there are some limitations that can be put on speech and expression. Slander and libel are not protected. Fraud is not protected. Violations of copyright are not protected.

But “protection of public order… or morals” is not legitimate because these concepts are just a loose basket of words that can be interpreted by any government (or any hothead) to mean whatever they choose, whenever they choose, and against anyone they choose. That they may not apply in any given circumstance makes them less of a right than a grant of tolerance. But what is permitted today under this philosophical regime may well be prohibited tomorrow. All it takes is a change in government or a change in social views.

Arab Spring should serve as a clear example of how yesterday’s approved speech is today’s criminal action. Just ask the journalists who have been jailed, attacked, or murdered. Ms Fatany needs to think a bit harder on this issue.

Arab world’s misunderstanding on free speech
Samar Fatany

Freedom of speech might be a controversial subject in the Arab world, however, universally it is recognized as the political right of every citizen to express his or her opinions and ideas. The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 19 stipulates that, “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference”, and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression. This right includes, freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Unfortunately, the universal concept of the freedom of expression is not appreciated or understood in many parts of the world and in the Arab world in particular. Many governments do not conform to its principles and view it with suspicion. They continue to suppress the right of free speech through censorship, restrictive media laws, and the harassment of journalists, bloggers and activists who voice their opinions against human rights violations or major concerns that need to be addressed. Meanwhile, a majority of the public also fails to understand that the universal right of the freedom of speech is not absolute and that it is subject to limitations. The exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities”, and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” such as “respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.

March:02:2013 - 07:38 | Comments & Trackbacks (16) | Permalink
16 Responses to “Misunderstanding Free Speech”
  1. 1
    Jerry M Said:
    March:02:2013 - 13:25 

    Given that Western countries often have exceptions to their laws, in particular laws against holocaust denial and blasphemy laws (even if those are rarely used), it might not be hard for an Arab to see that as a general principal.

  2. 2
    Lola Said:
    March:02:2013 - 14:25 

    “Meanwhile, universal campaigns have emerged advocating the right of freedom of expression. These campaigns involve international organizations and global activists who collaborate with local organizations to educate member states on key freedom of expression issues, and they advocate changes to media laws that restrict the ability of journalists to cover crucial issues and major concerns.”–Samar Fatany

    Saudi princes warn of damage to UK relations if allegations emerge in trial

    Royals try to stop ‘outrageous’ and ‘wholly false’ allegations about business deals surfacing in London trial

    “Relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia will suffer if what are said to be highly damaging allegations about business deals surface during a London trial, lawyers for two Saudi princes have warned the high court.

    The resort to political justifications – among other reasons – for suppressing the disputed claims is revealed in a ruling delivered on Wednesday by Mr Justice Morgan. The judgment upholds, in principle, requests by the Guardian and Financial Times to be given documents detailing the disputed transactions involving Saudi interests in Beirut and Nairobi.

    The allegations are said to be so serious that if published they would upset relations not only between the oil-rich kingdom and the UK but also have an “adverse effect” on Saudi links with the US.”

  3. 3
    Andrew Said:
    March:03:2013 - 05:23 

    Your correction of her is misguided.

    She says that a limitation on free speech is:

    ““the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals””

    You say that this is not an appropriate standard.

    Yet it is the standard that the USA itself uses.

    The USA has statutes and laws that permit the government to prohibit or punish those that engage in free speech that threatens national security.

    For example, the trial of USA Private Manning, or the targeted killing by the USA by drones of certain religious fanatics who advocate killings of Westerners, but have not engaged in actual violence.

    Furthermore, the USA, for example bars even literary works by nations (Cuba as an example) that is does not like, on the basis of its national security needs.


    Public health and order are similarly used by the US, as for example sexual materials that the USA defines as “obscenity”

    So, it is ironic that we are told that Arab journalists need to think a bit harder about this issue, given that Arab journalists have had media freedoms rarely and only recently.

    USA restrictions on free speech also exist, and the notion that the USA is unable after more than 200 years to allow, for example, access to Cuban poetry, because Cuba is posed as a mortal threat to the USA, yet Arab nations are to be viewed as full of mistaken assumptions is ironic.

    Similarly, the extreme censorship exercised by the USA, that makes a military secret of its own laws, is remarkable.

    Americans can and have been killed by their own government without any trial through targeted killings as terrorists, yet the USA government provides no information as to the legal basis for such killings, because it asserts that even the laws used as the basis to kill its own citizens are a military secret.

    Moreover, the USA government does not limit its authority for such killings to its citizens located outside its borders, meaning that it can also kill them within its own borders.

    Perhaps the USA needs to think a bit harder on this issue.

