The First Amendment to the Continents

Demands for global free speech don’t amount to imperialism

CAIRO—Traveling in the developing world, I’m regularly challenged over my defense of free speech. One Egyptian government sympathizer once told me that, “Our media system is not like yours in the U.S. We cannot have a lawless system with news producers running around reporting whatever they wish about sex, defaming others, and ridiculing government officials. These are your free press values; not ours.” Individuals like this charge me with imposing my values on a society that I don’t understand.

Their objections are often echoing the views of their leaders, who are invested in having their citizens believe that calls for freer speech originating in North America and Western Europe represent imperialistic gestures overstepping cultural sovereignty—that telling governments to let their people speak freely is another example of Western finger-wagging at the economically and politically developing world. In a 2006 interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to a question about his regime’s brutality against dissenting media in part by saying, “Do you truly believe that using American music is a sign of freedom?,” as if to say, “The kind of free speech you value is fundamentally different than ours.”

These martinets like to associate Western calls for a free press with cultural imperialism. But defending free speech is, at its core, as content-neutral and apolitical as demanding that people have enough food to eat and potable water to drink—and journalists and other free-speech advocates must recognize this if they are to successfully press for changes in countries like these.

The cultural imperialism defense for stifling speech is, of course, despotic hogwash, and when the words come from someone like the Tyrant of Tehran they may convince few. But beware; this justification supporting a status quo of curbed speech is more prevalent than you might think. I’ve been to many countries with dubious records on free speech, and whenever I’ve engaged a government sympathizer on matters of press freedom, I hear things like, “We’re not America; we don’t feel culturally comfortable allowing Holocaust denial, hate speech, and Hustler.”

A statement like this could persuade a mild cultural relativist to nod silently and change the topic. (While I support the rights of neo-Nazis to disregard the Holocaust and Larry Flynt to peddle smut, such bottom feeders haven’t made defending free speech around the world any easier).

But there is nothing imperialistic whatsoever in demanding that others be allowed to speak out to defend their interests, and no guilt should accompany such a demand.

Even if one feels uncomfortable specifically pushing the First Amendment in foreign lands, they should remember that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights defends this same freedom, and with even more specific and eloquent language: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information…regardless of frontiers.”

A few years ago I wrote an op-ed about malicious new press laws enforced by Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. The story was republished and linked to by a number of bloggers and civil liberty groups, but was also republished by two Egyptian groups with virtually diametrically opposed political aims: The Muslim Brotherhood and The Coptic Assembly of America. These organizations have pretty much nothing in common, except that they both are of Egyptian origin and they’re prevented by the Mubarak machine from using their voices to bring change to Egypt, however at odds their visions of change may be.

Defense of free speech isn’t political, but rather politically all-inclusive.

Not everyone supports this inclusion. An Egyptian colleague of mine was a primary author of an agreement (pdf) requiring Arab broadcasters to avoid content that that doesn’t protect “the supreme interests of Arab countries,” “comply with the religious and ethical values of Arab society,” or that “[insults] God, revealed religions and prophets.” The document was endorsed by the governments of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Jordan, Egypt, and most other Arab countries. In my colleague’s view, a country can twist the right to free speech to fit its cultural fancy.

Just as it would be indefensible for a government to claim that “our people do not use and consume water the way your culture does, and so we will not distribute water equitably to the masses,” it’s also unconvincing to support muting speech in a given culture because the society’s fabric is of a different pattern.

And those defending free speech around the world should bear no cultural guilt for doing so—for a society that limits speech is a society that cannot adequately defend its culture. In Egypt, the government regularly cracks down on large public festivals called moulids, Sufi gatherings honoring deceased saints, because Mubarak’s regime fears that large, un-cordoned meetings are places where celebrants might conspire to overthrow the unpopular regime. Freer speech in Egypt would make the moulid tradition more secure, not less.

In a June press conference granted by President Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Washington, D.C., the Saudi king implied that his religion and culture are under attack by American journalism, saying, “I want to also thank our friends, the American people, and I also would like to thank our friends here in the media. May God spare us from all of the bad things they can do to us.” It was meant as a joke, kind of. Saudi kings don’t regularly face bold press gaggles.

Expatriates need to be very clear that the high ground on which free speech advocacy rests is Andes above any petulant charges of cultural imperialism or cultural hegemony lobbed by bureaucrats, government officials, or other sympathizers who cradle the status quo. Reactionary autocrats need to know that, rather than being a tool of cultural imperialism, assailing barriers to free expression promotes cultural reverence. Rather than destroying nations, a snarling press makes them stronger than ever before.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin