The folly as well as the malice of western politicians and judges lies in their parochialism. They behave as if the rest of the world is not watching; as if dictators and the leaders of oppressive movement are idiots from a Sacha Baron Cohen satire rather than the skilled manipulators of domestic and international opinion.
Whatever their formal politics – communist or nationalist, secular or theocratic – autocratic regimes share an interest in declaring that human rights are a sham and democracy is a fraud. No one can deny that western governments give them an abundance of material to work with.
Move away from the arguments around Lord Justice Leveson for the moment and allow me to make the point by introducing you to Sanal Edamaruku, who is barely known outside free-thinking circles. His privations began when the priest and worshippers at Our Lady of Velankanni church in Mumbai told the credulous that water dripping from the feet of a statue of Jesus was a sign from God. Hundreds of poor and deluded people believed they could cure their illnesses if they drank the “holy” liquid. Vekanni investigated and found that the water was not coming from Christ’s tears, but a fault in the plumbing. “It was very simple,” he explained. “Water from the washroom had been blocked in the clogged drainage system. It had been transmitted via capillary action into the adjacent walls and the cross. The water came out through a nail hole and ran down over the statue’s feet.”
Outsiders rarely grasp how ferociously the Indian state censors. Laws against “offending” religious or racial sensitivities litter its penal code. They explain why the first state to ban The Satanic Verses, the work of Salman Rushdie, India’s greatest living novelist, was not Iran or Saudi Arabia but, to its shame, India itself. Far from thanking Edamaruku for telling the sick about a quack miracle and religious racket, Catholic organisations prosecuted him for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.
Edamaruku fled to the sanctuary of the west, but the west has no right to be smug. In Dublin last week, Edamaruku argued that western failure to live by its values did not just hurt westerners on the receiving end of authoritarian hypocrisies but all peoples struggling to be free. Double standards produce a double injury, first at home and then abroad. Edamaruku aimed his sights at the plump target of Ireland‘s new blasphemy law. The old one had become an embarrassment to modern Ireland. But instead of allowing freedom of speech, Irish politicians came up with the 2009 Defamation Act. They couched its provisions in the treacly language of political correctness that makes censorship appear respectable and authoritarianism seem liberal. Henceforth, material that is “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion” must be punished.
The Irish state offered all kinds of exemptions, but as Edamaruku said, the damage has been done. The Pakistani authorities use blasphemy charges to persecute liberals and the Shia, Ahmadi and Christian religious minorities. (And as blasphemy carries the death penalty, they find it an effective tool.) When challenged at the UN about the judicial murder of citizens for expressing an opinion, Pakistan and the other members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference pointed to Ireland. How can western hypocrites condemn Pakistan, they asked, when they share the theocrats’ view that blasphemy is a crime?
You will hear the same arguments if you watch Russia Today, the propaganda station of Putin and his kleptomaniacs, or read the pronouncements of the foreign ministries of the world’s dictatorships. When David Cameron proposed controlling Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry’s BBM service during last year’s riots, delighted Chinese journalists were all over the story. They knew that Cameron was providing cover for the Chinese Communist party’s censorship of the web. When the US Congress considered a bill that would impose sanctions on the interior ministry officials who tortured and murdered the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky for exposing their corruption, Moscow replied that America still used the death penalty and had failed to close Guantánamo Bay.
When Islamists riot and murder against some real or imagined offence to the prophet, spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood always say that if anyone denies the Holocaust in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Poland or Luxembourg, European courts can punish them.
To call this “whataboutery” is to miss the salient point. Although I am growing old and grey waiting for the British left to clog the streets of London with demonstrations against Assad’s massacres, I accept that, with the exception of George Galloway and his kind, most of those who say: “Whatabout Israel?” do not want the Baathist regime to survive. (Just as most of those who obsess about the Arab tyrants and say: “Whatabout Syria?” do not want Israel to expand into the West Bank.)
The foreign ministries and propaganda channels of the autocracies are subtly different. They are not against torture, detention without trial or censoring the web – their masters use them all. Rather, they want to show that abuses of power are the way of the world and discredit human rights as at best a utopian dream and at worst a swindle.
The new communications technologies they want to control shows their Janus-faced nature by giving them a huge audience. Russia Today may seem like a station for cranks and lackeys, but its YouTube videos have been viewed 675 million times and the network says its television signal reaches “over 430 million people or 22% of all cable subscribers worldwide”.
In these circumstances, is it too much to ask our leaders to stop providing them with so much copy? If Brian Leveson, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg had balanced their demand for the first press statute since 1695 by insisting that they wanted public interest defences in every piece of legislation that could censor the citizen, if they had sweated to assure the world that they would fight for the widest possible liberty to think, argue and write in Britain, they might have just escaped the charge of being useful idiots. William Hague told the cabinet that dictatorships would throw Leveson “back in our faces”. His frivolous critics did not understand the danger. They blathered about state intervention without a thought for the wolfish grins their words would bring to hard-faced men from Beijing to Belarus.
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