Brendan O’Neill

Open letter to Narendra Modi: ask David Cameron to safeguard freedom of expression in Britain

Open letter to Narendra Modi: ask David Cameron to safeguard freedom of expression in Britain
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Dear Prime Minister Narendra Modi,

Re: Urging Action by Indian government to Safeguard Freedom of Expression in Great Britain

As a writer committed to protecting and defending freedom of expression around the world, I am extremely concerned about the growing intolerance towards critical voices who challenge orthodoxy in Britain. As your three-day state visit to the United Kingdom kicks off, I am urging you to engage with Prime Minister David Cameron both publicly and privately on this crucial issue. Please speak out on the current state of freedom of expression in Britain, urging Mr Cameron to stay true to the spirit of the democratic freedoms enshrined in British history, from the Magna Carta to the Levellers to John Stuart Mill.

As you will no doubt be aware, Mr Cameron’s government takes a profoundly intolerant approach to anybody who expresses what officialdom considers to be an ‘extremist’ view. The Extremism Bill will punish not only those who incite violence but also expressions of ‘non-violent extremism’. Helpfully, our Home Secretary, Ms Theresa May, has spelt out what counts as ‘extremism’: people who show a lack of ‘respect for the rule of law’ or ‘respect for minorities’. As I am sure you will appreciate, this could cover not only Islamist agitators but also Marxists who call for revolutions or Christians who think gay marriage is bunkum (and who therefore do not ‘respect minorities’). Please ask Mr Cameron to reconsider this blanket criminalisation of edgy or non-mainstream thinking and speech.

Already, it is dangerous in Britain for people of certain religious persuasions to express themselves in public. In August, a Christian pastor in Northern Ireland was taken to court, charged with gross offensiveness, for saying that Islam is ‘Satanic’. Last year in Dundee a street preacher was arrested for describing homosexuality as a sin. Also last year, the police made a church in Norfolk take down a poster which said non-believers would go to hell. You will surely appreciate how tragic it is that the nation which produced the great Thomas Paine — who argued so well for liberty, and ‘above all things the free exercise of religion’ — should now punish the public exercise of religious faith.

You may also be aware that Britons are being arrested and in some cases jailed for saying unpopular things on social media. Currently, a BBC TV reality star faces six months in jail for making obnoxious comments about people with Down’s syndrome on her Facebook page. The British police and courts frequently punish people for saying wicked or silly things on Twitter. In 2012 a student was jailed for 56 days for writing racist tweets. Also in 2012 a youth was arrested for saying horrible things about the diver Tom Daley. In 2010 a man was charged with making a ‘grossly offensive’ message for joking about blowing up an airport. In December 2014, following the awful Glasgow bin lorry disaster, a 19-year-old man was arrested on ‘suspicion of making a malicious communication’. What he did was make a tasteless joke about the lorry crash. Even joking can get you arrested in Britain. Mr Modi, please tell Mr Cameron that offensiveness and crass humour should not be crimes.

You may know that British officials often ban people from entering the country, if they are judged to have immoral or non-mainstream views. They are branded ‘not conducive to the public good’. This month, the Home Secretary banned an American white nationalist from coming to Britain, presumably fearing the impact he would have on Brits’ delicate ears and minds: such censorship patronises the British public far more effectively than it challenges racist views. In August, Tyler the Creator, an American rapper, was banned from Britain over some sexist lyrics he wrote back in 2009, and which he now says he regrets. In 2013, two American bloggers who are stingingly critical of Islam were refused entry, too. Mr Modi, please press Mr Cameron on his profoundly illiberal, paternalistic habit of seeking to protect Brits from dodgy or questionable ideas.

And finally, you will no doubt be aware that Britain’s attachment to the ideal of press freedom has withered in recent years. Back in 2011, Mr Cameron launched an inquiry into the ethics and culture of the press, following the exposure of phone-hacking at the News of the World, and he did so with these chilling words: ‘It is vital that a free press can tell truth to power… it is equally vital that those in power can tell truth to the press.’ Since then, through the Leveson Inquiry, that is what ‘those in power’ have sought to do: reprimand and chill the press. They got their way: the 2014 Freedom of the Press report showed that Britain had tumbled down the global press-freedom rankings, falling five places to No.36, below countries such as Belize and the Czech Republic.

Ever since we wriggled free of state licensing of the press 350 years ago, the freedom of the press has been a cornerstone of British values. Mr Modi, can you please remind Mr Cameron of this fact?

Britain has become a country in which tweeting, proselytising, muckraking, disrespecting the law and other forms of expression can get you arrested. This must not stand. I ask that you raise these issues with our Prime Minister, because without the protection of freedom of speech for all — including the controversial — a democratic, peaceful society is not possible.

Yours sincerely,

Brendan O’Neill