How often have we come across instances where we see people trying to entertain us using different kinds of public platforms by making jokes about someone's appearance, sex, race, ethnicity, or other characteristics that they consider to be a flaw? Often, they also go so far as to make jokes about things as sensitive as sexual harassment, murder, acid attack, religion, etc.
In today's world, social media sites have significantly blurred the line between freedom of expression and hate speech. With one click or by pressing a button, we can now share our views with the people around the globe and in return, we can get acknowledged by many. However, being able to express your views with such ease and almost no accountability attracts certain groups to go for posts which are hateful and derogatory.
Hostility under the guise of freedom of expression is not only carelessly spread online but in the offline world as well. The perpetrators are often your family, friends, teachers, colleagues, etc. and sometimes it is even the President of a country.
Last month, Samuel Paty, a French school teacher was beheaded by a terrorist for publishing Charlie Hebdo's insulting caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in his classes. While it is necessary that we condemn this radical act of killing, it is also crucial to ensure that one's faith and beliefs are not ridiculed.
However, the French President, Emmanuel Macron refused to denounce these caricatures in the name of freedom of expression and secularism. Likewise, according to a poll conducted by French pollster IFOP, 59 percent of French people were of the view that newspapers had the right to publish these caricatures in the name of freedom of expression. However, Macron's remarks have been heavily criticized by many throughout the world for promoting Islamophobia and have sparked widespread outrage.
The Kremlin said, "A satirical magazine that mocks religion, politics, and culture like France's Charlie Hebdo would not be able to exist in Russia" (The Moscow Times). The Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau stated that freedom of speech has limits and it does not extend to conducts or statements that "arbitrarily and needlessly hurt certain communities".
It seems France only values freedom of expression as long as it corresponds with their western ideals. France back in 2011 passed a law that banned face-covering veils and masks in public spaces. This law was heavily criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and various human rights groups for infringing upon the religious rights of minorities.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch said, "For many Muslims, wearing a headscarf is not only about religious expression, but it is also about religious obligation". Absurdly, the French government now has made face masks mandatory due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic but the ban on religious veils/coverings still remains."
On the other hand, PewDiePie, an individual content creator on YouTube with more than 100 Million subscribers who made several anti-Semitic comments in his videos, had lost his contracts with companies like Disney, Google (Forbes).
Again, in an iconic Bollywood movie, released some years ago, there was a long comedy scene that was almost entirely based around the words "rape" and "rapist". Although you could afford to laugh heartily at the joke with your friends and family without feeling bad about it, have you ever wondered whether a person who has been the victim of this heinous act and his/her family members would have felt the same way while watching it, even if you had given them a seat in the same pleasant setting? The phrase "freedom of expression" was used in this instance as well by the proponents of the theory to defend the inclusion of this scene.
Freedom of expression is seen as a basic human right and is therefore guaranteed in almost every important international, regional, and national legal document including Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Article 5), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Article 7), African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (Article 9), European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10), American Convention on Human Rights (Article 13), The Constitution of Bangladesh (Article 39), The Constitution of India (Article 19).
However, it is crucial to bear in mind that the right to express your beliefs, thoughts, ideas, and emotions is not absolute irrespective of the medium you want to use to share them. This means that there are certain limitations to freedom of expression. Your freedom to express something may be restricted by authorities, given that their actions are "lawful, necessary and proportionate" and are carried out with certain objectives in mind.
The legal documents mentioned above broadly set out similar objectives. These include, but are not limited to, ensuring the security of the state, preserving friendly relations with foreign states, maintaining public order, decency or morality, and preventing defamation or incitement to an offence.
Leading social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. do very little to curtail such hateful expressions. These social media platforms have been repeatedly criticised over the years for proliferating racism, cyber-bullying, and online sexual harassment under the label of freedom of expression.
While they do have the mechanism to remove such posts if it violates community guidelines, however, it does not prevent the post-creator from publishing them in the first place and by the time those posts are removed, the damage is already done.
Many, unaware of the limitations of the right to freedom of expression, proudly share their twisted views online believing that they are exercising their right to free speech. Surely, freedom to express oneself is the right of every human being but it should not be exercised to humiliate someone's race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and so forth as it will do nothing more than making life more complicated.
Maisha Zaman is a final year student of Law at the University of London.
Mehbeez Binte Matiur is an Honor's 3rd-year student at the Department of Criminology, University of Dhaka.
Noor Ayesha Binta Aziz is a first-year student at the University of London.
Arafat Reza is employed as a Teaching Assistant at the LCLS (South).
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.