    So, a country with secret laws that authorise killing by the government — with no judge — of its own citizens, and that bars access to even literary works, because they come from an enemy state.

    Is that really so very different from what Arab journalists have also faced?


  4. 4
    Jerry M Said:
    March:03:2013 - 10:25 


    The trial of Manning has nothing to do with ordinary free speech. He is accused of passing on classified information. One can argue that the US classifies too much stuff as secret, but all countries have secrets and the US is no different.

    As far as Cuban poetry (or any Cuban product), the only restrictions are commercial. Again one can argue, that the restrictions no longer make sense since the cold war is long over, there is no restriction against publishing Cuban poetry if money isn’t going to Cuba. Like anything in the US it is complicated. One can find news stories of local school boards banning some Cuban books, but that has nothing to do with ordinary free speech, it simply means a school library will not buy some books.

  5. 5
    bigstick1 Said:
    March:03:2013 - 18:58 


    Maybe this will help you.

  6. 6
    Solomon2 Said:
    March:03:2013 - 22:51 

    “Slander and libel are not protected.”

    The current UN Committee on Human Rights position is that libel should be decriminalized:–un-rights-panel

  7. 7
    Andrew Said:
    March:04:2013 - 05:19 

    Jerry M Said:

    I find your arguments unconvincing.

    You acknowledge that “all countries have secrets and the US is no different” and the author of the article indicates that a limitation on free speech is that.

    However, the commentary to the article states:

    “But “protection of public order… or morals” is not legitimate because these concepts are just a loose basket of words that can be interpreted by any government (or any hothead) to mean whatever they choose, whenever they choose, and against anyone they choose.”

    The point you make about Cuba is a distinction without a difference.

    If the notion is that Cuban poetry is permitted, so long as the Cuban poet is paid no royalties nor is the publishing house, that is still censorship, and we do that in Saudi as well.

    We simply do it more honestly and transparently.

    Bigstick 1:

    I am not that interested in the legal theories by which the USA justifies its censorship — in Saudi we have different theories, and in the EU different ones still.

    My point is that

    “the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”

    is also used by the USA as the grounds to censor.

    The USA relies on national security — hence its bar on Cuban poetry because of the national security threat that Cuban poetry (and the royalty payments for such poetry) play — more than some other nations.

    Yet clever arguments such as the notion that the USA does not censor, it merely bars commercial transactions — and of course all publishing is also a commercial transaction — does not hide the censorship.

  8. 8
    John Burgess Said:
    March:04:2013 - 06:42 

    @Solomon2: There’s a difference between criminal and civil liability when it comes to slander/libel. In the US, only a few states still have criminal libel laws on the books; most, as well as the federal government, see it only as a civil violation, subject to suits for damages. I think this is what the UN is about in the linked piece.

  9. 9
    Jerry M Said:
    March:04:2013 - 16:33 


    The laws against Cuba are about commerce and not about free speech per se. They are also are the product of the Cold War, so they may have made sense at the time. All wars end up producing stupid laws and this is a good example. These kinds of laws don’t negate the ideas of free speech any more than the holocaust denial laws in Europe do. These laws are bad exceptions. In Saudi Arabia there hasn’t been a committment to free speech, at least historically. Given that the English ideas of free speech arose out of the Reformation, one can see that those ideas didn’t have any support in Saudi Arabia.

  10. 10
    Andrew Said:
    March:05:2013 - 05:04 

    Jerry M Said:

    I agree that in Saudi we have no commitment to free speech, and our government actively opposes free speech.

    But your argument is absurd, where it says that the bar on access to Cuban poetry is different, you assert, because it is about commerce and not free speech.

    Your argument is redolent of arguments from Iraqis that I heard 30 years ago that President Hussein did not limit free speech, here merely required a license for typewriters and printing presses, so as to prevent libelous documents from being printed.

    Licensing of printing equipment was very different than restrictions on books, they argued.

    And your assertion that bars on royalties for Cuban poetry “may have made good sense” also strike me as absurd.

    The reading of Cuban poetry (or indeed all Cuban creative literature, including novels and short stories) in the USA could only ever have been a tiny sum.

    By the logic of your arguments, if there is a large distinction between commerce and free speech, then your argument would hold that if the US government imposed a ban on the sale of books by all foreign authors, as a security measure, you would see that as not censorship, but merely as the regulation of commerce.

    And George Orwell would be banned, and your would still hold the view that there was no censorship in America.

