We express ourselves in a plethora of ways every day. We express ourselves in the way we dress, the societies we join, the friends we make, and even the supermarkets that we chose to shop in. This ability to express ourselves is fiercely protected within democracies, and is fundamental to our social and political lives.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights detail the right to hold your own opinion and to express this opinion through various mediums such as articles, works of art, and the internet and social media. In particular, works of art – both literary and visual – are vital to our society and need this right to freedom of expression in order to thrive. Often, political statements are delivered through this medium, and are frequently used to spark debate. Artistic freedom of expression is therefore a pillar of democracy.
However, often artists’ freedom of expression is stifled. A classic example of this is the emergence and dominance of Soviet Realism within the Soviet Union from the 1920s until the 1960s. This style of art was used to display the strength and might of Communism, and to glorify the Soviet leaders. Dissent, and refusal to demonstrate the success of communism in art and literature, was not tolerated under Stalinism. Furthermore, institutions such as the Writer’s Union ensured that literature was censored and in line with the political climate of the time. Hence, freedom of expression was severely hindered.
This stifling of artists’ social and political commentary is not a feature of a bygone age. In March, the Kurdish artist Zehra Doğan was sentenced to 2 years, 9 months, and 22 days in prison. Doğan, a multi-award winning journalist, is one of the few reporters to have followed Turkey’s involvement in Kurdish territories. Furthermore, her paintings have been exhibited across the globe. Her sentence was a result of a particular painting in which Turkish flags were drawn on buildings in the town of Nasaybin. This town had been the latest victim of the Turkish forces and there are clear signs of destruction within the painting. This painting had then been shared throughout social media. The Turkish officials have claimed in a statement that this painting featured the current positions of the military and so was evidence of terrorist involvement. It could be inferred from this sentence that the government feels threatened by works of art such as these. This only serves to highlight the importance of freedom of expression as it enables us to question the people in charge and the actions which are taken. Interestingly, the charge of illegal organisation membership was dropped, however Doğan was still sentenced for sharing her painting on social media. This has led Doğan’s lawyer, Asli Pasinli, to state that her sentence was an “attack on art and artistic expression.”
The sentencing of Zehra Doğan is just one example of artists being imprisoned, or punished through other means, for their works of art. This punishment, representing an infringement on an artist’s freedom of expression, is extremely detrimental to democracy itself. Freedom of expression within art is vital in order for us to be able to call attention to political corruption and social injustices. Our ability to express ourselves and to share our views is vital to a fair and just society. Without this freedom, art is little more than propaganda for the elites in charge. Furthermore, art can be used to motivate change. Surely, this highlights the importance of free speech and the freedom to express oneself. Furthermore, as a journalist, was it not Doğan’s duty to share what was happening in these Kurdish territories with the rest of the world?
However, is there a point at which we transgress our freedom of expression? Whilst Article 10 protects the right to express your opinion, among other things, it is highlighted that you have a duty to behave responsibly and to respect others’ rights. This can be interpreted to include the duty to not preach hate speech, and to respect others’ freedom to expression. For example, whilst you have a right to express your sexuality in a manner of your choosing, it is not generally accepted that you have a right to express hatred for a certain sexuality, and to consistently harass the members of this community under the claim that you are ‘expressing yourself.’
The ways in which we monitor and censor hate speech, however, can have serious implications for freedom of expression and freedom of speech.
Here, we can turn to the example of blogger Amos Yee. Recently granted asylum in the United States, Amos was arrested in his home country of Singapore in 2015 after posting a video to YouTube in which he welcomed the death of Lee Kuan Yew. Adoringly seen as the founding father of Singapore, this video caused public outcry and vilification. Not only was there outrage at the disrespect that was shown to Lee Kwaun Yee, but this video violated Singapore’s strict laws on insulting religion or race. The result was a sentence of 4 weeks, with half of this spent in a psychological unit. Furthermore, the following year Yee pleaded guilty to offending Islam and Christianity, with the judge stating that he had “deliberately elected to do harm by using offensive and insulting words and profane gestures to hurt the feelings of Christians and Muslims.”
While Amos Yee may not have gone about expressing his opinion in the most eloquent way, his videos were not extreme enough, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, to warrant arrest and sentencing. The reaction may be seen to be out of proportion to what was actually said. The penalty which Amos faced has been called into question, and there have been concerns over whether the laws which he broke restrict freedom of expression.
So, at what point do we draw the line? When does an opinion become something akin to hate speech and should we ever censor works of art? In an ideal world without hate speech, everyone would have the freedom to express themselves without censorship. Censorship in itself is a very controversial idea, and one which can all too easily be taken too far and result in the loss of freedom of expression. However, we do not live in an ideal world. Unfortunately, people do not always respect their fellow humans, and express themselves in such a way as to infringe upon the rights of others. But at what point is this just an opinion? When does it become something more serious?