Free Speech or Common Sense?

IN Media Freedom | 19/05/2011
How free can speech be before it offends someone and can we have a legally acceptable common sense approach to the issue,
RAJASHRI DASGUPTA outlines the debate currently raging in Denmark.
In the name of free speech, can speech really be free for all? The courts in Denmark, a country said to be a haven of free speech, do not think so. People are welcome to their opinion and even free to air their views in private, stated the court, but these very views, expressed freely in public, can be judged racist by some.  The high court in Denmark recently found the most ardent campaigner of free speech guilty of racist remarks against Muslims.
The current controversy concerns the president of the Danish Free Press Society and The International Free Press Society, Laars Hedegaard, who was on trial earlier this year for making racist remarks. On May 3, the High Court of Denmark found Hedegaard guilty of hate speech under Article 266 b of the Danish penal code. He was fined $ 1,000.
(Art. 266 b states, “Whoever publicly or with the intent of public dissemination issues a pronouncement or other communication by which a group of persons are threatened, insulted or denigrated due to their race, skin colour, national or ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation, is liable to a fine or incarceration for up to two years.”)
The recent court ruling on Hedegaard indicates that public figures, in particular, have a greater responsibility about who they make statements to in private and for what purpose.  
Denmark is politically sharply divided about ethnic minorities and their culture in the country. Islam being the second largest religion in Denmark, the current controversy about free speech can be viewed in the context of the growing unease among many who accuse the government of “Islamophobia” that has led to the tightening of the Danish borders and stricter immigration laws.
Members of nationalist political parties are openly hostile towards immigrants and refugees from Islamic countries and the Immigration minister’s recent call to immigrants to “assimilate” – not integrate —with Danish society was met with a howl of protests. A book by Professor J F Thomsen based on a study of 1500 questionnaires in 2002 also reveals the confusion and hostility Danes feel towards Muslim immigrants.
In fact, many in Denmark agree that one of the lessons on the controversy over the cartoons on Mohammed made by a Danish cartoonist in 2005 was that freedom of speech is taken seriously in this country, often beyond what other cultures and communities might find acceptable. The debates on freedom of speech and censorship are perennial favourites in the country. When a TV channel scrapped the terror sitcom, “Cellen” ( The Cell) about three incompetent terrorists on the plea it was “not the right time” to air it, many thought it was censorship. The programme was postponed twice before, now it has been trashed.
The controversy surrounding free speech and hate speech will find resonance in many parts of the world and is significant in the context of India. Many agree that there is a thin border line between offensive and hate speech but are divided as to where the border lies.  India is familiar with incidents of hate speech and hate crimes against marginalized communities like the minorities and dalits. 
Until recently, hate speech cassettes against Muslims by the ‘priestess of hate,’ the vitrolic member of the Sangh Parivar, Sandhvi Rithambara was freely available. Rithambara will be remembered as the person instrumental in inciting the passions of Hindus in 1992 in the run up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Gujarat 2002 will be remembered for the hate crimes as mobs of Hindu fanatics killed and maimed thousands of Muslim men and women.
According to the National Commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, more than 98,000 crimes were committed against the lower castes in two years between 1994 and 1996; these are crimes that have been reported to the police, while many are not reported for fear of reprisal.
The current controversy in Denmark dates back to December 2009 when Hedegaard, a historian and a journalist, gave a 35- minute long interview to a blogger where he stated, among other things, that girls in Muslim families are raped by the men at home. Lars never denied the interview but said he was not aware it would be published and made public--- an important clause in the hate speech law in the country. He later expressed regret if his statement indicated that all Muslim men abused their girls. In January this year, the lower court of Denmark did not find Hedegaard’s comments racist though it found it “insulting”. The court dismissed the case against Hedegaard because the interview was made in “private”. It stated that Lars did not know that his taped interview spoken over Christmas lunch would be made public. 
During the trial, Hedegaard received support from an MP of the conservative Danish People’s Party whose statement in support of Hedegaard earned him a fine from a court that said it constituted racism. Internationally too, Hedegaard was supported by people whom he called “freedom fighters around the world.” Except for a few news papers like the UK-based Spectator that ran an article titled, The Danish witch-hunt against the truth tellers in January when Hedegaard came on trial, the English media has been relatively silent on the free speech controversy, almost ignoring Hedegaard’s court battles.
On May 4, the High Court of Denmark overturned the acquittal and ruled Hedegaard guilty of racist comments. The court argued that when Hedegaard had given a taped interview he should have known it would be published. The fact that he had not made an agreement with the blogger for reviewing the interview before it was made public went against the free speech advocate.
On the court judgment, Hedegaard was quoted by the International Free Press Society saying, “The real losers are freedom of speech and Muslim women.” Following the high court verdict on Hedegaard, the Spectator in another article bemoaned, Free speech Dies in Denmark. Where are the western feminists and defenders of free speech now, asks the author of the article.  But the editorial headline in the weekly paper, The Copenhagen Post following Hedeagaard’s conviction reads rather sensibly, A decision in favour of common sense. An approach that is commonly overlooked.
(Rajashri Dasgupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and was recently in Denmark)
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