In an interview with Doha Centre for Media Freedom, Hasni Abidi, political analyst and director of the Study and Research Centre for the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva, shares his thoughts on freedom of speech and media freedom.
Q: Thousands of Muslims in the Arab world have protested against the anti-Islam film produced in the US and broadcast on Youtube. In some countries people have died during the protests. What are your thoughts on the film and the subsequent reaction?
R: Personally, I firmly condemned this so-called film, pitifully produced and showing the evilness of its producers. It represents reckless provocation and it seriously undermines the religious sentiments of Muslims.
The violent reactions are the response to this provocation. However the response should not happen with the use of violence and crime, but through wisdom and dialogue. This crisis has revealed our lack of judgment during such moments.
It is essential to avoid an amalgamation of the producers of the film and the West, and to cooperate together for the protection of the sacred and for mutual understanding.
Q: Despite the fact that the film is bad, aren’t the reactions an obstacle to freedom of speech?
R: Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines freedom of speech as follows: “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 and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”Nevertheless, enjoying freedom of speech doesn’t mean that we can say everything and anything. Some limits have to be respected, for the sake of civil peace.
Any circumstances, even freedom of speech, cannot justify defamation against a religion and its prophet. In this case in particular it is not an issue of freedom of speech but an incitement to hatred. It’s not a symbol’s infringement but a sacred infringement.
In this cosmopolitan world where it is important to recognise different origins, religions and where values are increasing, it is urgent to develop a mutual respect not only to live together but to live a better life together.
That’s why I call on the UNAOC, chaired this year by the Qatar to revive this debate of mutual respect.
Q: Has the Swiss media covered the controversy?
R: Swiss Media outlets were very alert and careful. They preferred to use press releases from agencies without covering the story too much so as to avoid promoting it..
Q: Regarding the Arab spring, which you followed from Geneva, much was made of the link between the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the use of social media. Could we say that social media triggered the revolutions?
R: That’s right, demonstrators have quickly adopted social media to curb repression and censorship from the government on traditional media. Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are free spaces where everyone can be informed, communicate and express their thoughts freely without fear.
Q: From Tunisia to Egypt to Morocco, Muslim parties have won elections. Does the success of these parties represent a threat to media freedom?
R:Unfortunately the rise to power of Muslim parties poses a serious threat to freedom – Tunisia is an illustration of this.
Governments from Muslim parties are in an open battle with some media since they have appointed new chief editors. This means that power could interfere in the editorial guidelines.
Those in power often think that they can reduce bad coverage related to themselves; this is a big mistake because all the parties will be judged on their capacity to enhance the economy and the public and private liberties, not on their capacity to post a guard in every newsroom.
The coming Tunisian constitution will be a test for the transition in the country. If press freedom is not protected, Tunisia’s future is dark. It will be a real mess.