Should freedom of expression be censored

A man in a baseball cap sits in a prison cell, hanging his head in despair. Above the drawing is that from December 11th, citizens will only be allowed to speak positively about migration and that criticism will be regarded as agitation, which is a punishable offense.

The UN Migration Pact was officially adopted on December 11, 2018. The punishment for criticism thing was one of many false claims about the pact. Our fact check showed that criticism should not be punished - but that the pact called on states to criminalize hate crimes such as hate speech against migrants. However, that had long been the case in Germany.

The narrative

We keep seeing assertions that are supposed to scare people with concrete examples. They suggest that certain things may no longer be said, that certain utterances will be punished. For whose benefit the freedom of expression should supposedly be restricted, the contributions also provide: Optionally for Islam, refugees or migration.

Sometimes it is claimed that a politician has called for “asylum critics to be deprived of basic rights”, and sometimes that Angela Merkel wants to punish “asylum critics” with child deprivation.

Both are wrong. The first example was about a guest post by Peter Tauber in the world on the occasion of the murder of Walter Lübke - he demanded that Article 18 of the Basic Law be used against constitutional enemies, not against “asylum critics”. And in the second example, an article by the German Bar Association was extremely distorted. Actually, it was about the fact that a parent could lose their rights of access to a child if they were directly endangering the child through their political views. It had nothing to do with Angela Merkel.

According to another claim, the issue of migration should even have been the cause of the introduction of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It was only introduced to cover up "mass migration," claimed one blogger. Simply because the GDPR supposedly prohibits photography. Our fact check showed that both allegations were wrong: The GDPR only requires that people depicted in photos that are to be used for commercial purposes must give their consent.

Where the narrative shows up

These stories are not only common in Germany. They exist internationally.

For example, the hoax that the EU would impose fines on criticism of Islam first appeared on the US website Gatestone Instituteswhich, according to our research, has already published false reports hostile to Islam several times. In fact, the text was about various international action plans and agreements, but none of them provided for fines for criticizing Islam, as our fact check showed. Only offenses such as hate speech, defamation or acts of violence were still punishable.

It was also wrong to report that someone in England would face up to seven years in prison if he or she criticized Islam. Here, too, our fact check showed that the planned penalties apply to hate crime, not to criticism of religion.

The examples generate concern about outside regulation. In addition, a quote from the philosopher Voltaire wanders through the social networks: "If you want to know what dominates you, find out who you are not allowed to criticize." However, this is not a quote from Voltaire at all, but comes from a Holocaust denier.

So we see how attempts are being made to substantiate the thesis of the lack of freedom of expression with false claims.

What can no longer be said

The legal situation is actually clear. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Basic Law. Article 5 (1) stipulates: “Everyone has the right to freely express and disseminate his or her opinion in words, in writing and in pictures and to obtain information from generally accessible sources without hindrance. […] Censorship does not take place."

But surveys show that the narrative of restricted freedom of expression is working in Germany.

The feeling that Article 5 (1) does not apply fully in practice appears to be widespread. For example there is a survey on behalf of the time, according to which 41 percent of the East Germans surveyed said that freedom of expression is no better off today than in the GDR. Or the Allensbach study from May of this year, in which 71 percent of those surveyed said it was easy to "burn your mouth when talking about refugees". 66 percent said the same for statements about Islam and 63 percent for statements about Jews.

Of course, we cannot fact-check what is behind a feeling or an opinion.

Oliver Saal from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation writes to us by e-mail on request: “If people feel that they can no longer speak their minds, then the right-wing extremist strategy, on the one hand, to deny entire groups of people their basic democratic and human rights and to present oneself as a victim at the same time. "

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This feeling should also be stimulated when a member of the Bundestag for the AfD claimed that, following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, the protection of Islam was more important than freedom of expression. He titled his Facebook post "Islam criticism prohibited". That was a misinterpretation, as our fact check showed. The court had only ruled that an Austrian should pay a fine for “degrading religious teachings”. She claimed that the Prophet Mohammed was a pedophile.

Social networks are places full of "criticism"

As the studies show, some feel that freedom of expression is being restricted - and if not from the outside, then from within those who no longer dare to express their opinion on certain topics.

But there are many extreme, frightening and hurtful opinions to be found on the topics of migration, Islam and refugees in social networks. And since the AfD moved into the Bundestag, there have also been many speeches there that consist of criticism of these issues.

Perhaps there is another feeling behind the narrative - that you are being criticized for your opinion. But the Basic Law does not give anyone the right to spread their opinion without dissenting votes. The right to criticism constitutes freedom of expression.

Where does criticism end, where does the crime begin?

Different countries have different views of how limitless freedom of expression is. In Germany it has more barriers than in the USA, for example. A line runs in our country between freedom of expression and hate speech, which can be punished under certain circumstances.

However, there is a difference between hate speech and criticism. Oliver Saal from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation write to us about this: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in Germany. It covers every statement that is not prohibited. ”For example, denial of the Holocaust or calls for violence against marginalized groups are prohibited. "So there are also a lot of derogatory statements that are rash, lied, derogatory or morally wrong - and yet allowed."

Over the past few years, European and German courts have repeatedly negotiated whether certain statements about Islam are still covered by freedom of expression or have already turned into hate speech. Statements by people who want to expand the legal limits of what can be said about Muslims and Islam.

For example Geert Wilders, who in a film in 2007 equated Islam with terrorist attacks; or the right-wing extremist Pro NRW party, which won a case in 2012 with the result that it was allowed to carry Mohammed caricatures at a demonstration; or the Austrian Sabaditsch-Wolff, who wanted to call the prophet Mohammed a pedophile. For some there is even financial support - for example from the US anti-Islam think tank Middle East Forum

It remains to be seen whether this will have long-term effects, whether the space of what can be said will increase.

This article is part of our series "Narratives of Disinformation". Also published: “Migration is displacing German traditions" and "Climate change? It used to be said simply summer!“.