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We are hypocrites on Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech

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A woman tapes her mouth displaying the word Freedom during a rally in Berlin recently to support freedom of speech after the Charlie Hebdo attacks

A woman tapes her mouth displaying the word Freedom during a rally in Berlin recently to support freedom of speech after the Charlie Hebdo attacks

REUTERS

A woman tapes her mouth displaying the word Freedom during a rally in Berlin recently to support freedom of speech after the Charlie Hebdo attacks

The phrase: "papers, please" is a time-honoured one in Europe. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, it's one we will hear more of online. Depressingly, it might be one that the majority of us agree with.

For example, which one of the following two statements would you strongly disagree with?

(i) "The proper authorities should have a way of detecting if terrorists and paedophiles are using certain types of email or social media, even it means they could get access to my feeds."

(ii) "Freedom of speech is fine but I can see plenty of limits when it comes to incitement and hate speech."

A US civil rights advocate would have little problem disagreeing fundamentally with both of these statements. But it's a very different story in Europe and Ireland.

Take France, the epicentre of attention after the Paris attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices two weeks ago. After initially grabbing the high moral ground for defending freedom of expression, it immediately reverted to an old European habit: rounding up and jailing people for saying exactly the same things as Charlie Hebdo does, but focused on different targets.

In one case, a 16-year-old was arrested for posting a cartoon parody of a person holding up a copy of Charlie Hebdo and being hit by bullets. The illustration was exactly the same in shape, form and content as an actual Charlie Hebdo cover with one difference - it was the image of the cartoonist being killed instead of a Muslim. This changed the meaning of the cartoon from "satire" (Muslim being shot) to "defending terrorism" (cartoonist being shot). Thus, his cartoon got him locked up.

At least 68 other people were rounded up in similar fashion last week in France. And there is little outrage about it. The only ones who appear aghast are - predictably - Americans.

Here, Data Protection Minister Dara Murphy said this week that blanket surveillance of social media wasn't an answer to combat terrorism. "Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and the protection of privacy are core tenets of the European Union, which must be upheld," he said.

This sounds good, but there probably isn't much substance behind it. In Ireland, we don't really have much of a problem curtailing free speech or communications when it's 'required'. The majority here agreed with a law that criminalised the broadcast of a person's voice if that person was a member of a particular political party (Sinn Fein). Even now, there aren't too many who regret that law.

And like most points of view, there is some substance to it. In a volatile socio-political environment, some speech can turn to incitement. That can lead to people being killed or burned out of their homes.

So is that what's going on in France? Sadly, no. We know that publishing a photo of an Islamic prophet will seriously offend and enrage millions of people. We know that it will lead to riots and killings, far worse than much of what was seen in the darkest days of the Northern Ireland troubles.

It is clearly inciteful. And yet publishing it is not banned: 'freedom of speech' prevails.

But remove Muslims as the target of the satire and it's an entirely different narrative. Now it's "incitement". Now, those who make the distasteful jokes are now rounded up and given prison sentences.

This hypocrisy can't really be squared. But none of us really want it to be, either. France, like almost every European country, is not deeply interested in freedom of speech at all. Unlike the US, freedom of speech is not a European cultural tradition.

If we're honest, the only reason that Charlie Hebdo's offensive cartoons are not banned is that they are published in a country with the largest anti-Muslim political party in Europe (the Front Nationale). Parading in front of Charlie Hebdo's offices is as much of a nod to those who dislike Muslims as being part of any deeply-held tradition of free speech. After his pro-Charlie Hebdo posturing last week, the French president's poll ratings rose significantly. It's hard to ignore those kind of political rewards.

Is it ironic that all of this privacy diminution is happening at the same time as a pious European movement toward the 'right to be forgotten' online? Or could it be part of the same cynical movement? Is it simply too dark to consider that the same small cabal of people - police, intelligence agencies and others - want to get more of the keys to your emails, texts and communications history while, at the same time, cutting you off from information you can discover about them and their powerful friends?

One would like to attribute the best of intentions to democratically elected leaders. But too many of us think that life is simply better when people pipe down, stop asking embarrassing questions and agree to be monitored more closely.

Vive l'Europe.

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