Fri, Feb 09, 2007 - Page 9 News List

How free speech suffers from war

In the cultural conflict between Islam and the West, communication is now a battlefield that spotlights some important questions about free expression and its relationship to violence and extremism

By George Fletcher

Nowadays, words are often seen as a source of instability. The violent reactions last year to the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper saw a confused Western response, with governments tripping over their tongues trying to explain what the media should and should not be allowed to do in the name of political satire. Then Iran trumped the West by sponsoring a conference of Holocaust deniers, a form of speech punished as criminal almost everywhere in Europe.

As Turks well know, it is dangerous to take a position on the Armenian genocide of 1915. The most recent Nobel laureate in literature, Orhan Pamuk, was prosecuted in Istanbul for denying Turkey's official history by saying that the Armenian genocide actually occurred. Other Turks have faced prosecution in Western Europe for saying that it did not.

So words are now clearly a battlefield in the cultural conflict between Islam and the West. The West has learned that, simply as a matter of self-censorship, not legal fiat, newspapers and other media outlets will not disseminate critical pictures of Mohammed, and the pope will no longer make critical comments about Islam. But these gestures of cooperation with Muslim sensibilities have not been met by reciprocal gestures.

Instead, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. The Israeli Foreign Ministry now seeks prosecution of Ahmadinejad for incitement to commit genocide -- a violation of international law.

But the Israeli press is also bellicose. Israeli newspapers regularly carry stories about why Israel may need to attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring an arsenal of nuclear weapons. US President George W. Bush has made similarly ominous, if more vague, statements about Iran. In Germany, preparing and calling for preemptive military strikes from within the government are subject to criminal sanctions.

The world's different legal systems have never been in much agreement about the boundaries of free speech. Even between good neighbors like Canada and the US, there is little agreement about punishing hate speech. Canadians punish racial insults, but Americans do not, at least if the issue is simply one of protecting the dignity of racial minorities.

But threatening violence is more serious. Many countries are united in supporting the principle that if, say, Ahmadinejad does meet the criteria for incitement of genocide, he should be punished in the International Criminal Court. Indeed, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda punished radio station operators who made aggressive public broadcasts urging Hutus to pick up their machetes and murder Tutsis.

A decade ago there would have been a good argument in international law that the Hutu-Tutsi example supports prosecution only after the damage has been done. All the international precedents -- from Nuremberg to the present -- concern international intervention after mass atrocities. Domestic police may be able to intervene to prevent crime before it occurs, but in the international arena there is no police force that can do that.

It follows that the crime of incitement should apply only to cases like Rwanda, where the radio broadcasts actually contributed to the occurrence of genocide. In cases where bellicose leaders make public threats to "bury" another country or to wipe it off the map, the courts should wait, it was said, until some harm occurs.

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