Tag Archives: free speech

In the name of freedom

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“In a free state, tongues too should be free,” wrote Erasmus in “The Education of a Christian Prince.” Almost 500 years have passed since the Dutch Renaissance humanist wrote his 1516 handbook for rulers and the principle of free speech is more cherished and carefully guarded than it has ever been. But at the same time, that very freedom is presenting challenges that Erasmus could never have envisioned.

Ever since British Parliament refused in 1694 to renew the Licensing Act, which required texts to be submitted to censors so they could permit the printing of pamphlets or books, the freedom to express thoughts without censorship and the freedom of the press have been basic rights. However, the power to say or write whatever you see fit is proving a stern test of democratic ideals. Over time, other laws have been enacted – laws of libel, slander, contempt, privacy and confidentiality – to balance the greater good inherent in the right to free speech with the equally necessary rights of the individuals to protect themselves from falsehoods and malicious attacks. Now, while contending with questions of how absolute the right to free speech should be, we are pondering another aspect: Should those who speak or write be allowed to conceal their identity?

The brutal and deplorable murder of journalist Sokratis Giolias has stoked this debate in Greece. Giolias, the head of news at Proto Thema radio and for many years part of the investigative teams of more high-profile reporters, was also one of the journalists behind the anonymous blog “Troktiko.” By far Greece’s most popular web log, Troktiko was a sensation that spawned numerous copies and even prompted some of the media’s big guns to hoist their grimy flags up the Internet’s mast. But nobody was as good, or at least as popular, as Troktiko, which boasted an inconceivable 1.4 billion hits until Giolias was gunned down outside his home on July 19 in a hit claimed by the Sect of Revolutionaries terrorist group. On July 24, his Troktiko partners said they were too upset to continue and suspended the blog.

Troktiko’s meteoric rise and dramatic demise have brought into sharp focus the differing views on the validity of anonymous blogs. It’s almost an impossible debate to have in the shadow cast by a man’s murder, particularly when his killers have the gall to link his death to the content of his blog. Nevertheless, important questions are being asked and it’s right they should be posed – questions like whether the author or authors of a blog claiming to be a source of information should be allowed to hide their identity. If we are not privy to a person’s, or group of people’s, beliefs; if we do not know who is backing them; if we cannot tell whether they have a specific agenda or if we are unaware of their background, should they be allowed a public platform?

The simple, immediate answer should be: “yes.” Anonymous blogs are a significant tool in the effort to build a more transparent, aware and open society. They offer citizens the ability to speak directly to others without the interference of the powerful – the state and the media, for instance – who control the conventional channels of communication. Blogs give people, be they whistleblowing civil servants in Europe or pro-democracy protesters in Iran, the opportunity to turn the tables. But blogs exist on the technological cusp of a very fine dividing line, where unfettered opinion can very easily become unsubstantiated rumor-mongering or barroom bragging.

A good example of the power and usefulness of an anonymous blog was Night Jack, an online diary kept by a British detective constable, in which he gave a unique insight into his job and provided commentary on the decisions made by his superiors. The blog was such a success that it won the Orwell Prize for political writing last year. Soon afterward, its author, Richard Horton of the Lancashire Police, was exposed by a newspaper. He committed grave errors in describing specific cases he had been involved in and giving advice to readers about how to react if they were questioned or arrested by the police. The Times argued successfully in court that it was in the public’s interest for readers to know who this man was. The judge in the case ruled that blogging was “essentially a public rather than private activity” and that bloggers had no automatic right to anonymity. What the Night Jack case made clear was that bloggers who are emboldened by their cloak of secrecy and stray from their original mission of being reliable, honest and necessary sources of information undermine the concept of anonymous blogs and free speech.

Troktiko, like so many similar blogs in Greece, was gripped by this illness. Its team of writers felt that because nobody knew who they were, they could publish anything about anyone. The site became a mixture of regurgitated snippets of news from other sources and unsubstantiated rumors presented as facts. Often these were pointed allegations that brought into question the motives of those posting them and the purpose of the blog itself. Although it billed itself as delivering a blow to the marriage of convenience between business and political interests and the media, Troktiko resembled nothing more than the ugly offspring of this questionable relationship, publishing claim after claim about the very same journalists, publishers, businessmen and politicians.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. The futility of blogs like Troktiko was confirmed this week when whistleblowing website Wikileaks – which relies on contributions from anonymous whistleblowers — released to three newspapers tens of thousands of US military documents that indicated the extent to which the West has lost its way in Afghanistan. The impact of these leaks around the world underlined that there is no substitute for fact, regardless of whether it is made public by the conventional or new media and whether people put their name to it or not.

“If journalism is good it is controversial by its nature,” said the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, who would have every reason to remain anonymous given his site’s tendency to anger the US military with the information it publishes. For Troktiko, controversy became an end in itself, not a by-product of its investigative work. Its frequent exchange of vitriol with other sites or personalities and the publication of foul-mouthed comments by readers reduced the blog to an electronic manifestation of a schoolyard slanging match between teenagers.

Whether anonymous or not, bloggers who want to stitch their way into the fabric of the information society face a severe credibility test. Those who see themselves as challengers to what they like to term the “dead tree” media (newspapers and magazines) should be aware that they can’t hide behind the technological curtain of the Internet. They will be exposed if they rely on just gossip and opinion instead of facts and genuine reporting.

Tongues, or in this case keyboards, should be unfettered, and anonymous if necessary, but even Erasmus would now accept that having the freedom of speech does not also mean you are free of responsibilities.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on July 30, 2010.

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That’s democracy

Poltergeist

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

A rambunctious protest and widespread criticism of the BBC were just some of the consequences of the British broadcaster’s decision last week to allow Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party (BNP) to take part in a televised debate.

