Hollywood, Paris, Pyongyang, Seoul: What is an Appropriate Reaction to Attacks on Free Speech?

January 16, 2015 7:00 AM

We covered the initial decision of Sony not to release a supposedly offensive comedy in several posts in December (our main concerns with self-silencing were outlined here; our short reviews of The Interview from two weeks ago are here).

In the days after an assault on free speech in France, we return again to the American reaction to the Sony hack. In comparison to the European response, at least so far, it does not look very good.

The US case study

We may never know what entity was behind the Sony hack but imagine, for a moment, that it was sponsored by the North Korean government. (That allows us to put aside how much unproductive and uneducated guessing filled up column inches that could have been devoted to a better use.) What would the sponsor have hoped to achieve? Not economic damage to a single company. The objectives would include: undermining leadership in the U.S., eroding trust in the capabilities of the private sector, and fostering mutual accusations and social tensions. As a bonus, the sponsor would have liked to generate fresh finger-pointing, as different groups would accuse each other of cowardice. Based on this incomplete list of the plausible objectives of the “hypothetical sponsors,” how did we do? Here are a couple of reminders:

  • Not missing an opportunity to label Obama soft on despots, Arizona senator John McCain said that "[t]he president does not understand that this is a manifestation of a new form of warfare." McCain also said on CNN: “When you destroy economies, when you are able to impose censorship on the world, and especially the United States of America, it’s more than vandalism. It’s a new form of warfare.”
  • Newt Gingrich tweeted that “With the Sony collapse America has lost its first cyberwar.”
  • Some WSJ editors were ready to recycle military vocabulary (“If the Kim regime is behind the Sony hack, it has won a cyberwar victory”) and display faith in simplistic solutions, arguing that floating USB sticks into North Korea by balloons would “teach Pyongyang a useful lesson in the value the free world attaches to free speech”.

Bruce Schneier was a voice of reason in December, writing that: "We're collectively pegging the hype meter, and the best thing we can do is calm down and take a deep breath ... [P]osting unreleased movies online is not terrorism. It's not even close." (For latest discussions about problems with attributing the attack, see his related posts here and here.)

Things got a little bit better when The Interview was released, although there was some unseemly triumphalism. As Shannon Bond wrote in the Financial Times, "the simple act of going to the movies was embraced as a victory for free speech".

A measured response in the first days after the Charlie Hebdo attack

After the January 7 shooting in Paris, most Europeans seem to have asked: what did the attackers hope to achieve, and how can we prevent that from happening?

Understanding that a key objective of such attacks is to incite a radicalization of both the domestic far right groups and a Muslim minority, the French public emphasized a rejection of violence. According to political scientist Jacques Rupnik, at least for now, “practically everyone is trying differentiate between extremists who attacked Charlie Hebdo and the citizens of France who may be of Muslim religion.”

Marine Le Pen, the leader of a far-right and increasingly popular political party Front National, concluded her declaration on Wednesday by saying she ‘wanted to underscore our French compatriots of Muslim faith who are attached to our nation and our values’ should not be stigmatized. Philip Gourevitch remarked that “she did nothing special to insert herself into the story or to exploit the fears that the Front has long fed on” and The Economist also reported that right-wing politicians have, at least so far, behaved well (“Anti-immigrant politicians mainly held their thunder. The Dutch anti-Muslim populist Geert Wilders even warned against revenge attacks on mosques, saying they should be "safe places".”)

As a sidenote, as I looked for Marine Le Pen’s original statement on YouTube, the website warned me that her content “has been identified by the YouTube community as being potentially offensive or graphic” and that viewer discretion was advised. Her statement was luckily not blocked, but perhaps I would have liked a warning prior to reading her father’s reaction on a different site. (He just trashed the magazine that had just been struck by terrorists for causing “decadence” in France – that statement merits no hyperlink.)

The spirit of unity and non-violence is, unfortunately, only a positive signal that may be temporary. The Economist predicts that, eventually, the attacks will be successful (“[now the] question is how long this cease-fire in Europe's religious struggles will last”) and indeed there were several apparent acts of retaliation against buildings perceived as serving Muslims. The risk of eventual polarization and a lamentable appeal of the politics of fear are serious – but France appeared to be united last weekend.

Free speech in trouble

We have previously commented on concerns about misuse of the National Security Law in South Korea to restrict speech.  But even if the motivations are different, sadly South Korea does not appear to be alone in using state power to restrict speech.  And at least on this score the US is more tolerant than Europe:

  • Thanks to the Irish blasphemy law – this lovely innovation has been on the books since 2009 – you can pay up to €25,000 for offending a religion.
  • In Turkey, you’d better set aside some money and time for fighting lawsuits if you plan to draw images that are critical of the government. Tax investigations as tools for retaliation are also on the menu.
  • In Hungary, state advertising is used to reward the providers of approved content, research institutions who are not friendly enough were closed, and the deterrent media law was softened only after criticism from the EU. According to the New York Times: “Peter Hack, professor of constitutional law at the Budapest university ELTE, argued that with its current constitutional setup, Hungary would never have been admitted to the [European] Union. “But now that it’s in, it thinks it can do what it wants.”” (Janos Kornai warned about one-sided programs on state television already in 2011.)
  • In Spain, can you wear an offensive t-shirt in the presence of suspected extremists? No.

Wait, you seriously cannot wear an offensive t-shirt in Spain?

As described in a recently published memoir by Flemming Rose, who commissioned the Muhammad cartoons at Jyllands-Posten almost ten years ago, this is what happened during the trial of suspected Madrid bombers. A woman whose husband was killed on the train wore a T-shirt showing the prophet:

"An officer of the court informed Maria that her actions were insulting and asked that she discreetly leave the court. A secretary led Maria out. On her way out, the judge asked for her name and to speak with her in private following the day’s proceedings. The defendants watched with obvious satisfaction as she was removed."

As Rose explain in his book, a “courtroom may not be the appropriate place for protest, but the interaction between Maria and her husband’s presumed murderers is quite relevant to the Cartoon Crisis”.

After the Paris attacks, Rose also reminded European readers that a common reaction in the past has been that the victim is, to some extent, to blame:

"Unfortunately, governments defend restrictions on free speech on the grounds of keeping the peace and avoiding clashes between different groups. So they ban hate speech and blasphemy.

In 2004, Theo van Gogh was killed in Amsterdam after making a controversial film about Islamic culture. The Dutch minister of justice responded by saying his life could have been saved if Holland had tougher laws on hate speech."

Meanwhile, back on the Korean peninsula

Pyongyang is not known for debating the delicate balance between free speech and social order. Instead it appears to be heading down road of killing people with whom it disagrees: it has threatened to kill Seoul-based defector Park Sang-hak who has announced plans to launch balloons carrying DVDs and USB memory sticks containing the Interview into North Korea later this month.

All of this brings to mind a comment made by poet Native American activist John Trudell in the documentary film Incident at Ogala. Trudell was the spokesman for the American Indian Movement (AIM) during a period of high tension on reservations in the western US.  In 1979 his pregnant wife, mother-in-law, and three young children were killed when his in-laws house was destroyed in a fire for which he believes that the authorities were responsible. He expresses incomprehension that anyone could perpetrate such violence over as he puts it “words.” Sadly this impulse to meet expression with violence is all too common.

“No matter what they ever do to us, we must always act for the love of our people and the earth. We must not react out of hatred against those who have no sense.” John Trudell, Black Hills Survival gathering, 18 July 1980.

Jan Zilinsky is a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Follow him on Twitter at @janzilinsky.