Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton condemned both the video and the reaction to it. General Martin Dempsey, then chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff, contacted Terry Jones, a pastor in Florida who had previously burned a Koran in public, and asked him not to promote the video.
“Consider for a moment: the most senior officer of the mightiest armed forces the world has ever seen feels it necessary to contact some backwoods Florida pastor to beg him not to promote a 13-minute D-movie YouTube upload. Such are the power asymmetries in this connected world,” writes Timothy Garton Ash in “Free Speech”, a fine new book on the subject.
Second, technology firms are having to grapple with horribly complex decisions about censorship. The big global ones such as Facebook and Twitter aspire to be politically neutral, but do not permit “hate speech” or obscenity on their platforms. In America the White House asked Google, which owns YouTube, to “review” whether “The Innocence of Muslims” violated YouTube’s guidelines against hate speech. The company decided that it did not, since it attacked a religion (ie, a set of ideas) rather than the people who held those beliefs. The White House did not force Google to censor the video; indeed, thanks to America’s constitutional guarantee of free speech, it had no legal power to do so.
This began in 1989 with a threat from a state: Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s leader, issued a fatwa condemning Mr Rushdie to death for a novel that he thought insulted Islam. He invited devout Muslims everywhere to carry out the sentence. It was almost certainly one of them who murdered Mr Rushdie’s Japanese translator in 1991, though the killer was never caught.
Since then, the notion that individual Muslims have a duty to defend their faith by assassinating its critics has spread. Most Muslims are peaceful, but it takes only a few to enforce what Mr Garton Ash calls “the assassin’s veto”. The Islamist who murdered Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, for making a film about the abuse of Muslim women, said he could not live “in any country where free speech is allowed”. In 2015 two gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French paper which had published cartoons of Muhammad, killing 12 people. Many speakers and writers across the world are terrified of offending Islamists. A satirical musical called “The Book of Mormon” is an international hit; no theatre would dare stage a similar treatment of the Koran.
“Taking offence has never been easier, or indeed more popular,” observes Flemming Rose, a former editor at Jyllands-Posten, a Danish paper. He should know. After his paper published cartoons of Muhammad in 2005, at least 200 people died.
Many Chinese stay one step ahead of the censors, using software to jump over the Great Firewall of China and reach foreign websites. Nonetheless, Mr Xi’s crackdown will surely weaken his country. If information does not flow freely, it is hard to innovate or make sound decisions. In recent months, as the stockmarket has wobbled, the party has pressed economists to put on a happy face. Analysts who predict turmoil are warned to shut up or recant. How policymakers are to understand the economy when no one is allowed to discuss it honestly is anyone’s guess.
On May 7th an Egyptian court recommended the death penalty for three journalists it accuses of spying. They deny the charges; one says he is being punished for publishing an embarrassing leaked document. The regime is incompetent as well as oppressive: in May an internal memo on how to squash the press was accidentally sent to the press.
In February, for example, two puppeteers were arrested in Madrid. Their show, “The Witch and Don Cristóbal”, was provocative: a nun was stabbed by a crucifix; a judge was hanged with a noose. What upset the police, however, was a scene where a puppet policeman accused a witch of supporting terrorism and shoved a sign reading “Up Alk-ETA” (a reference to al-Qaeda and ETA, a Basque separatist group) into her hands. The puppeteers are now awaiting trial and face up to three years in prison for “glorifying terrorism”. They are said to be surprised.
France criminalised “the defence of terrorism” in 2014 and has enforced the law more aggressively since the attacks on Paris last year. In the days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, prosecutors opened 69 cases for “defence of terrorism”. One man was sentenced to a year in prison for shouting in the street: “I’m proud to be Muslim. I don’t like Charlie. They were right to do it.”
Many countries have introduced or revived laws against “hate speech” that are often broad and vague. In France Brigitte Bardot, an actress, has been convicted five times of incitement to racial hatred because, as an animal lover, she complains about halal slaughter methods. In India section 153A of the criminal code, which was introduced under British rule, punishes with up to three years in jail those who promote disharmony “on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever”.
Such laws are handy tools for those in power to harass their enemies. And far from promoting harmony between different groups, they encourage them to file charges against each other. This is especially dangerous when cynical politicians get involved. Those who rely on votes from a certain group often find it useful to demand the punishment of someone who has allegedly insulted its members, especially just before an election. For example, when an Indian intellectual called Ashis Nandy made a subtle point about lower castes and corruption at a literary festival in 2013, local politicians professed outrage and he was charged under India’s “Prevention of Atrocities Act”.
Many countries still have laws against blasphemy, including 14 in Europe. Rita Maestre, a left-wing Spanish politician, was convicted in March of insulting religious feelings during a protest in a Catholic chapel, during which women bared their chests, kissed one another and allegedly shouted “Get your rosaries out of my ovaries!” She was fined €4,320 ($4,812).
“These are the kinds of provisions we are constantly fighting in countries where freedom of expression is not as open,” says Scott Griffen of the International Press Institute. Autocratic regimes are quick to borrow excuses from the West for cracking down on free speech. China and Russia accuse dissidents of “promoting terrorism”, “endangering national security” or “inciting ethnic hatred”. This can mean simply expressing sympathy for Tibetans on social media—for which Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese lawyer, was locked up for 19 months. Rwanda’s government, borrowing from European laws against Holocaust denial, brands its opponents as apologists for the 1994 genocide and silences them. Europeans may laugh at Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws—a Thai was recently prosecuted for being sarcastic about the king’s dog. But when 13 European democracies also have laws against insulting the head of state, it is hard to avoid charges of hypocrisy.