Since Greece is a much more mature democracy, we do not experience such consternation. We put the leader and members of our own ultra-right wing nationalist party on TV almost on a daily basis, ask them soft questions, let them say what they like and nobody bats an eyelid. After all, that’s democracy.

Of course, the leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), Giorgos Karatzaferis, would reject any accusation of extremism, racism or fascism, allegations that have been leveled against Griffin and BNP.

Over the years, Karatzaferis has diligently tried to erase his party’s uncomfortable past. He now presents himself as the nationalist with the friendly face, the caring populist. But all the airbrushing in the world will not cover up the skeletons in LAOS’s closet, such as the fact that one of the party’s most prominent MPs, Makis Voridis, had previously been the leader of the Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), an ugly little anti-immigration, pro-death-penalty party that was officially affiliated with the BNP.

Voridis, one of several LAOS members with a dark past, also developed close ties with the leader of France’s far-right Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen. Shortly before the Hellenic Front was incorporated into LAOS, Voridis paraded Le Pen as a guest at his wedding.

Griffin and Karatzaferis can only dream of emulating the kind of success that saw Le Pen, the godfather of Europe’s far right, poll second in the French presidential elections of 2002. But Le Pen’s rise is absolutely relevant to the issue of how much coverage, if any, politicians like Griffin and Karatazferis should be given.

By Le Pen’s admission, “the hour that changed everything” for him was in 1984 when he took part in “L’heure de Verite,” a similar political program to “Question Time,” the show Griffin participated in last Thursday. The FN leader had been shunned by the media before then but following his appearance, the party increased its share of the vote in the subsequent European elections from 3.5 percent to 11 percent.

“Small fish become big so long as God gives them life,” said Le Pen. In 21st-century politics, this god is television. That’s why there’s been so much soul searching in Britain about whether Griffin should have been allowed to take part in a discussion involving mainstream politicians.

“When you put the BNP into the mainstream like that, they drag people onto their agenda,” said the Labour MP and first black female deputy to appear on “Question Time,” Diane Abbott. “The program has given Griffin unnecessary exposure, unnecessary credibility, and giving more credibility to a fascist party in the middle of a recession is a very dangerous thing.”

Abbot’s argument is powerful. Television gives politicians and parties a legitimacy they cannot get by handing out leaflets outside train stations or speaking at small gatherings in rural backwaters. If you’re on political talk shows with representatives of other parties then, in the eye of the viewer, you must be their equal. If you’re on TV, you’re part of the establishment. If you’re part of the establishment, then you can attract financing that can help you grow.

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So, if Griffin can draw all this from one appearance on the BBC, what kind of boost is Karatzaferis getting from being the darling of morning shows on Greek television? The LAOS leader worked out some time ago that TV can help him present his party as a legitimate voice in Greek politics. His regular appearances have made him a figure of fun for many but LAOS performances in this year’s European elections and general elections show that some viewers have been tuning in to his populist message.

Even the BNP claimed that more than 3,000 people joined the party immediately after Griffin’s appearance – although given that more than 8 million people watched the program, it’s not really a figure to boast about.

In fact, momentary popularity seems a small price to pay to uphold one of the principles that underpins our democracy: the freedom of speech. After all, the BNP won two seats in June’s European elections and not allowing an elected party fair representation would be dicing with accepted democratic principles. “The true gift to the extreme right is to give them the opportunity to claim that they are being gagged while allowing them to carry on operating and incubating in the shadows,” said Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer weekly.

“Ultimately, the BBC was right about all this,” writes AA Gill in The Sunday Times. “It was a question of free speech and free speech is non-negotiable. It doesn’t come with caveats or committees or right-minded souls. It isn’t open only to reasonable people who hold a clubbable set of values. It can’t be taken from the mouths of those want to steal it from the mouths of others.

“Look at the list of the maligned dictators and murderous nutters who get to speak at the United Nations: Everyone has a right to a microphone.”

However, there’s a key difference between what British viewers saw last week and the Karatzaferis experience in Greece. Griffin was challenged by his fellow panelists, whose aim, as Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent put it “was to pry this limpet of strategic blandness from the rock and expose the unsightly muscle beneath.” Most importantly, though, Griffin had to face questions from the audience.

This produced the most telling moment of the night, when Griffin was confronted about the BNP’s policy of repatriation by a man born in Britain to Asian parents. “This is my country, where do you want me to go?” he asked, before suggesting that members of the audience collect money to buy Griffin a one-way ticket to the South Pole. “That’s a colorless landscape, it would suit you fine,” he told the BNP leader.

Greek politicians do not face this type of confrontation. Debates on Greek TV are usually sanitized coffee-house discussions, where the same old faces gather to spout the same old gibberish at the prompting of a very accommodating host. The presence of an audience that can show irreverence toward these inflated egos remains a foreign concept.

It’s here though, that the crux of the issue lies – although free speech should be cherished and defended, so should the right to challenge what is said. Monologues have no place in democracies and only play into the hands of those who direct their words at a specific audience.

Any publicity that Griffin gained from his appearance on “Question Time” was undone by his inability to rise to the challenges of the audience and his fellow panelists. “I have not been convicted of Holocaust denial,” was his response to a question about past comments that suggested the Holocaust was a myth. When asked about his 2000 meeting with David Duke, a Ku Klux Klan leader, Griffin responded by claiming that the KKK is “an almost totally nonviolent” organization.

The BNP leader’s floundering confirmed one of free speech’s most edifying features – although it provides you with the oxygen of publicity, it also gives you enough rope to choke yourself.

Griffin’s appearance was a two-fold victory for democracy because the freedom of speech was upheld but mostly because the principle that everyone, especially politicians, should be held directly accountable for what they say was immeasurably strengthened. Now, that’s democracy.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 30, 2009.