September 27, 2005
Written by C.N.
Reuters has an article that describes that two young ethnic Chinese men in Singapore were recently charged with with violating the country’s strict rules about disseminating Internet postings that are intolerant of racial, ethnic, or religious groups:
The two ethnic Chinese men, aged 25 and 27, face charges for promoting ill-will and hostility between ethnic communities on their personal websites, or “blogs,” in June. The police said both men were accused of posting racist remarks aimed at Singapore’s mostly-Muslim ethnic Malay community. If convicted, they may be jailed for up to three years or fined up to S$5,000, or both.
Singapore has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the world, but also some of the toughest media laws. Singapore police have wide powers to intercept online messages, and Internet service providers are required to block websites containing material that may be a threat to public security, national defense, racial and religious harmony and public morality.
I’m not sure how I feel about this particular practice. On the one hand, I believe in freedom of expression, even when it’s speech that I strongly disagree with. I’ve said before and I still believe that freedom of expression belongs to everyone, not just for those with whom you agree. Based on that, punishing people for their thoughts is not right.
On the other hand, as a sociologist and a person of color, I am also aware that certain kinds of speech are more dangerous than others. That is, when speech promotes violence or virulent intolerance of minority groups, that is where I draw the line. This is also consistent with hate crimes statutes that prohibit such speech, even if it does not eventually lead to violence. On those grounds, if the postings of these citizens in Singapore promoted this sort of blatant intolerance, that might be a reasonable justification to punish them.
However, as news organizations such as CNN report, a new publication by the organization Reporters Without Borders seeks to help dissidents disseminate and promote their views by giving them tips on bypassing repressive censors in their countries:
In a bid to inspire budding Web diarists around the world, the 87-page booklet gives advice on setting up and running blogs, and on using pseudonyms and anonymous proxies, which can be used to replace easily traceable home computer addresses. . . . The advice varies depending on the user’s level of paranoia — from changing cyber cafes to sending cryptographically signed messages via specially formatted e-mail.
The guide explains circumvention technologies that can break through government filters but warns bloggers to check how severe the penalty will be if they are caught using them. The freely available handbook advises bloggers to be ethical and warns that the tips are not intended for terrorists, racketeers or pedophiles who use the Internet to commit crimes.
Although the line that separates freedom of expression from criminal activity may be a little blurry at times, I think this kind of publication can be a useful method to ensure freedom of speech and political dissension in an otherwise oppressive country, while at the same time, maintaining a set of ethics and responsibility so that minority groups are not threatened with hate and violence.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Censorship in the Blogosphere" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2005/09/censorship-in-singapore/> ().
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