FAQ: free speech

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

In the near future, Radio Netherlands Worldwide will begin to focus exclusively on free speech stories. But what exactly does 'free speech' mean? Here are a few of the most important points in a simple FAQ.

- What is free speech?

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In practice, the way this is interpreted varies widely from country to country. Under some political systems, the rights of the general population, sometimes referred to as ‘the masses’, are regarded as taking precedence over the rights of the individual. Unfortunately, this allows a lot of flexibility in the way governments react to individual examples of ‘free speech’ with which they disagree. In the worst cases, individuals can be imprisoned and/or tortured for something they have said or written.

Some countries include specific references to the concept of free speech in their constitutions. For example, Webster's New World Law Dictionary defines free speech as “The right, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, to communicate ideas and opinions without government intervention.” This allows extremists the freedom to express opinions that many people would regard as ‘hate speech’.

So ‘free speech’ can be interpreted to mean different things according to the socio-political environment in which the term is used.

- Some organisations that deal with free speech

Article 19
Creates and facilitates human rights campaigns around the world. Provides legal knowledge and representation to those who require it, gathers information and share its knowledge.

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
CJFE was created in response to the large scale killings and kidnappings of journalists in Latin America in the late 1970s.

The Committee to Protect Journalists
Independent, non-profit organisation founded in 1981 which promotes press freedom worldwide.

Electronic Frontier Foundation
EFF was founded in 1990 and champions the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights.

Freedom House
Dedicated to promoting free institutions worldwide. Publishes surveys detailing state of civil liberties, political rights, economic freedom, religious freedom, and press freedom.

Index on Censorship
Index believes that freedom of expression is the foundation of a free society and for over 40 years has defined and defended this right through campaigns, a magazine and website. International programmes promote human rights and give practical support to governments, the media and arts organisations. Index is an international registered charity, with headquarters in London.

Inter American Press Association
Press advocacy group representing media organisations in North America, South America and the Caribbean. IAPA's stated objectives are to defend press freedom; protect the interests of the press in the Americas; promote responsible journalism; and encourage high standards of professional and business conduct.

International Freedom of Expression Exchange
Network of free expression groups that monitors violations worldwide. Issues alerts, publishes a weekly newsletter and hosts a searchable alerts online archive.

Media Legal Defence Initiative
Non-governmental organisation established in 2008 to provide legal assistance to journalists and news media organisations, support training in media law and promote the exchange of information, litigation tools and strategies for lawyers working on media freedom cases.

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media observes media developments in all 56 OSCE participating States. He/she provides early warning on violations of freedom of expression and promotes full compliance with OSCE press freedom commitments.

Reporters Without Borders
An international non-governmental organisation that advocates freedom of the press and freedom of information. Has consultant status at the United Nations.

World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers
The global organisation of the world’s press, representing more than 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries. The organisation was created by the July 2009 merger of the World Association of Newspapers and IFRA, the research and service organisation for the news publishing industry.

World Press Freedom Committee
A group of 37 organisations on five continents, defending the freedom of the press and assisting independent news media organisations around the world.

- Free speech and free media

In countries where the government has sole control over radio and TV, broadcasters who wish to present another point of view have been forced to operate from abroad and broadcast into the country on satellite, internet or shortwave. Examples are North Korea, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

However, freedom of speech may not be the sole motive behind all such broadcasts from abroad. Sometimes, banned political parties and other groups with extreme views will use this method to reach their followers and/or to recruit new ones. The content of their broadcasts may be biased, and in some cases designed specifically to cause unrest in the target country. It is important to distinguish between such broadcasters and those whose sole aim is to provide a platform for all shades of opinion.

- RNW and free speech

Following the Dutch government’s decision to drastically reduce RNW’s budget as from 1 January 2013, the focus of RNW’s output will in future be exclusively on countries which have a low press freedom ranking. This was previously one of the three core tasks in our mission statement, so we already have many years of experience in producing this type of content.

With a limited budget, it is impossible for RNW to serve every country in this category, and additional factors such as the language(s) spoken in the target countries have been taken into consideration. Several organisations produce regular reports on the state of free speech in each country of the world. RNW uses the latest Freedom House reports as a basis for determining editorial priorities.

- Situation in the Netherlands

In all lists of press freedom by country, the Netherlands comes at or very near the top. The first paragraph in Article 7 of the Dutch constitution grants everybody the right to make ideas and feelings public in print without prior censorship, but not exonerating the individual from his/her liabilities under the law. The second paragraph says that radio and TV will be regulated by law but that there will be no prior censorship dealing with the content of broadcasts. The third paragraph grants a similar freedom of speech for other means of making ideas and feelings public, for example through the visual arts, but allowing censorship for reasons of decency when the public that has access may be younger than sixteen years of age.

The penal code has laws sanctioning certain types of expression. Parliament has recently expressed its wish to abolish the law penalizing blasphemy. The Christian Democrat party would however prefer to retain it and expand it to include non-religious philosophies of life, thus making it possible to anticipate and prevent an international outcry similar to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2008. There are laws that punish discriminatory speech.

