Three Significant Developments for the Right to Freedom of Expression

December 3, 2012

The month of November included three significant and positive developments regarding the right to freedom of expression, which recently has come under such harsh attack that the Center for Inquiry has launched a Campaign for Free Expression

On Nov. 20, there was what many are calling a "legal breakthrough" in Pakistan: a court dismissed a blasphemy charge against a young Christian girl named Rimsha Masih (who is featured on the Campaign for Free Expression website). 

Masih, believed to be developmentally disabled and around fourteen years in age, was originally arrested in August 2012 after a local cleric, Mohammad Khalid Chisti, said she had burned pages of the Noorani Qaida, a religious book used to teach the Qu’ran to children. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside of the police station where Masih was being held, demanding she face formal charges (in Pakistan, burning sacred Muslim documents is a crime punishable by death). The case took a suprising turn in September 2012, when police arrested Chisti and charged him with fabricating evidence against Masih.

The court has now cleared Masih, while the charges against Chisti remain. Yet this story is not a completely cheerful one: Masih and her family will feel the consequences of the charges forever, as they—along with many Christians living nearby—have already relocated from their home and live in hiding in fear of vigilante retribution. 

Then, just eight days after Masih was set free, more good news broke: lawmakers in the Netherlands agreed to scrap the country's blasphemy law, which they called outdated. This was a victory all by itself, but it could also mark an important first step forward for European states which, in the face of Islamic criticism, have previously been less than fully supportive of the right to freedom of expression. Indeed, Ireland will soon hold a constitutional convention on major political reform, and the country could feel compelled to consider repealing its blasphemy law.

And last, but not least, the Human Rights First reported last week that the United Nations Third Committee adopted by consensus a measure addressing religious intolerance that does not include mention of the harmful "defamation of religions" concept. This makes it probable that, for the second year in a row, the UN General Assembly will approve a religious intolerance resolution that does not allow states room to restrict the right to freedom of expression. And it strikes another blow to those who seek to claim that freedom of expression is a uniquely Western value. 

Persons and organizations concerned with protecting and promoting the right to free expression, such as CFI, should certainly welcome and celebrate these developments. However, we must also keep in mind that the fight is far from over, and that we need to keep advocating loudly and clearly to those in power if we are to accomplish real change. For more information on how you can get invoved, please visit the Campaign for Free Expression website.