Egyptian Government Reacts to Citizens with Online Censorship

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THUNDER BAY – Right now, in Egypt, citizens are in the streets. They are fighting for their fundamental freedoms. The official response of the government has been to shut down the Internet in the country. Tanks are in the streets, and citizens are defying those tanks and the military in an effort to secure greater freedoms.

That step of stiffling communications and commerce by shutting down or attempting to shut down the Internet is a demonstration of how fragile our freedoms can be.

It can happen closer to home too. Far closer than one might at first think. The Canadian Journalism Project is reporting, “Blogger and free speech activist Ezra Levant has been ordered by the Ontario Superior Court to pay an additional $32,500 in libel to human rights lawyer Giacomo Vigna. Last November, Levant was ordered to pay $25,000 to Vigna for libel, citing his “reckless indifference” to the truth while writing blog posts about the Canadian Human Rights Commission lawyer.

“Levant accused Vigna of lying to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, tampering with evidence, and suggested he’d been fired, the National Post reports. Justice Robert Smith ruled that Levant “spoke in reckless disregard of the truth and for an ulterior purpose of denormalizing the Human Rights Commission across Canada which makes his statements malicious in that sense.”

“In the first decision (published November 18, 2010), which you can read here, the judge dismissed some of the claims against Levant, but found that he defamed Vigna six times between March and May 2008. That Levant failed to check facts or seek Vigna’s side of the story meant that he could not claim the new libel defence, introduced by the Supreme Court late last year, of ‘responsible communication on a matter of public interest’.”

The real story in some of the reporting on the various Human Rights Commissions across Canada have been that complaints, in my opinion, can be brought to the commissions based more on someone not liking what was said, rather than on actual human rights issues.

Levant has been a long-time fighter for greater accountability, and the outright abolition of Human Rights Commissions. His blog, www.ezralevant.com offers his views on a number of issues.  One can either like, or dislike Ezra Levant the person. He is a consummate, over the top debate participant, with an enthusiasm that either attracts or repeals people.  At least in my opinion.

So what? If everyone had the right to a life of milk and honey and nothing that would offend them, life would be pretty boring.

That is not to support hate speech or other obvious libel, but that people’s right to have an opinion, and the right of the press to express different views is important. Really important.

The real issue is on the ability of individuals to express their opinions. The bigger issue is that if anyone is offended by what you say that they could easily use the system in an effort to stifle your access to information or to commentary.

Can Levant be objectionable? Certainly. Big deal.

Who isn’t at times going to have an idea or opinion that you object to? That is a concern that freedom of speech advocates like Levant have tried repeatedly to raise. It is an issue that all journalists and their editors should be concerned about. Any infringement on freedoms is an infringement on everyone’s freedoms.

Not everyone in the media believes in that right apparently. Some go so far as to sit atop their empires, and declare only their way is the correct way. Those kinds of views belong back two centuries ago in the robber baron days of railway monopolies. Today perhaps more importantly than ever before, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are needed.

We are seeing, in Egypt, how a government can react under pressure from its citizens. It is a demonstration of how fragile, really fragile our freedoms here in Canada, and likely in the United States are. Take the Internet for example, it has not yet generated the full understanding, in my view, of either the government or the courts as to its importance in our society. Some knuckle-draggers go so far as to suggest it is simply a fad.

Remember the stirring words of President John F. Kennedy standing before the Berlin Wall.  “All free men, whereever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner'”.

Right now, as free people, we are all citizens of Egypt.

As a tool for communications, and as a tool for new media, the Internet is today’s printing press.

In my opinion anyhow, all freedoms are too precious. Freedom of the press is something, everyone in every democratic society should be fighting for. They are rights that are too easily lost if allowed to be sliced away bit by bit.

The Government in Egypt right now is responding to protests from citizens by clamping down on freedoms. Instead of running a government that is open and realizes the importance of freedoms, the government has shut down the Internet and the ability of people to communicate with each other. Right now, as this piece is being written people are in the streets of Cairo demanding freedom. That is the right of all people on earth, the right to freely make decisions, it is something perhaps in Canada many have become too complacent over.

Can freedoms be lost here? It can happen in the blink of an eye. Consider the laws passed in Toronto during the G-20 and the reaction of the state toward people wishing to protest the G-20 conference? One police officer was recorded on Youtube telling a citizen stating their rights that “This isn’t Canada!”

“This isn’t Canada!”? That very statement outlines how fragile our freedoms really are. If legislation can be quietly passed by Order in Council, and if the authorities can act like that, Canadians might be wondering how secure our freedoms really are.

Freedom of speech does not mean an individual is allowed to express things that are designed to deliberately harm another person. However it is not a right not to be ignored easily.

The broad stroke might be that the ability to not be offended is not a constitutional right.

Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are, and it is a message each one of us should never take too lightly.

James Murray

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