Dr David Keane is Senior Lecturer in Law at Middlesex University.
The global reaction to the trailer for the film The Innocence of Muslims has prompted the banning of the video-sharing website Youtube in three States, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, with Council of Europe member Russia mooting such a move. Similarly the publication of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in France, and the resulting international protests, appear to reignite questions of religious defamation and freedom of expression generated by Jyllands-Posten in 2006. To a certain extent the arguments appear unchanged, but there are elements to these recent controversies worth exploring.
Charlie Hebdo has already been in the French courts, in 2007, but was acquitted, while the Danish Public Prosecutor decided not to pursue criminal proceedings against Jyllands-Posten. Yet the debate this time around seems less strident in terms of freedom of expression. The BBC points to a somewhat divided French press, albeit one that emphasises freedom of expression within the parameters of the law, with one paper asking whether these are “some cartoons too many”. This is significant given that newspapers of all political colours are the frontline on freedom of expression. Guy Birenbaum on the Huffington Post (only available in French) writes: “Come on Charlie, just between ourselves, you don’t have the feeling that this is old hat? Already seen, already read? Where is the subversion, the insolence, and most of all, the humour?” He concludes that mocking Islam has become something of a national sport in France and as a result has lost its subversive value. In this atmosphere, a prosecution appears a little more possible.
Such a prosecution would almost certainly be challenged before the European Court of Human Rights. Article 10 of the European Convention reads: “1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression… without interference by public authority … 2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society… for the protection of the reputation or rights of others (…)”
In order to uphold the cartoonists’ rights under Article 10(1), the Court would have to go against its past jurisprudence and rule the interference unnecessary under Article 10(2). That would mark a new departure in terms of the European approach to hate speech, which has, perhaps understandably, been marked by the World War II experience and consistently upheld convictions for speech which attacks racial, ethnic or religious groups, or denies wartime atrocities.