Free speech must be cherished, lest it slips away from us

Let’s cherish free speech, writes Joss Miller.

Free speech is golden. It is not something that fell out of the sky yesterday. The process leading to this has taken hundreds of years to evolve, and in Western democracies citizens are in general able to enjoy the fruits of that. However, it still remains a fragile concept and unless we are vigilant and truly appreciate what it means it could easily slip away.

The horrific events at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Turkey just over three weeks ago where journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered remind us of how important these basic freedoms are. As a Saudi citizen he had been critical of the Saudi Government, including its involvement in the conflict in Yemen. Fearing for his life he moved to the United States, and had been residing there since September 2017. During this period he was a columnist with the Washington Post, where he continued to express the same concerns about the state of his country. His final newspaper column was published following his death.

In recent decades numerous journalists in various parts of the world have been murdered, unlawfully detained and not infrequently intimidated and harassed. The British/Indian novelist Salman Rushdie was forced to live like a fugitive for many years after being subject to a fatwa issued in 1989 by the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, which meant he was constantly living in a state of apprehension and required police protection.

Many countries in the world have little respect for basic human rights and critics are regularly arrested, incarcerated and silenced. Even in Hong Kong the light of democracy is slowly being extinguished.

So yes, freedoms are tenuous and in fact not the norm. If anything there is an increasing trend towards levels of authoritarianism in countries such as Turkey, but also in Poland and Hungary. The much heralded ``Arab Spring'' promised so much, but seems to have delivered so little. There is however optimism that in Iraq and Afghanistan where recent elections have been held that eventually more democratic and open institutions will emerge.

Western countries, including ours, have no reason to be complacent. The laws of our country embrace freedom of speech principles in the broadest sense, where openness of thought and expression is encouraged. The line is drawn however where threats or intimidation is directed towards a group or individuals. Some European countries have introduced what is called Hate Speech legislation, which is proving to be controversial and problematic. Fortunately New Zealand has not gone down this road. Being offended or having one's sensibilities upset in some way does not justify shutting down free speech. Debate and discussion on any topic needs to be open and robust allowing the greatest possible exchange of ideas. No-one should be protected from a different point of view.

Disturbing trends have emerged in universities where some speakers have been shut down by groups or individuals unwilling to let them speak. University authorities have sometimes been complicit in this. There is the recent example of Massey's vice-chancellor Jan Thomas preventing Don Brash from addressing students on the campus, allegedly because she had security concerns. It transpired however that she had expressed distaste for his views, and was basically acting as a censor. This provoked considerable outrage and demands justifiably were made for her resignation.

Universities are supposed to be the critic and conscience of society, but that is increasingly questionable.

New Zealand's tolerance for free speech also failed the test this year when Auckland Mayor Phil Goff effectively prevented two Canadian speakers from using a council venue. He also spoke disparagingly about them when neutrality should have prevailed. In a free society we should not allow institutions, elected representatives, groups or individuals decide what constitutes acceptable speech, otherwise we are well and truly on the slippery slope towards authoritarianism.

The repulsive and barbaric death of Jamal Khashoggi highlights the need for the utmost respect and support for journalists and all those who have the courage to speak out against forces of oppression.

In our country the threats to free speech are more subtle, but nonetheless exist.

Joss Miller is a retired Dunedin lawyer.



Not, however, in the ODT. Have you read what Everyman et son chien are saying in 'Letters', freely selected by Ed?

Universities are staffed by human beings with convictions and feelings just as valid as those of free speakers, determined to use tertiary institutions as Soapbox venue.