As compared to the US, with its Bill of Rights, Europe and Australia
often seem less serious about freedom of speech – witness racial
vilification laws and bizarre defamation judgements, neither of which
would pass constitutional muster in America.

But two recent cases show the Europeans, at least, developing some
backbone. Last week, following serious EU pressure, a Turkish court dropped charges
against writer Orhan Pamuk, who had drawn attention to Turkey’s
repression of the Kurds and to the Armenian genocide during World War
I. As the BBC reported, “Brussels had described the case as a litmus test of Turkey’s EU membership credentials.”

In language that sounds familiar from our own sedition debate, Pumuk
had been charged under a law that “makes it illegal to insult the
republic, parliament or any organs of state – and can lead to a
sentence of up to three years in jail.”

Now this week, the Danish government is holding firm against a storm of
protest from Muslim groups after a Danish newspaper published newspaper
cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammad. Libya and Saudi Arabia have
withdrawn their ambassadors from Denmark, and boycotts and street
protests have taken place across the Arab world. The New York Times describes the outbursts as “reminiscent of the 1989 wrath that followed publication of The Satanic Verses.”

The Age
today reports that Hamas, which might be thought to have more important
things on its plate, said “We call on Muslim nations to boycott all
Danish products because the Danish people supported the hateful racism
under the pretext of freedom of expression.”

Denmark’s foreign minister disclaimed any intention “to demonise people
because of religious beliefs,” but defended freedom of speech and
refused to make an official apology. According to the London Times, the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten,
stated through its editor-in-chief: “We maintain the right to freedom
of expression, but we are saddened that we have offended Muslims’
faith. That was not our intention”.

Freedom of speech, however, still doesn’t apply to everyone: in
Austria, holocaust denier David Irving remains in prison. A recent
interview in The Guardian exposes the absurdity of Irving’s martyrdom – foolish persecution is his best chance for keeping his obnoxious cause alive.

Peter Fray

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