The Fight for Free Speech Continues Around the World | Opinion

Gusty November may bring with it favorable winds for online free speech. Elon Musk's highly anticipated acquisition promises meaningful change for the Twitter landscape, with the prospect of canceled voices being soon released from the dark recesses of Twitter "jail." Those of us who have lamented the shrinking space for free speech online should celebrate these signs of hope. But let us not lose sight of the international state of affairs for speech—in much of the world, the mere act of taking your thoughts online could constitute a crime.

What we have before us is a dangerous and escalating international trend of criminalizing the exercise of the basic human right to free speech. Under the auspices of the law, state-sponsored censorship manifests as a very serious threat to fundamental freedoms everywhere, from democracies to dictatorships. In fact, it has the effect of rendering democracies more and more akin to their dictatorial counterparts. This is a global phenomenon that defies national borders, demanding great vigilance and valor to defeat.

Finnish Member of Parliament Päivi Räsänen is a beacon of bravery in this regard. Charged with the "crime" of hate speech—carrying with it a 2-year prison sentence—this longstanding civil servant, medical doctor, and grandmother has been embroiled in three years of legal proceedings for a 2019 tweet. Earlier this year, she won on all charges, but the prosecutor general of Finland appealed, dragging her case out to 2023, and possibly beyond, revealing an insatiable desire to punish Räsänen for expressing her faith-based beliefs on marriage and sexuality.

Supporting her legal defense, I saw firsthand the indisputably vindictive goal of the prosecution—to censor not only Räsänen, but also all who dare to speak their minds. From this totalitarian perspective, only speech that supports the government's point of view is allowed. Dissenters are to be silenced and sanctioned. As we know, if this can happen in Finland, it can happen anywhere.

Finland MP Paivi Rasanen
MP of the Finland's Christian Democrats Paivi Rasanen holds a bible as she speaks to media ahead of a court session at the Helsinki District Court in Helsinki, Finland on January 24, 2022. Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva / AFP/Getty Images

In Mexico, a sitting congressman risks losing his civil and political rights for tweeting about women's opportunities in politics. The country's gender parity law mandates equal seats for women and men in Congress. Congressman Gabriel Quadri expressed concern that seats reserved for women had gone to men who identify as transgender. For this remark, he was tried and convicted under the law, and based on the whim of a tribunal, may be barred from ever running for political office again. With the support of ADF International, he is taking his case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Nigerian citizen Mubarak Bala recently was sentenced to 24 years in prison for a social media post critical of Islam. Unfortunately, this was far from an isolated incident. Nigeria is a hotbed of censorship with blasphemy charges carrying harsh penalties under both state and Islamic law, including the possible sentence of death. Now, Rhoda Ya'u Jatau, a Christian woman from Northern Nigeria, is on trial for sharing a Whatsapp message condemning the brutal killing of Deborah Yakubu, who was stoned to death for her faith last May.

As evidenced by these harrowing examples, the internet is no safe space for speech, especially when repressive government clampdowns are at play. While we may be cautiously optimistic about Musk's anticipated free speech changes to the digital public square, we must remember that only part of the battle can be won by taming the zealous censors of digital platforms. The other fight, likely more perilous, lies in tackling the repressive regimes willing to throw people in jail and deprive them of their most basic freedoms for what they say on those platforms.

Ultimately, it is clear that no single free speech hero has what it takes to end censorship. This is a movement for the masses. In solidarity with those among us who have experienced punishment, prison, or even death for speaking out, now is the time for every human rights defender to recommit to championing free speech everywhere, for everyone.

Paul Coleman is the author of Censored and serves as executive director of ADF International overseeing the global, alliance-building legal organization. Find him on Twitter @Paul_B_Coleman.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.