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
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”.