The concept of freedom of speech is an old one and one that has been strongly defended and upheld by numerous generations all over the world. But this concept has to be understood very clearly and applied very meticulously so as not to be misused by either party, those advocating it and those censoring it.
There is a very thin line between freedom of speech and either libel or incitement. The law should specify exactly which is which.
As a general rule freedom is defined as that which does not encroach on another’s freedom. The limit of my freedom ends at the limit of yours. If my freedom encroaches on yours, then it is no longer considered as my personal freedom but has turned into aggression against yours.
Freedom of speech also has its limitations and its rules. But in this case it is far more difficult to define. Speech, which includes all form of expression, is our means of conveying thoughts, ideas, feelings and aspirations. If any of those are unfamiliar, are too controversial or too avant guard for the society in which they are expressed, they can be perceived as encroaching on the freedom of said society.
But how can the human race advance or develop without these controversial and avant guard ideas? Where do we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not? Who has the right to define and apply this line?
In open societies this freedom of speech concept could easily spill into what a large part of society might view as ranging from bad taste to pornography, or from outright rudeness to sedition.
In Egypt now we are going through our growing pains of finding the balance of free speech. After a long period where practically everything was considered taboo, from the political situation to the religious and social practices, we are now at the height of the swinging pendulum to the opposite side where nothing is sacrosanct.
Not only is this a time where freedom is sought as the only out after a very long period of oppression, but also freedom of speech is taken beyond many a previously held line of what is considered off limits.
Three extreme cases of what is considered as freedom of speech have come to the foreground and are now causing a great deal of uproar both socially and legally in Egypt.
The first is the case of Islam Beheiry. An Islamic scholar whose outspoken avant guard views about many of the texts held sacrosanct by the established religious entity of Al Azhar landed him in legal hot waters and he is now trying his best to stay out of jail. The second case is of Fatma Naout, a writer whose outspoken criticism of some of the customs practiced and associated with certain religious rituals landed her, again in legal hot waters. She too is trying to stay out of jail.
Both these cases would be viewed in the western world as persecution by an inquisition-like entity of the Middle Ages trying to stop open thought and social advancement. The problem is that in both those cases the law used to indict them is one that does not give any leeway to the judge to use discretion. The law of “Insulting Religion” needs to be thoroughly reviewed by Parliament. This law, in its present state, hands over the judgement to the established religious entity whose very authority is challenged by these new thinkers. Thus the executioner is usurping the role of the judge. Fundamentally this situation is a total miscarriage of justice. The law needs to be very carefully re-evaluated by Parliament.
The third case is slightly different, but more of the same in its misconception of the meaning of freedom of speech. A couple of young men, who consider themselves as representing the “youth of the revolution” have filmed what they thought of as a funny clip whereby they played a joke on some of the most junior and practically illiterate draftees of the police force, and aired it on social media. They totally miscalculated the effect. There was an indignant uproar at such a cruel, humiliating joke being played and the butt of which are young conscripts who are being killed by terrorists everyday in the line of duty.
These two totally misjudged their “little comedy” for not only was it seen by the majority of the public as in very bad taste, but also as insulting and degrading to an entity that is currently being decimated while standing firm trying to protect the public.
How far can free speech go? Who is the judge? How can the laws of the land safeguard freedom of speech as well as ensuring it does not encroach on other freedoms? These are all questions that are being asked and for which Egypt is trying to find the answers. The current Parliament has a very difficult task before it to try to navigate its way safely through all these thorny questions and land safely on a shore that would take the country in the direction of legal justice as well as social advancement.
28 January, 2016