  11. 11
    Jerry M Said:
    March:05:2013 - 10:25 


    You are twisting my arguments. In the US restrictions against speech are the exception not the rule there is not restriction against Cuban poetry per se. You must have a specific example in mind to mention Cuban poetry. In today’s market poetry isn’t a big seller even without any restriction I doubt much Cuban poetry would be sold today. There are restrictions against Cuban cigars. Its all about commerce. There are no restrictions against foreign websites. Iran’s Press TV site is available and not blocked. Granma international is available

    The way the US deals with Cuba is outdated and absurd but it was a product of the Cold War and must be understood in that context. It is hardly a general principal proving that the US has no freedom of speech.

  12. 12
    Lola Said:
    March:05:2013 - 17:21 

    The Fi Call matter is scheduled to come to trial in January 2014. In two separate strands of pre-trial hearings, lawyers have argued that details of the case should remain secret and the Saudi princes should be granted immunity from litigation.

    At Tuesday’s hearing before the High Court, which was about the immunity question, Prince Mishal was described as a “close confidant, senior brother” of King Abdullah who was “listed in terms of precedence above the crown prince”.

    The lawyers also argued that Prince Abdulaziz would be “at risk of serious personal injury or death from reprisals” if the allegation about the Beirut transaction was made public.

    Their lawyers argued that the allegations should not be heard in open court where media could be present because they would “lead to an adverse effect on relations between the United States of America and Saudi Arabia”.

    Judge Morgan ruled that these arguments came “nowhere near being clear and cogent evidence” to justify holding court hearings in private.

  13. 13
    Andrew Said:
    March:05:2013 - 17:34 

    Jerry M Said:

    I agree that the USA has freedom of speech, but that freedom of speech is limited.

    The factors that limit it are the same factors listed by Samar Fatany.

    I agree that little Cuban poetry would be sold in the USA.

    I would also say that little Christian Bible would be sold in our Kingdom.

    The USA restricts commerce that it finds objectionable, including commerce in literature and books and music and art.

    Saudi does the same.

  14. 14
    bigstick1 Said:
    March:05:2013 - 21:34 


    I think you are expanding the commerce function of limiting the products so that monies are not given to a sanctioned country into the freedom of speech aspect; the thing is that if no monies are exhanged they are free to distribute the material as it is allowed under freedom of speech.

    What you are doing is blurring the lines.

  15. 15
    Andrew Said:
    March:06:2013 - 06:35 


    THe argument that you make:

    “expanding the commerce function of limiting the products so that monies are not given to a sanctioned country into the freedom of speech aspect; the thing is that if no monies are exhanged they are free to distribute the material as it is allowed under freedom of speech. ”

    reminds me of a discussion that I had years ago in Syria.

    Syria at that time imported printer’s ink and placed restrictions on its use.

    The government placed restrictions on the use of printer’s ink, due to its use of foreign currency and the regulation of foreign currency expenditures, but the Syrian government claimed it had no restrictions on printed speech.

    The government instead chose to restrict the use of printer’s ink.

    The West at that time said that this was not mere regulation of commerce or foreign exchange, but that the intent was censorship.

    The distinction you make is a distinction without a difference.

    In the sphere of intellectual freedom, many such subterfuges are and have been used.

    Americans regularly seem to argue for a type of exceptionism — that if the USA engages in censorship, it is not censorship but rather a more palatable and benign activity.

    When in the Arab world, we have secret laws and kill and torture people, Americans feel sanctimony as they indict Arab countries for these obvious crimes against individuals.

    When the USA government has secret laws about when its own citizens can be killed, and prisoners can be tortured, Americans refer to those as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the USA Attorney General defends the need for secret laws on when America’s own citizens can be killed.

    IN reality, though, our governments and yours are not so different in what they do.

    Our governments merely do far, far more of it than yours.

    But yours also does it.

  16. 16
    Lola Said:
    March:07:2013 - 13:02 

    Twitter Gives Saudi Arabia a Revolution of Its Own

    “Twitter for us is like a parliament, but not the kind of parliament that exists in this region,” said Faisal Abdullah, a 31-year-old lawyer. “It’s a true parliament, where people from all political sides meet and speak freely.”

    The most flagrant criticism of the royal family by far has come from a single mysterious person named Mujtahidd. (The word means “studious.”) Starting late last year, Mujtahidd began posting sensational and richly detailed accusations about corrupt arms deals, construction boondoggles and back-room power plays involving numerous royals, including King Abdullah. He often writes directly to the Twitter accounts of the alleged malefactors.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

antalya escortizmir escort
  • Advertising Info

    Interested in sponsoring Crossroads Arabia? Contact me for more information.

  • Copyright Notice

    All original materials copyright, 2004-2014. Other materials copyrighted by their respective owners.

    The fact that this blog permits one to use RSS to read content does not constitute permission to republish content. All requests for republication must be submitted through the Contact form on the menu above. Violations of copyright will be dealt with through applicable law.