14. Global context of media law

A snapshot of censorship in China: “Tiny Times” (first video) is a Chinese film that is considered controversial (too materialistic), but at least it can be shown in China. The second one, “Despicable Me 2″ is a US film that was banned in China, in part because of general restrictions on non-Chinese films.
This commercial contest of ideas is certainly not the whole story. What you don’t see is that, in the summer of 2013, the Li Xianting Film School was closed by the government; Also this year, the government shut down the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Yunnan Multicultural Visual Festival. After a period of apparent liberalization, China is reverting to repression. Similarly, Iran closed down the House of Cinema in 2011 and activists are lobbying to reopen it.

International law and freedom of speech

Thanks to advances in international communication technology, the world’s cultures are now closer than ever before in history.  There are many positive benefits to this. Human understanding is very definitely improved through communication. However, there are also points of serious friction that need to be considered.

  • Outright political censorship —  “Prior” restraint (prior to publication or event)  — This is common in countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Sometimes it is issue-oriented, such as the notorious ban on gay “propaganda” in Russia.
  • Censorship by press restrictions — One of the issues that set off riots in Turkey in the summer of 2013 was the muzzling of media coverage of protests. Recently, arrests of journalists and photographers to prevent news coverage have also taken place  in California, in Kansas, in New York and  in Appalachia. Press restrictions also include things like press pools and embedding arrangements.
  • Calls for censorship over blasphemy, (insults to religion)   especially following a 2012 movie and Arab reactions;
  • Intolerance and “hate speech” about ethnic and cultural minorities, and the differences between US and European laws;
  • Censorship by lawsuit —  Post-publication restraints — This includes lawsuits for defamation, invasion of privacy and other alleged harms to the reputations of public officials and figures. In the US, libel law favors defendants in cases involving public people and public issues.  In some other countries,  libel laws  strongly favor plaintiffs, although in April of 2013,one of the most plaintiff-oriented countries,  Britain,  amended its defamation law.  The Committee to Protect Journalists in 2013 was advocating an end to criminal sedition and defamation laws in Africa.
  • Variations in Intellectual Property (copyright) laws and exceptions in the form of political parody and educational fair use;

The momentum to “harmonize” international media law is not strong, despite swift improvements in international media technology.   However, the momentum been helped along by Monroe Price and the Oxford University Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy.

Arab cultures and religion

When riots spread across the Arab world in 2012, they were triggered in part by a video carried on YouTube about fictional flaws with Islam.  Similar incidents have included the reaction to Salmon Rushdie‘s novel in 1988, the Danish cartoons of 2005 and the threats of a demented Florida pastor to burn a Koran in 2010.

The US apologized for the video, which is about all the US government had any power to do withing the law, but some in the US criticized the apology.   The Denver Post newspaper insisted that Muslims accept provocative speech, not only in the US, but in worldwide media and said that being American meant never having to apologize.

We fault the US embassy in Cairo for its now controversial pre-riot press release — which it later reaffirmed before the Obama administration distanced itself from the statement — that not only condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” but claimed such efforts amounted to “abuse” of free speech. Sorry, provocative speech is not an abuse of free speech. It is precisely the speech the First Amendment exists to protect.

The First Amendment exists to protect speech in the US — not the Arab world. The rules concerning freedom of speech worldwide are found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  They are similar to, but not identical to, the US First Amendment. So Americans must reach for a larger idea about the world they live in.

Americans tend to stand up for their rights. They would never put up with   the kind of censorship imposed by many Arab governments. For example, in 2012, Saudi Arabia’s king charged a young journalist with blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty, for simply expressing religious doubts over Twitter. Most people have these doubts, and only a few centuries ago, Europe and the US also had strong laws forcing religious conformity. Yet, as Thomas Jefferson famously said, those laws made half the world fools and the other half hypocrites.

Democracy works because ugly ideas can be shouted down or laughed off the stage. As British legal theorist John Stuart Mill said,  one of the most important reasons for free speech is so that we can perceive truth more clearly in its contrast with error.  Surely, in all of history, there are few errors more profound than insulting the religion of our neighbors. As the great Indian leader Ashoka said almost 2,250 years ago: “Contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others.”

 Protests in Turkey, Iran, Egypt

June, 2013 — Protesters in Istanbul display a banner depicting Turkish media as the monkeys who see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil. As Turkey’s largest city was convulsed by widespread anti-government protests and vigorous police responses, the country’s broadcasters looked away. (AP photo)

Perhaps the most important function of the press is to serve as a witness to suffering. As Pia Lopez wrote for the Sacramento Bee in July of 2013, the most important element fueling protests in Turkey was the absence of media to help carry the message.

“As police reacted with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protests, Turkish television stations aired cooking shows, soap opera reruns and a documentary about penguins,” Lopez wrote. “People following events through Twitter and Facebook took to the streets.”

The kind of “Arab Spring” protests that involved revelations through Wikipedia (as in Tunisia) or social media messages (as in Egypt) were not considered possible in relatively democratic Turkey. But the silence of the press itself became an issue, Lopez said.

According to a two-day online survey conducted by two academics from Istanbul Bilgi University, the silence of the press influenced 84 percent of respondents to attend protests. The authoritarian attitude of the prime minister, disproportionate use of force by police and violations of democratic rights were other top issues that spurred people to protest.

And so a small demonstration ostensibly about a development proposal and a plan to cut trees in an iconic park in Istanbul turned into so much more in this country with a 99 percent Muslim population that was touted as a democratic, pro-capitalist model for Arab Spring countries emerging from dictatorships. The protests in 78 Turkish cities clearly were not just about proposed destruction of a park in Istanbul.

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