By the Cyprus Atheists
The right to freedom of expression is recognised as a human right, in accordance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and also recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Freedom of speech and expression is a cornerstone for the functioning of a modern democratic society. According to the Handyside ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, freedom of expression is “applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society’.”
Nevertheless, freedom of expression is not unlimited, and typical limitations found in most democratic societies relate to libel, slander, incitement to violence or discrimination against individuals or communities, hate speech, honour crimes, classified information, copyright infringement, right to privacy etc. These limitations must be justifiable under the ‘harm principle’ – meaning that harm to other individuals should be prevented – and must meet strict requirements of being necessary and proportional, given that limitation of freedom of expression should be the exception and not the rule.
This raises a fundamental question: should freedom of expression be limited when referring to matters of religion? And consequently, is it legitimate to adopt and comply with anti-blasphemy laws, and to enforce censorship?
Cyprus is among the few European countries whose legal framework continues to restrict freedom of expression in matters relating to religion. Specifically, Section 141 of the Cyprus Criminal Code criminalises expression with intent to wound religious feelings and Section 142 criminalises publication of opinion which can be considered by any class of people as a public insult to their religion, with intent to vilify such religion or to shock or insult believers in such religion.
Naturally this kind of vagueness in legislation gives rise to further questions. How does one define ‘religious feelings’ for instance, and what does it mean to ‘vilify religion’, to ‘shock’, and to ‘insult believers’? While these laws are supposed to contribute to the prevention of religious hatred, their ambiguity can be used to restrict freedom of expression. And what is the purpose of this excessive and selective protection of religion? Are these laws perhaps intended to deflect any challenges to all – entrenched or otherwise – religious doctrines?
In our opinion, no idea is above criticism, however fierce this may be, and however it may be expressed. As Salman Rushdie has stated, religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and even our fearless disrespect. It is worth mentioning here that religion itself benefits from criticism, according to the generally accepted notion that criticism has helped the positions of both religion and its believers shift away from the extreme conservatism of the past.
Protecting ideas from criticism means that they survive, unchanging, without adaptation and improvement. Without freedom of expression, freedom of religion cannot function. Unfortunately, we have now arrived at a point where ‘respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion’. The progress of intellect and culture depends on the free exchange of ideas, and those in favour of freedom of speech should be in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views they despise.
It may truly be upsetting when people feel that their religious feelings have been offended, but this cannot be used as an excuse to limit freedom of expression or to threaten with criminal convictions. Invoking offence of one’s ‘feelings’ for whatever reason is very easy to do and impossible to refute. It therefore makes no sense to limit free speech based on the notion of religious offence, as what legislation of this kind in fact achieves is to forbid and to punish any expression that is unpopular. However, unpopular viewpoints are vital to the functioning of free modern democratic societies.
While we agree with the notion of polite and respectful expression, however, this is not a legal requirement. In fact, one can be as unduly offensive as one wishes, given that every mode of expression and criticism can be effective and of value. For example, satire can at times be pointed and insulting. In a democratic society, however, using humour constitutes a significant way to tackle taboo subjects, especially in times of crisis.
Should the content and presentation of satire be considered in a legal context? By the same token, one could argue that it is equally disturbing to have one’s political allegiances and affiliations offended. By extension therefore, should legislation be drafted to protect those feelings too? What exactly does ‘offence of feelings’ mean? It’s perfectly possible to counter that sentiment with arguments that don’t necessitate police interference or enforcement of censorship. In our view, there is no such thing as a right to not offend, nor should there be.
In conclusion, we must highlight an important distinction between criticism against individuals and criticism of ideas. Ideas have no feelings and cannot be offended. Ideas must be submitted to every kind of criticism, no matter how harsh it may be. Disagreement with the ideas or opinions of an individual or group of people is not the same as a criticism of them personally. While it is absolutely legitimate to use arguments that pinpoint the contradictions and absurdities of specific ideas, this doesn’t constitute a personal attack.
If anything, it is logically wrong to carry out direct attacks on people who act as the voice of certain ideas, rather than the ideas themselves.
This article is dedicated to Raif Badawi, co-founder of the now-closed Free Saudi Liberals internet discussion group, who was arrested in June 2012 on charges of disrespect and ‘insulting Islam’. Raif was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and 1000 lashes, which were due to be carried over 20 weeks. The first 50 lashes were administered on January 9, 2015. The article is also dedicated to the memory of the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen.