Fighting for freedom of expression in China and beyond
By ucyow3c, on 18 March 2014
Written by Dylan Brethour (UCL History MA student)
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental, universal and transnational right, only to be restricted in extremis.”
So began John Kampfner’s portion of “China and Freedom of Speech: new systems for accountability in the press”. Kampfner, a journalist and former Chief Executive of the Index on Censorship, set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Organised by UCL’s China Centre for Health & Humanity and Centre for Transnational History, the event was introduced Dr Axel Korner and Dr Vivienne Lo and included presentations and a subsequent discussion by Professor Zhengxiao Guo, Dr Lily Chang, and Mr Stephen Perry.
Despite some differences among the panellists, there was a common sense that no country can afford the luxury of indifference in the maintenance of something so essential as freedom of expression.
While China was the locus of the discussion, all of the participants touched on broader global threats to freedom of expression. Kampfner discussed some of the methods governments use to disguise restrictive measures.
There was the disheartening general reminder that people’s fears about international security and stability can be exploited to justify invasive laws. As an example of this, Kampfner spoke of the pornography filter debate in the UK.
Ostensibly designed in the name of child protection, the filter controls access to an extent that allows authorities to carry out other activities under the auspices of its original “intent”. This is, in Kampfner’s words, an “unarguable proposition” – one might disagree with invasive internet control, but not with protecting children.
There was also some question as to whether social media is helping or hindering freedom of expression. In recent years there has been an enormous amount of optimism surrounding the potential of the internet and social media to increase freedoms in China.
Kampfner was more circumspect about the possible utility of social media, arguing that political movements are not created online. More optimistically, he suggested that where a political movement already exists, social media can help it spread.
Kampfner also considered the differences between old and new media. Reading the newspaper, he argued, exposes people to a greater variety of views. In contrast, because information online is self-selected, it has the potential to reinforce existing prejudices and worldviews.
There is also the possibility that when functioning as a political outlet, social media has the effect of displacing activity in the real world. The internet also benefits the state by providing a context for mass surveillance.
The revelations about data collection by the NSA and GCHQ were dramatic demonstrations that democratic countries are not exempt from government intrusion.
This raises the question, why don’t we respond to the erosion of something so fundamental? Steven Perry suggested that Chinese people simply don’t care about political measures restricting freedom of speech.
He argued that something similar is happening in the UK, where people are indifferent to control over the media by political and corporate interests. During the debate after the speeches, Kampfner expressed some scepticism about this point, arguing that people do care when they are affected by political restrictions.
Rather than assume that the population is indifferent or lazy, it seems more useful to ask what network of rights and obligations we are collectively trying to balance. Lily Chang introduced the concept of spheres of freedom.
Rather than addressing freedom as a comprehensive whole, she asked how different aspects of society interact. The demands of political, economic and media freedoms may be very different and even potentially at odds. She noted the elasticity of these relationships, which change according to requirement and context.
This concept of elasticity continued throughout the remainder of the discussion. There was a general question as to whether the complexity of social requirements entailed the sacrifice of certain freedoms.
All of the panellists acknowledged in some sense the number of demanding and potentially competing interests at play here. What remained clear, however, was the strong utilitarian benefits provided by freedom of expression provides.
Kampfner in particular argued that an “open, critical, fearless society” will lead to better political outcomes. The development of constructive state practice is evidently contingent on free and vital public discourse.
By the end of the evening, there were still no obvious answers as to what the ideal conditions are to preserve freedom of expression.
Unsurprisingly, given the topic at hand, there was a strong agreement about people bearing an individual responsibility to consider what kind of society provides the greatest benefits.
Rather than offering a vision for the future, the event posed the questions: what are our obligations as global citizens and, ultimately, what will the consequences be of our neglect?