- Free speech and Geert Wilders

In the past few years, Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders has focussed attention on what is and is not acceptable as an expression of free speech. In June 2011, Mr Wilders was acquitted of inciting hatred of Muslims in a court ruling. His Freedom Party (PVV) is now the third-largest in parliament, a measure of support for its anti-immigrant stance, and is the minority government's chief ally. But many of Mr Wilders' comments - such as likening Islam to Nazism - are socially divisive.

The presiding judge said Wilders' remarks were sometimes "hurtful," "shocking" or "offensive," but that they "were made in the context of a public debate about Muslim integration and multi-culturalism, and therefore not a criminal act."

The Amsterdam court used a Supreme Court ruling - that an offensive statement about someone's religion was not a criminal offence - as the basis of its decision, leading to acquittal, the judge said. "I think it is good that he has been acquitted," said Elsbeth Kalff, an 83-year-old retired sociologist in Amsterdam. "He has been told that he has been rude and offensive but it is on the border of what the criminal law allows. It is good; the Netherlands is, after all, a tolerant country and we should keep it that way."

Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at Amsterdam's Free University, said that “This means that his political views are condoned by law, his political rhetoric has been legalised. This has made him stronger politically." His position, holding political power – the minority coalition depends on the support of his Freedom Party to get its legislation through parliament - without the responsibility of being in the government, means he has the freedom to express views that would not be tolerated in a formal coalition.

Minorities groups say they will now take the case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, arguing the ruling means that the Netherlands has failed to protect ethnic minorities from discrimination. "The acquittal means that the right of minorities to remain free of hate speech has been breached. We are going to claim our rights at the UN," said Mohamed Rabbae of the National Council for Moroccans.

Mr Wilders, who has received numerous death threats and has to live under 24-hour guard, argues that he is exercising his right to freedom of speech when criticising Islam. He has now widened his focus to include immigrants from Eastern Europe, in particular Poles, estimated at more than 150,000. In early 2012, the PVV set up a website on which Dutch citizens could express their complaints at the behaviour of Polish citizens living in the Netherlands. The website infuriated the European Parliament, as Poland is a member of the EU.

- Limits of free speech

Civilised societies recognise that there have to be limits to what is tolerated. Exactly what is or isn’t tolerated may vary to some degree between countries, but broadly speaking there will be specific laws to protect individuals from abuse on racial, religious or sexual grounds.

In his book “On Liberty" (1859) John Stuart Mill suggested that such laws amount to those which “prevent harm to others." But in 1895 Joel Feinberg argued that Mill’s definition should be broadened to include the concept of “offence” as well as “harm”.

‘Hate speech’ comes into both categories, and is widespread in the US, where the perpetrators defend their right to speak out by citing the First Amendment in the Constitution which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

International broadcasters try hard not to offend, but this is difficult as different societies are offended by different things, and to different degrees.

- Free speech and new media

The internet – and in particular Twitter – has introduced new ways for individuals to express ideas and feelings instantly. At the same time, this has opened new possibilities for people to convey ideas which are forbidden on traditional platforms. In many countries, there are no specific laws covering the use of digital media by individuals, and this often gives rise to abuse of new media platforms.

It is generally accepted that companies that provide these platforms – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like – cannot police the activities of millions of users on a daily basis, and cannot be held responsible for abuse of their facilities by individuals. However, the companies are expected to, and generally do, take action against these individuals when abuses are brought to their attention, usually by closing accounts for breaches of their use. Most websites and platforms require a user to agree to these terms when signing up, but few people ever read the terms in detail.

In the absence of specific laws covering these new platforms, courts in democratic countries generally apply the same criteria as for print media when considering whether an individual has broken any laws. However, in countries where freedom of speech is restricted, the authorities often take a harder line against individuals who blog or tweet than they do against traditional media. There’s a fear factor involved: the authorities in these countries fear losing control over the expression of ideas, and try to discourage people from using these new platforms by making an example of those who get caught using them.

- Interference with international broadcasts

In 2011 five international broadcasters - Voice of America (VOA), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Deutsche Welle (DW), Audiovisuel Extérieur de la France (AEF) and Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) – condemned the deliberate interference of satellite broadcasting signals to silence independent media and prevent free access to information.

Meeting in London, the Directors General of these broadcasting organisations issued a statement, noting, “We have seen an escalation this year in the number of pressure tactics that have been used on the media being accessed by audiences in Iran and other countries.”

In particular, they noted an increase in deliberate interference – known as “jamming” – of international satellite programming in Persian. Satellite operators indicate that the interference originates in Iran. According to the five international broadcasters the jamming is intended to prevent Iranian audiences from seeing foreign broadcasts that the Iranian government finds objectionable.

“We call upon the regulatory authorities to take action against those who deliberately cause interference to satellite signals on the grounds that this is contrary to international conventions for the use of satellites. We specifically ask national telecommunications authorities to take up the issue at an upcoming meeting of the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva.

“We also call upon satellite operators and service providers to recognise the importance of the role they play in ensuring the free flow of information.”

- Free speech and free expression

Freedom of speech is the right to communicate one's ideas via speech. The term ‘freedom of expression’ has a wider definition, and includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas regardless of the medium used – for example, through art or cartoons. In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country, and is subject to limitations, such as libel, slander, obscenity and incitement to commit a crime.

The right to freedom of expression is recognised as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Article 19 of the ICCPR states that "everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice". Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary "for respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals".