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Authoritarians of the World Unite!

Foes of freedom of the press surely welcome the new measures being proposed and discussed on the very highest levels of the EU.

by Peter Gross 31 October 2018

In the bizarre world of the 21st century, Western liberal institutions appear willing to curtail freedom of speech and the press to shelter society from “extremism,” mediated racial abuse and hate, discrimination, disinformation, and “bad versions” of nationalism. There is also the tiny matter of eliminating media denigration of politicians – such as by The Sun in the UK, which called EU leaders “dirty rats” and “mobsters.”   


With these noble protective goals in mind, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently announced that the commission plans to fine internet companies if they do not remove “extremist” content one hour after its posting. Chiming in with Juncker's concerns and paternalistic instincts, Vera Jourova, the commissioner for justice, consumers, and gender equality called for “potential new regulations for the media,” and promoted an “approach to media based on quality and smart regulation, if needed.”  


The stalwart Juncker-Jourova tag team harbors dangerously misguided instincts to protect society against something from which it never needs safeguarding. These plans and proposals are a recipe for establishing slippery slopes of both selective censorship and self-censorship, which could grow beyond the deceptively narrow and malleable definitions of “extremism,” “hate,” “discrimination,” “bad nationalism,” and so on. Is everyone who is concerned about refugees flooding Europe “extremist,” “hate-filled,” “discriminatory,” and a “bad nationalist”?


By even entertaining the operationalization of these “protections,” the commission is providing a welcome ideational template for Central and East European political establishments. They are already highly inventive in concocting definitions of “extremist” and other “unacceptable” speech and media content, in their never-ending attempts to restrict the media and individuals, particularly those in opposition.


Freedom of speech may have certain limited boundaries, but those limitations cannot go much beyond the equivalent of not yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater – a principle established to protect public order and the physical safety of people in public places.


Although freedom of expression ought to be responsibly employed, it is impossible to legislate this. We must not restrict the expression of even the most noxious and nasty ideas, which might encourage unenlightened sentiments and actions. That would eliminate opportunities to openly counter such ideas and educate people, and would disarm the good guys.


Limits on speech and the press drive poisonous ideas and their authors underground, where they hide and fester, possibly giving the deceptive impression to the world that they don’t exist. Even worse, attempts at repressing any kind of freedom in the press, or public speech, become subject to double standards and to hypocritical treatment by the authorities. They also inspire those who want to express “extremism” of any kind to mask their ideas and speech, adding to the perversity of their villainous intentions.


Witness what is happening in Germany, where the long-standing ban on both the Communist and Nazi parties and their ideas has not greatly hindered them re-organizing under different monikers and promoting anti-liberal, anti-democratic notions quite openly.


Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, there are instances when speaking and writing against public officials is deemed a form of “extremism” and earns the culprit a libel or insult suit, a beating, even death.


Let’s not forget Turkey, either, where “insulting Turkishness” – whatever that really means – can land you in jail.


The dangers and absurd outcomes of plans meant to “protect” society have recently been demonstrated in France. In 2015, in response to terrorist attacks in her country, Marine Le Pen, head of the anti-immigrant, right-wing National Rally (formerly the National Front), tweeted photos of ISIS atrocities, including the decapitated body of an American reporter. Now she is charged with distributing “violent messages that incite terrorism or pornography or seriously harm human dignity, and that can be viewed by minors” and has been ordered by a court to undergo a psychiatric examination. It has obviously escaped the French establishment that this sort of thing is eerily similar to what happened in the Soviet Union, communist Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Yugoslavia, where those who spoke against the regime were subjected to psychiatric exams and locked up in mental hospitals.


If supra-governmental agencies were to impose gatekeeping rules on companies (Google, Twitter, Facebook, et al.) that disseminate materials produced by other gatekeepers (the media); on the media themselves; or on other groups and individuals, this would be information control of the worst kind.


Yet supplementing the dangers of the Juncker-Jourova plans and proposals, the European Parliament is considering a new directive on copyright, which could also end up limiting freedom of expression.


The European Commission and other august protectors of the people ought to reconsider their plans, and more importantly their thinking, lest they give birth to a new slogan: Authoritarians of the world unite to protect the … free world.

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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