The tug-of-war for freedom of speech

Following the events in France the freedom of speech catch-cry has been ringing very loud and very clear across the globe.

In Paris alone around 3 million men, women and children marched the streets of France to protest against the terror attacks that took place on their own soil.

Soon after, millions of people throughout the world were inspired to do the same and show solidarity with the French by taking part in marches and memorials. A good majority however took to social media and joined the #JeSuisCharlie social media campaign. #JeSuisCharlie has already become one of the most popular hashtags in Twitter’s history within a month of it first being used on social media.

Freedom of speech! Freedom of speech!

It all happened so quickly.

The attacks took place in France; then protests sparked across the globe in support of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and freedom of speech; then chatter between politicians within and beyond the European Union to unite in the battle against global terrorism; then the terror raids in Belgium …

And then the release of Charlie Hebdo’s sold out and most popular issue to date depicting a forlorn prophet Mohammed.

This is where things got even more complicated and problematic (than what they already were) regarding freedom of speech.

At a time when people are already swept up in passions and feelings of defiance, anger, fear and sadness there still has to be some time to pause and reflect; to reflect on the events that have passed and, more importantly, to reflect on the impact these events have on other people in general.

The assassinations of the Charlie Hebdo victims were absolutely deplorable; no one deserves to die in such violence and fear. Nor was it fair that at least 10 people were murdered, and over 100 injured, in Niger because of reprisal attacks in response to Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of Mohammed in their latest issue.

From Africa to Europe to Asia and the Middle East, people from the Muslim world are having their say and, evidently, it hasn’t always been a peaceful process.

SO… my question is: can anyone on earth have freedom of speech without consequences?

Do people have the indisputable right to express whatever they want even if it is at the expense of others?

While we aren’t absolutely responsible for how others respond to us we can’t deny that our own freedom of speech inevitably affects other people. That’s just the way it goes.

Sometimes the impact of what we say or do goes well beyond what we ever planned or envisioned.

I doubt the cartoonist who drew the latest Charlie Hebdo cover ever thought his work would spark the passions of young people in Niger to go and kill and injure other Nigeriens who weren’t Muslim by torching schools, churches, an orphanage, hotels and liquor stores that sold French wine and champagnes.

To make matters even more complicated it’s obvious leaders and normal citizens alike have differing notions on what freedom of speech even means in the first place.

French president Francois Hollande said anti-Charlie Hebdo protesters in other countries do not understand France’s attachment to freedom of speech: “There are tensions abroad where people don’t understand our attachment to the freedom of speech. We’ve seen the protests, and I would say that in France all beliefs are respected … I still want to express my solidarity [with Muslims], but at the same time France has principles and values, in particular freedom of expression.”

Over 800,000 took part in protests against Charlie Hebdo in Chechnya alone. That’s a lot of people protesting within a single and distinct region in Russia.

The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, said: “We see that European journalists and politicians under false slogans about freedom of speech and democracy declared the freedom of boorishness, and uncivilly insult religious feelings. About what freedom of speech are they [speaking] in Paris and other Western capitals?”

And so it’s evident that there’s a real struggle when it comes to freedom of speech.

We very well may be able to say whatever we want it but it’s still worth sparing a thought on knowing how to use our freedom of speech well.

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