The question of just how free our speech is, or should be, has become a matter of debate following the terrorist attacks in France last week.
Article 19, a charity that promotes the right to free expression, acknowledges that freedom of speech is not absolute and can be limited when it conflicts with other rights as defined by International Law. These exceptions are:
- the rights or reputations of others
- national security
- public order
- public health
But how these exceptions are interpreted varies from country to country:
In the UK it is an offence to say or write anything that includes ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour intending or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress or cause a breach of the peace’ [Article 10 of the European Convention].
In Thailand it is a crime, punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment, to criticize, insult, or threaten the king, queen, royal heir apparent, or regent.
In India any speech or expression which brings contempt towards government is punishable by imprisonment of three years to life
Holocaust denial, as well as denial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, are illegal in Switzerland. Holocaust denial is also illegal in Germany.
In the UAE it is a crime to use a computer network to ‘damage the national unity or social peace’.
Blasphemy against all religion is illegal in Sudan, Indonesia and in the Philippines, where it is also a criminal offence to ‘sell, give away, or exhibit films, prints, engravings, sculpture or literature which are offensive to morals’.
Blasphemy against the Roman Catholic church is illegal in Malta.
Blasphemy against Islam is illegal in many countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In some countries it is punishable by death.
In Israel it is a civil offence to publicly call for a boycott against Israel. In a survey of Israelis conducted in 2014, the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 46% of Israelis believe that ‘harsh, public criticism’ of Israel should be outlawed.
In May 2008, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, called for the media to practise ‘voluntary self-censorship’, adding that ‘It is not a moral or media sin to respect prophets’.