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We want freedom of expression, but at what price to society?

This much is universally given in the "free world": freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy. The United Nations Human Rights Committee describes the rights to freedom of opinion and expression as the "foundation stone for every free and democratic society". To take it one step farther, under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the freedom of expression extends rights even to expression that may be regarded as offensive.



However, the right to free speech is not absolute, and it should not be. For it to be the true bearer or foundation of justice and fairness, for which it is intended, this right must carry with it special duties and responsibilities. The UN Human Rights Committee stipulates that the right to free speech and expression may be subjected to restrictions that are "strictly necessary and proportionate". The prohibition of distribution of child pornography, or misleading deceptive conduct in business, such as false advertisements, are two examples.

Laws against defamation are tools that put restrictions on free speech. The recent French court ruling against the distribution of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge is just one example. After the Holocaust, there were laws that prohibited expressions that incite hatred, intimidation and violence against another person or a group of people because of their race or religion.

While the world is toiling to find the right balance between free speech and its restrictions, which are basically selective, we have this mystery man whose identity and life is shrouded in lies and deception and whose exercise of, or rather abuse of, free speech has caused protests and riots in cities around the world, including Bangkok.

The vulgar 14-minute film called "Innocence of Muslims" was allegedly commissioned by a man whose one known name is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. He has been using many aliases throughout his life, one of which is Sam Bacile. Nakoula is a man of chequered history with the law. At one time he set up fake bank accounts using stolen social security numbers. He then withdrew money from the accounts and relocated it to other bogus accounts. He was sentenced to a 21-month jail term and paid US$790,000 in punitive damages, and was banned from using computers and the Internet for five years. There were reports that he was arrested in 1997 and charged with intent to manufacture methamphetamine. He served one year in jail.

His reported alias, Sam Bacile, is a real-life phantom, as nobody is really sure that he exists. Reports describe him as a man in his 50s who told people that he was an Israeli-American who funded production of the film from US$5 million received from Jewish donors. However, no public records either in the United States or Israel have yielded anything tangible about the man. Sam Bacile may be the same man as Alan Roberts, who is listed as the director of the film, and the same man as Robert Brownell, who also goes by the name Robert Alan Brown.

To add to the opaque background of the personalities involved with the film, there is a Vietnam veteran who is head of a hate group known for its anti-Mormon, anti-Muslim and anti-Jehovah Witness stance; an activist known for his Koran-burning stunts and far-right sentiments; and a Coptic Christian of Egyptian decent known for anti-Muslim activities and propaganda.

The caricaturist circumstances of the film also involve an amateurish cast of actors and actresses who say they were duped into taking part in the filming of what they were told was called "Desert Warrior." They said the script upon which they acted had nothing to do with the Prophet Muhammad, and that the total budget of the film was around $90,000, not the $5 million stated by Nakoula.

The film was apparently shown last June in a small movie theatre in Los Angeles, to mostly empty seats. Before the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that took the life of the American envoy and three other Americans and left the consulate charred, nobody had watched the film clip on YouTube. Today, if one looks up "Innocence of Muslims" on the Internet, there are so many sites of the same title but which have little or nothing to do with the film in question. There was even one "Full Version HD" film of this name that has had over 10 million hits to date.

If one wants to see evidence of the frivolous absurdity of human existence, one need not look further than this whole unfolding episode. The protests and riots will cause more casualties and damage before they subside. Nobody dares to predict the long-term ramifications on policies, domestic and foreign, that are the direct and indirect results of this formerly obscure film whose content and actors defy and insult human intellect in a wholesale manner.

The violence that has erupted throughout the Islamic world did not take place in a vacuum. In Egypt and Libya, the political void left by violent armed struggle provides a breeding ground for extremist elements. The unpopularity of the US in the region derives from the history of American foreign policy including the Iraq and Afghan wars, the perceived and actual one-sided support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and decades of American support for authoritarian regimes in the region. All this has provided the backdrop for the latest round of Muslim protest and unrest.

The consulate attack in Benghazi may have been pre-planned, as claimed by the president of Libya. Afghan insurgents may proclaim that the latest deadly suicide bomb attack, that killed nine people, was in revenge for the anti-Muslim film. However, anyone who watches this grotesque film, made in utterly poor taste, can only concur that it is an affront not only to the sensibility of any decent Muslim, but of any decent individual of any faith.

While the United States may be unwilling to set limits on the freedom of expression, despite the fact that it may vilify truth and allow falsehood to be accepted and merchandised, other countries may disagree or be unwilling to treat such freedom as absolute and pious. However, there may one thing upon which they can agree: it's a fact that each position or viewpoint has its price.


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