Should Conspiracy Theories Enjoy Free Speech Protections?

Port of Sousse under attack by US Air Force, 1943. Photo from US Library of Congress, released to public domain.

Port of Sousse under attack by US Air Force, 1943. Photo from US Library of Congress, released to public domain.

Thirty-eight foreign tourists were killed in Tunisia last June when gunman Seifeddine Rezgui armed with a Kalashnikov opened fire at beach goers.

One month later, a mathematics teacher was brought before an investigative judge for alleging on Facebook that the attack in Sousse was a conspiracy.

Abdelfatteh Saied used and edited footage from France 2's TV show Envoyé Spécial and suggested that Rezgui was recruited by security officers after the Bardo Museum attack to test the effectiveness of security measures taken at hotels. According to his baseless theory, on the day of the Sousse attack, Rezgui did not kill anyone but it was “security leaders who committed this genocide.”

In the weeks following Saied's arrest, opinion in Tunisia seems to be divided between those who welcomed his prosecution and those who believe it is useless and a violation of free speech.

Journalist Haythem Mekki tweeted on July 25:

and no, accusing people and institutions of committing terrorist crimes is not freedom of expression. kisses

Papillon had a different opinion:

A guy makes a rubbish video to whitewash the Sousse murderer. He was arrested and accused of terrorism. This is not going to get us very far. If this guy is not a terrorist, he will become one. For four years, we've been explaining to him that we're a democracy, and now he is in prison for a video

Conspiracy theories are not new in the Arab region, and with the current upheavals they are unlikely to go away any time soon. They allege among other things that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, is a Mossad agent; that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was carried out by (again) the Mossad or the CIA to fuel Islamophobia in Europe; and that the so-called Arab Spring was a US conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories are not only limited to the Arab region. In the US, there are multiple theories suggesting that the 9/11 attack was “an inside job”. In Britain, conspiratorial allegations still surround the death of Princess Diana, a mere 18 years after the fact. In 2013, one theory suggested that the British military was involved in her death.

Psychologists say that a conspiracy theory reflects an individual's sense of lack of control. University of Winchester psychology lecturer Michael Wood told VICE that “people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to feel they don't have a lot of control over their lives. It's reassuring to believe the world can be controlled, even if that means it's not a nice place.” Political agendas can also motivate these theories.

In the Internet age, it has become easier for conspiracy theories, just like any other content, to spread further and attract larger audiences than in the past. So should the government censor them? And to what extent should these theories enjoy free speech protections? We asked the Global Voices community, here's what three of them had to say.

For Anna Schetnikova, an editor for the Russian lingua site, censoring conspiracy theories would amount to “hypocrisy. She explains:

In my own country (Russia), and as far as I know in some other countries of the world, there were people who stated that homosexuality was a sin and even a crime, so now we have a law against so called “gay propaganda.” People, who said to gay teens that all is OK with them and tried to help them with problems at school and with parents, became criminals. From the point of view of the supporters of that law, people who support LGBT rights are not better than conspiracy theorists, because they deem the claims about human rights “unfounded and ridiculous.” Well, that law was widely considered as a violation of free speech and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that it would be a hypocrisy to stand against it and other oppressive laws in different countries, while supporting an arrest of conspiracy theorists. Yes, their ideas can be strange or even offensive from our point of view, but who knows what lead them to think as they think, and it is their right to tell what they think to others.

For Global Voices Advocacy director Ellery Biddle, conspiracy theories should not be censored per se, unless they fall under illegal speech, such as a clear incitement to violence.

Even if we don't like what a person says, their right to free speech should be protected, unless it moves into territory where they are actively inciting violence against another person or group. Of course, there are other measures that governments may take anyway — accusations of libel or defamation, depending on how the person delivers their message and who is affected.

“You can't arrest people for what they believe. That should be the norm,” Tunisia author Ahmed Medien says, before adding:

Unfortunately, in Tunisia, the mainstream rhetoric against terrorism has become sickeningly demagogic that they've gone to measures like that. The whole approach to terrorist actions in Tunisia is founded on the rhetoric that the young people involved in terror attacks are youth who are “misinformed” or “misled” by thoughts and practices that are alien to the country. Thus, the government's major task is to protect the young ones from being “misled.” An interpretation of such tasks can lead to cracking down on anything that few people in the government may not agree with.

Saied has been in detention since July 16. According to Human Rights Watch, he stands accused of complicity in terrorism under the 2003 anti-terror law. He is also charged with “accusing, without proof, a public agent of violating the law” under Article 128 of the penal code for sharing and commenting on a photo-shopped picture of Prime Minister Habib Essid. The photo, which shows Essid holding a shovel, was originally posted by another user. Said shared the photo on his Facebook wall on July 12 along with a comment on a decision by the broadcast regulator to close a number of religious radios and TV stations. He said: “as if they [the government] are waiting and thirsty for the Sousse crime to happen, to shut down all sources of moderate Islam. As if it is a gift they got from heaven.”

Tunisian authorities appear to be cracking down on speech they deem to be supportive of and inciting to terrorism, following a surge in militant extremism targeting foreign tourists and armed forces. Three months before the Sousse massacre, another attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis claimed the lives of 21 tourists and a police officer.

A new anti-terror law adopted by the Parliament on July 25 prescribes a jail term of up to five years against anyone found to have “publicly and clearly praised” a terrorist crime, its perpetrator, an organization or an alliance connected with terrorist crimes, their members or their activities.


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