Charlie Hebdo: Growing controversy in UK over freedom of expression limits

Marwan Sultan in London , Wednesday 28 Jan 2015

A petition has been launched calling on the British government define the limits of freedom of speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in France

Charlie Hebdo
A display copy of the latest issue of satirical French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo (Photo: Reuters)

Thousands of British people have appealed to their government to define the limits of freedom of speech and expression.

The UK Muslim community supported the appeal, amid anger at the UK prime minister’s remarks on the “right to offend religion.”

In a petition to the Ministry of Justice, more than 25,000 people say they “want a legal, binding definition of the term: freedom of speech and expression."

A ministry spokeswoman told Ahram Online the UK is committed to freedom of expression as a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, which also makes clear that this right also carries duties and responsibilities. 

“What are the boundaries? What is right, what is wrong? What will get me arrested, what is my right?” the petition asked.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) supported the petition.

The call comes after Prime Minster David Cameron disagreed with the Pope’s comments on freedom to insult religion.

Commenting on the French Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine’s Prophet Mohammed cartoon, Pope Francis said “one cannot make fun of faith.”

“Not Islamophobia”

On 7 January, two masked gunmen entered the magazine offices in Paris, killing 11 people, including the magazine's editor.

The cover of the magazine's latest edition, published after the attack, featured a caricature of the Prophet Mohammad weeping while holding a sign saying "I am Charlie."

This behaviour led to criticism from people in Muslim-majority countries who said the magazine's editors were being unnecessarily provocative.

Several countries witnessed protests against the Charlie Hebdo caricature.

Tens of churches were torched and tens killed and injured in violent clashes between protesters and the security forces in Niger.  

Pope Francis said ‘every religion has its dignity’ and there was an obligation to speak for the ‘common good’.

However, asked to react to this comment, Cameron enthusiastically disagreed.

“I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion,” he said in an interview with CBS, the American news network.

 “I’m a Christian; if someone says something offensive about Jesus, I might find that offensive, but in a free society I don’t have a right to wreak vengeance on them,” he added.

Cameron called also for accepting that newspapers, magazines, can publish things that are offensive to some, as long as it’s within the law and we should defend this.

The petition argued there should be defining lines between defamation and freedom of speech and expression.

 “If drawings defaming the Prophet of Islam are considered freedom of expression, not Islamophobia, then what are the boundaries for Freedom of Speech, which are especially needed for publishers and journalists?”

It also asked: “How much defamation can be accepted?”

Duties and responsibilities

Since the petition was signed by more than 10,000 people, the Justice Ministry is expected to respond officially.

If the petition was signed by 100,000 people it could be introduced for full debate in the House of Commons where the government would be expected to respond to questions on the issue.

“We would obviously stress that we are a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, which confirms the right to freedom of expression”, a spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry told Ahram Online.

While the Article 10 of the ECHR obliges the UK to uphold the right to freedom of expression, it also makes clear that “freedom of expression also carries duties and responsibilities.”

The department says it is up to the courts to decide on these duties and responsibilities on individual cases.  

It also believes that the right of freedom of expression can be limited when prescribed by law and as is necessary in a democratic society for reasons such as national security, public safety, prevention of crime or the protection of the reputation or rights of others, amongst other things. 

On the differences of opinion on where the limits on freedom of expression should lie, it says the UK approach “seeks to balance rights of the individual and those of the community and to provide a sufficient degree of certainty as to what is permissible conduct, whilst recognising that this will inevitably depend, at times, on the context.”

MCB, a national representative umbrella body with over 500 affiliated national, regional and local organisations, mosques, charities and schools, believe while Muslims do believe in freedom of speech, this right should not be abused.

 Muslims “do respect the right for people to say what they believe to be correct. However, freedom of speech should not be translated in to a duty to offend”, MCB said in a statement.

“It is common knowledge that absolute freedom of speech does not exist. There are laws to protect the dignity and properties of people,” the statement said.

MCB urged governments, civil society and our media “to foster a culture of mutual respect and unity, not one of division and disdain.”

“Contradictions in the laws”

It is understood that the signatories are mix of Muslims and non-Muslims.

The petition is being published by the UK government website. It will be open for signatures until 30 March.

According to the e-petition rules signatories should UK nationals and residents.

They also condemned the Hash-tag #KillAllMuslims which was trending on twitter saying it is “inciting genocide” and cannot be “considered a freedom of speech."

The petition told the government that “it must work to remove the doubts” while “there is so much debate about what constitutes freedom of speech."

The Muslim Association of Britain has strongly supported the call for defining the meaning of freedom speech. It believes this right should not be absolute.

However, Khalil Charles, MAB spokesman said any limits on this right “should be narrow.”

MAB says it works to promote interfaith and intra-faith communication, spread mainstream Islamic ideas and values to British society and create hope for people who would like to build a tolerant multicultural society.

Its spokesman disagreed with Cameron’s remarks on the right to offend religion.

While MAB cast the recent Paris attacks "terrorist", "barbaric" and an attack on freedom, it called for the boundaries of this freedom to be defined. 

Charles pointed out that even in France, there were people calling for limits to the right of free expression.

He added that former French president Jacques Chirac once said, “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions should be avoided …. (and) freedom of expression should be exercised in a spirit of responsibility.”

MAB has also called on the UK government to review anti-hate laws to clear “its contradictions.”

While the laws criminalise hate speech against Jews and Hindus, they do not consider inciting hatred against Muslims or Christians an offence. 

The UK is widely believed to be home to one of the most diverse Muslim communities in the world with about three million in total.

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