Sunday 16 September 2012

Too much silence, too much free speech

By Tracy Quek, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2012

WHEN it comes to speaking freely, the United States and China - two countries with vastly different social and political cultures, as well as systems of government - hold contrasting approaches and attitudes.

This week, it is striking that each is having to deal with incidents that reveal the limits of their respective positions.

In the US, where freedom of expression is protected by the Constitution, the production and promotion of an amateur film offensive to Islam has sparked anti-American protests halfway around the globe, further complicating US ties with the Arab world.

In China, where a culture of secrecy surrounds leadership politics and where the government struggles to expand tight limits on transparency, the "disappearance" of a top leader has triggered an avalanche of rumours that could damage official credibility.

The US is known as one of the world's most open societies. Here, expression of views (in any medium) that in other countries would result in jail time is tolerated under the US Constitution's First Amendment.

Many Americans say the freedom to speak their minds is what creates the kind of diverse and pluralistic society where creativity and innovation thrive.

This is not to say that all Americans want to go about abusing their right to free speech. Those I know are conscious about staying well within the borders of political correctness.

But from time to time, Americans are reminded that not all free expression is good expression.

This time, a 15-minute trailer of an amateur film denigrating Islam's Prophet Muhammad is at the centre of the storm. Made in a Los Angeles suburb, purportedly by an American Coptic Christian (Egyptian Christian) with a chequered past, the film was dubbed into Arabic and uploaded onto YouTube just days before the 11thanniversary of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on Tuesday.

That day, the US consulate in Libya was attacked. The US ambassador, three American consulate staff and at least 10 Libyans were killed. The mob was initially said to have been enraged by the film. US officials now suspect that it was a pre-planned assault by a jihadist group. The film, however, has touched off protests in at least 11 countries including Yemen, Egypt and Iran.

A fringe network of right-wing Christian groups with a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric and activities has also been linked to the film, US news reports said.

Although he was not involved in the making of the film, infamous Florida pastor Terry Jones is stirring more controversy, in wanting to promote the film despite the chaos it has caused.

In 2010, Mr Jones' threats to burn the Quran and his carrying out of the deed last year triggered deadly riots in the Middle East. He told the US media that he plans to screen the film at his church and promote it to a wider audience.

In other countries where there are laws on religious intolerance and hate speech, those linked to the film would be in serious legal trouble. Draconian or not, the threat of jail or hefty fines works to prevent, or at least minimise, the occurrence of such episodes. In the US, there is nothing quite so compelling to stop people like Mr Jones from fanning the flames.

Within America, there is an ongoing and often intense debate on whether the US should consider setting barriers on expression and hate speech that is considered abhorrent by most standards. After all, free speech pushed to extremes can become deliberate provocation of other religions.

Now seems a good time to refresh the dialogue on this complex issue.

Hate speech widens societal rifts, and as shown in this most recent case can have serious consequences beyond a country's borders. It is not always understood - or believed - by a foreign audience, such as the protesters and rioters in 11 countries, that the US government had no part in the film. Arguments for legal prohibitions against such speech are not hard to come by.

In the meantime, before the law is empowered to sanction such speech, it will be up to ordinary Americans to stand up to individuals like Mr Jones. A choir of voices espousing tolerance must drown out those who would spread bigotry and hate.

In China, it is not openness, but the lack of it that is the problem. The country's opaque political culture and climate risks eroding faith in the government.

The events of the past year have given rise to an unhealthy mindset - that in China, rumours and hearsay are much closer to the truth than official news.

From attempting to hide dismal air pollution readings in Beijing to the official silence over the fate of disgraced former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, the Chinese authorities show that they are still stuck in a pre-Internet mindset of denial and obfuscation when it comes to dealing with sensitive news.

Most recently, the puzzling disappearance from public view of Vice-President Xi Jinping, presumptive heir to China's top leadership post, has set off furious speculation over his health and the state of China's political elite.

Mr Xi has not made a public appearance since last Wednesday, highly unusual for a top-ranking leader, particularly so close to a major leadership transition.

Rumours abound that he has suffered an injury or is suffering from ill health. But the government has offered no explanation. Earlier this week, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, when asked if Mr Xi was still alive, retorted: "I hope you will ask a serious question."

But it is very much a serious question, and one that deserves a straightforward answer.

Whatever Beijing's complex concerns - cultural, political, societal - are when it comes to telling it straight, more transparency from the authorities is urgently needed, especially when Chinese society is opening up at a much faster pace, facilitated by the Internet.

Secrecy only exposes a leadership's insecurities about its hold on power. It does little to bolster public trust in officials, which is essential for stability.

The world wants a prosperous, stable China. But before China can fully claim its desired place in the world, it must nurture a governing class that sees the value in openness and telling the truth.

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