Approach to free expression laws differ in nations around world

Andrew Pritchard

The trademark American freedoms to speak, print, assemble and petition government officials are fixtures of U.S. law.

Many nations of the world, however, lack a law comparable to the First Amendment. Even in those with some protection of expression, violations of individual liberty occur with impunity.

Some instances are innocuous, even comical.

The Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, passed a bill in early February prohibiting the use of profanity and forbidding foreign words except those with no Russian equivalents.

Russian politicians frequently use vulgarities to liven their speeches.

The Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, vetoed the measure on Feb. 12.

In France, the legal battle between Internet giant Yahoo! and French human rights activists has continued for more than three years and resulted in a famous ruling prohibiting the company from selling Nazi memorabilia on its auction site.

French law prohibits the sale or display of Nazi-themed material, but a federal district court in California subsequently ruled foreign countries cannot subject U.S. companies to more restrictive free-expression laws than U.S. law allows.

A French court later threw out a civil suit against Yahoo! for “justifying war crimes.”

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s government decreed in mid-November that citizens cannot make offensive gestures or statements near government motorcades, although Zimbabwe’s constitution provides for the “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”

Similarly, Malawi’s late President Kamuzu Banda required women to kneel by the road and men to clap when his motorcade passed.

Courting censorship

Some countries’ laws restricting free expression provide criminal penalties for violations.

Holger Voss was charged in Germany with “glorification of a criminal act” for an Internet posting praising the Sept. 11 terrorists – a statement Voss said he made facetiously.

German prosecutors ordered Voss’ service provider to reveal his identity, but a judge later ruled Voss’ remarks were a satire of another posting on the site.

In Canada, a controversial “hate speech” law prohibits advocating genocide, exposing a group to hatred or contempt – regardless of the speaker’s intent – and “group defamation.”

In early February, a provincial court ordered a Saskatchewan man and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix newspaper to pay 1,500 Canadian dollars to each of three gay men offended by an advertisement the paper ran.

The ad displayed references to four Bible verses, an “equals” sign and a circle with a slash through it over two men holding hands.

The appellate court’s ruling said the Canadian human rights code allows a “reasonable restriction” on free expression because the ad exposed homosexuals to hatred and ridicule and affronted their dignity.

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees free speech and a free press. But that country’s highest court has found the government may limit those rights to end discrimination, ensure social harmony and promote gender equality.

In South Africa, apartheid’s end did not stop fears of government interference with the country’s newspapers.

A 1999 South African Human Rights Commission claimed

subconscious racist attitudes pervaded the media, a finding many reporters and editors viewed as a veiled threat to journalists critical of the African National Congress in that year’s elections.

In response, the government proposed legislation that would have prohibited publication of any story the government considered discriminatory, as well as use of any words the country’s justice department found “hurtful and abusive.”

Although the government later withdrew that bill, South Africa’s Human Rights Commission ordered editors to appear as recently as 2000 at media racism hearings to determine whether the government should regulate newspapers as part of its racial integration policy.

Going international

The communication revolution allows information produced in one country to circle the world in seconds, and countries with differing traditions of free expression have had difficulty confronting this new reality.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, lambasted in the press after he sued a news agency that claimed he dyed his hair, obtained a court order in January prohibiting German newspapers from reporting about his troubled fourth marriage.

More controversially, Schroeder’s lawyers claim the injunction also extends to England’s Mail, a Sunday newspaper under European Union law.

The British paper has thus far defied the German court’s ruling, republishing its allegations under the headline “Sorry, Herr Schroeder, but you don’t rule Britain Ö at least, not yet.”

As communication has gone international, it has also gone high-tech. And while U.S. Internet users are protected by a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that the government has only limited power to regulate Web sites, approximately 20 countries have erected national firewalls to keep their citizens offline.

Computer-savvy human rights activists – or “hacktivists” – worldwide have engaged nations such as China and Iran in a cyber-arms race as they unveil software allowing citizens of those countries to surf the Web freely.

Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., has introduced legislation to fund an Office of Internet Freedom to support hacktivists’ efforts.