Freedom of Expression

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Nation on 4 August 2013.

A number of fallacies are common in the blogosphere. A lot of people cannot cope with, or even understand, the concept of disagreement. Grown adults should be able to express differing viewpoints without unpleasantness. Americans bloggers are fond of citing the First Amendment to the US Constitution. If someone disagrees with them, they complain that they are being “silenced.” Genuine disagreement is often described as “whining”. In the arena of “citizen journalism” in Sri Lanka, on sites like Colombo Telegraph (CT) and Groundviews (GV), there have been demands for me and others to be “silenced.” Inoka Karu called on GV to root out the “rabble-rousers”. “Dear moderators: I am repeatedly appealed to you to control hellion characters such ‘off the cuff’, Padraig Colman and J Fernando.”

More disturbing was a call for suppression of free speech from someone who presents himself as a libertarian and a principled writer.

Emil van der Poorten commented: “In the interests of the sanity of the rest of us, Sanjana (editor of GV) and Uvindu (editor of CT) would be well advised to leave the O’Learys/Colmans out of the columns of the publications they have responsibility for.”

Uvindu Kurukulasuriya

Surely such a man of high ideals could not be asking for a fellow writer’s work to be banned! When CT decided to ban Dr Vickramabahu, Mr van der Poorten took a moral stand: “I have serious concerns about something that smacks of censorship and throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.”

Vickramabahu Karunaratne

Then he trimmed back from that position and added: “May I suggest that the yardsticks of ‘intellectual dishonesty and political irresponsibility’ be applied without fear or favor to ALL contributors to CT, particularly those who are, very obviously and by their own acknowledgement, spokespersons for the current government?” Translation “people who do not agree with van der Poorten should be censored”. Some people regard van der Poorten as a good writer but he is somewhat promiscuous with the clichés. That “without fear or favor to ALL contributors to CT” is a hilarious touch coming, as it does as part of a plea to censor those whom van der man disagrees. The phrase “by their own acknowledgement” is priceless. Why would I acknowledge something that is not true? I did see Mahinda Rajapaksa in the flesh once when he was PM in CBK’s government. I saw him at a great distance at the Nuwara Eliya Flower Show. To this day we have never communicate. People do not show enough appreciation for Emil’s comedic talent.

I repeatedly asked Mr van der Poorten to provide evidence that I was a spokesperson for the current government, but, of course, he was too busy to waste his valuable time. I sent him many examples of articles where I was critical of the government but, of course, he was too tired and bored to read them. He called me a guttersnipe. I told you the man had a way with words.

Someone called Navin made this comment on the thread: “To say a particular writer should be shut out just because his point of view doesn’t concur with yours is beyond comprehension. You seem to have no principles, none whatsoever. What a strange country are we living in? Where else in the world do we have journalists and free media activists who campaign that some writers should be kept out because of what they write!!!”

One of the themes about which I had hoped to encourage discussion was whether freedom of speech should be limited in order to prevent incitement to hatred, which would hinder reconciliation. There is a debate going on out there, but CT and GV readers did not feel inclined to participate. Those who are interested could check out this website:

To simplify the debate I will cite the arguments of Anthony Lewis and Jeremy Waldron.

Anthony Lewis

In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, Lewis warns the reader against the potential for government to take advantage of periods of fear to suppress freedom of speech. In Rwanda, President Kagame has banned writing about ethnic differences. Ostensibly, this was to prevent further genocide, but critics see it as an excuse to suppress criticism of his regime. Josie Appleton, a free-speech campaigner, argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.” She describes many frivolous and harmful prosecutions in the UK. We must have the right to offend. No-one has the right to be protected from being offended.

Jeremy Waldron reviewed Lewis’s book for the New York Review of Books and was critical of Lewis’s stance on hate speech. He gave as an example harm done to children of racial groups criticised by widely published hate speech. Waldron, who is professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. Waldron believes that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

Without resorting to the law, most publications and websites have their editorial and community standards. For example, GV tells potential contributors: “Please treat others with respect. Flaming and trolling will not be accepted on Groundviews. Attack the issue, not the person. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved. Comments that seek to inflame tensions on the ground, or are of a defamatory nature, will not be approved, or will be taken off the website as soon as possible.”

Colombo Telegraph has guidelines that are as high-minded as those of Groundviews: “We welcome debate and dissent, but personal attacks (on authors, other users or any individual), persistent trolling and mindless abuse will not be tolerated. The key to maintaining the website as an inviting space to focus on intelligent discussion of topics.”

I will leave it to readers to decide whether the guidelines are adhered to. CT allowed this comment: “Oh no, here comes the schizophrenic Mango who writes about poop on his worthless blog. And his Caucasian boyfriend, the pedophile tourist Padraig Colman, whose father washed boots for the British Army. No doubt Mango’s mother is also sucking Arab dick in Saudi as I write this…. Go to Negombo Beach at 4:30 am sharp. Pedophile tourist Padraig Colman will lick your toes, if he’s not busy sucking off his boyfriend Mango.” One article attracted well over 400 comments, most of them abusive. Groundviews recently tried to make something out of a non-issue relating to a packet of dates. There was danger that this could have exacerbated racial tensions. There are great things and distinguished writers on CT and GV. Unfortunately, there is often more heat than light.

The trolling on CT is seen by some as “a method” to deter some contributors from writing and to hijack the comment section, fill it with ad hominem insults, thus leaving no space for any intelligent analysis or indeed coherent thought. It is certainly nothing like “an inviting space to focus on intelligent discussion of topics.” Colombo Telegraph practices censorship by bullying.