By George Grant
The NTC believe that their “anti-glorification” laws are necessary to safeguard the 17 February Revolution, but by restricting freedom . . .[restrict]of speech they are undermining one of the fundamental principles for which that revolution was fought.
Tripoli, 10 May:
Over the past week a growing number of NGO’s, lawyers, journalists and individual citizens have spoken out against the NTC’s so-called “anti-glorification” laws. On Tuesday, Lawyers For Justice in Libya (LFJL), an influential group of Libyan legal experts, described the laws as “ones which are familiar to all Libyans after living under Qaddafi’s rule for 42 years”. Amnesty International likewise described the legislation as an “eerie reminder” of the draconian restrictions on speech deployed during the Qaddafi-era, whilst Human Rights Watch has warned that “laws restricting what people say can lead to a new tyranny”.
These fears, coming barely half a year after Libya’s transition to democracy began, are surely right. Unfortunately, it is not just that part of the legislation which criminalises the glorification of Muammar Qaddafi which is cause for concern; equally as troubling is that which it is now an offence to criticise.
Under these laws, it is now illegal in Libya to do anything which could “damage the 17 February Revolution”, whatever that means exactly. Not only that, but prison could also await anyone who “insults Islam, or the prestige of the state or its institutions or judiciary, and every person who publicly insults the Libyan people, slogan or flag.”
Defending the legislation, NTC legal committee member Mustafa Algleb has insisted that the laws are not intended to protect individuals such as politicians from criticism; rather they exist to “protect the state’s majesty, its symbols and religion”.
Given how hard Libya has fought to rid itself of Qaddafi’s tyranny, and how fragile these gains still are, the desire of the country’s new leaders to safeguard these achievements is understandable enough. As many others have already pointed out, however, seeking to defend hard-won gains by making it illegal to criticise them is precisely the wrong way to go about it.
The problem with such measures is generally not where they start, but where they can lead. “The road to hell”, as the saying goes, “is paved with good intentions”.
Consider the case of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Under the Pakistani penal code, it is a criminal offence to blaspheme any recognised religion. In practice, this law is only applied to criticism of Islam, and is routinely used to persecute minority groups and individuals often guilty of nothing more than not being a Muslim in a Muslim-majority country. Often, the mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to subject the accused to harassment, violence and even death. Vigilantism and rioting are not uncommon in the wake of such accusations. In the last year alone, Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, then minister for minorities, have been assassinated on account of their opposition to the blasphemy laws.
In Thailand, meanwhile, the crime of lèse majesté, that is, insulting the majesty of the crown, has frequently been abused in recent years by political leaders seeking to stifle opposition to their rule. Since 2006, the Thai government has shut down dozens of radio stations accused of insulting the king, and at least 60,000 websites have also been banned. Indeed, it was the alleged lèse majesté of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra which prompted the 2006 military coup d’état that deposed him from power.
Libya’s new rulers will surely need no reminder of the consequences of clause 195 of the country’s Qaddafi-era penal code, which banned any “damage to the great al-Fateh Revolution or its leader”.
No government ever had a problem tolerating views it agreed with. It is the toleration of differing points of view, no matter how objectionable they may be, which is the mark of a truly democratic society.
In one of his wittier speeches, the former American president Ronald Reagan made this point well: “The story was an American and a Russian arguing about their two countries, and the American said ‘Look, in my country I can walk into the Oval Office, I can pound the president’s desk and I can say “Mr President, I don’t like the way you’re running our country”’. And the Russian said, ‘I can do that’. And the American says, ‘you can?’, and he says, ‘Yes. I can go into the Kremlin, into the general secretary’s office, pound his desk and say, “Mr General Secretary, I don’t like the way President Reagan’s running his country!’”
If Libya’s transition to democratic rule is to succeed, then toleration of those who oppose that change must be permitted. If Libya’s flag, its institutions and its symbols cannot withstand criticism, then they will not last.
This begs the question, however, of whether freedom of expression is so sacred that it should be tolerated no matter what the consequences. The answer is surely no. Here, the so-called ‘Harm Principle’, first enunciated by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, can serve as a guide.
When applied to freedom of expression, this principle essentially holds that all views should be tolerated save for those which could lead to actual harm being visited upon others. Any speech in which a supporter of Qaddafi incited violence against his opponents could justly be prohibited under this principle. Merely glorifying Qaddafi as a great leader, however distressing that may be, could not.
Mill also made an additional point, which all those supporters of the anti-glorification laws should bear in mind. Far from being harmful, the toleration of contrary opinions can actually be beneficial to those of a different persuasion. “If the opinion is right, they [those who oppose it] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
The NTC’s new laws curtailing freedom of expression allow for neither. On the contrary, this legislation has the potential to do real and lasting harm to Libya’s democratic future. These are bad laws, even if enacted for good reasons, and they should be reversed.
George Grant can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgePBGrant. [/restrict]