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Freedom of Speech and International Relations Essay

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Updated: May 29th, 2021

Introduction

The freedom of speech or the freedom of expression is a civil right legally protected by many constitutions, including that of the United States, in the First Amendment. Free speech guarantees that citizens have the right to express their ideas, opinions, agreement, and disagreement in writing, speaking, or any other form of expression such as paintings, photos, music, or more (Stone, 2014). This right can be used by citizens to express their disapproval of the government’s actions or specific policies or more. Furthermore, “freedom of expression is a fundamental right in modern societies,” not only concerning opinions but also allowing citizens to share information without the involvement of public authorities (Hugelier, 2011, p. 61). The complex concept of freedom of speech also includes the right to know, to seek information, and to share or exchange ideas (Hugelier, 2011). Although, as mentioned, freedom of speech is guaranteed by many constitutions of first-world countries, this right remains an issue in international relations since it can be limited or even restricted by governments.

Restrictions on Freedom of Speech

Restrictions on the freedom of speech have led to international conflicts and disagreements. For example, an Egyptian dissident, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, was sentenced to two years in prison for criticism of the Egyptian government and became an exile but returned as Mubarak fell (Rugh, 2012). American–Egyptian relationships have changed since then, Rugh (2012) states, pointing out that the change was possible due to the political revolution that happened after the uprising and Mubarak’s resignation. The authoritarian rule of the former Egyptian president complicated US–Egypt relationships and led to protests all over Egypt. Although Rugh (2012) acknowledges that the role of the United States in these events was “quiet,” he also points out that the civil protests helped the country end Mubarak’s regime. A lack of freedom of speech was one of the main reasons the uprising began. As demonstrated, this freedom or its lack can affect both internal and external relationships in a country.

Another side of these restrictions involves online communication and the Internet. The Internet and social media were actively used during the Arab Spring, which led to blocked or severely restricted access to online services during certain political moments (Deibert & Crete-Nishihata, 2012). The government restricted access to the social media of other countries (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), resulting in outbursts of indignation from both citizens and legal representatives of other nations. Although other countries, the United States and the UK among them, did not approve the restrictions, it should be noted that the same countries either restricted or proposed to restrict Internet access or cell phone services if needed. For example, “the Bay Area Rapid Transit System” canceled cell phone service at four stations in San Francisco to disrupt a planned protest (Deibert & Crete-Nishihata, 2012, p. 344). Thus, although freedom of speech is guaranteed by most constitutions, the approach to it can change depending on the political situation in the country.

The freedom of speech and control of Internet access are intertwined. Deibert and Crete-Nishihata (2012) point out that states interested in Internet control can create coalitions to work on specific policies that will limit Internet access or restrict available information. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional organization, created by China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan (Deibert & Crete-Nishihata, 2012), focuses on Internet security policies; some of those are used “against international norms of democracy and regime change” (Deibert & Crete-Nishihata, 2012, p. 348). Moreover, the SCO also conducts military missions that appear to be simulations of reversing popular uprisings (Deibert & Crete-Nishihata, 2012). Therefore, differences in approach to the freedom of speech can lead to real conflict—possibly armed—between states.

Censorship is sometimes seen as a violation of the freedom of speech. However, there are two different types of censorship: One bans information that can be disturbing or insulting, while the other focuses on opinions, criticism, and disagreement with official actions of the government or official government representatives.

Some states use censorship to prevent any collective actions, as it was in Egypt and Turkey and still is in Russia and China. Despite the fact that China uses censorship to target any opinions that include criticism of the state, King, Pan, and Roberts (2013) argue that the aim of such censorship is not to suppress criticism of the Party per se but to ensure that no collective action can be taken and formed via social media. Although it may appear that such an approach is more common in countries with authoritarian regimes, the United States has engaged another tool to control and gather information about its citizens, namely, security policies and surveillance. As Bauman et al. (2014) note, state surveillance is a direct threat to the freedom of speech since any citizen subjected to mass surveillance cannot freely express himself or herself. The freedom of speech, although seen as “the norm” in international relations, is violated the moment the state needs additional control of a situation or any information about a specific subject.

Freedom of Speech: Is It Real?

The problem of limited freedom of speech is tightly linked to the issue of official secrecy: Snowden’s case showed that any sensitive information related to the government and published without its permission is not considered to be protected under freedom of speech. Thus, the freedom of speech, if completely unlimited, has the potential to adversely influence international relationships or even lead to conflict because of dispersed information that is supposed to be secret. National security and public safety can be at risk if particular pieces of information are published, which is why they are often not governed by the same laws that guarantee freedom of speech (Stone, 2014). The problem is that such terms as “national security” and “public safety” are not stated in detail, and this allows states to use related laws according to their own plans and actions. Stone (2014) provides an example: Although the Official Secrets Act of 1911 was passed because of the activities of foreign agents, the word “sabotage” used in the legislation could cover a broad range of activities—any that could be more or less seen as sabotage.

Another problem is that this legislation does not concern “official” information only but any information that “could be useful for an enemy” (Stone, 2014, p. 302). As can be seen, although a citizen does have the right to express his or her opinion freely, as well as share information, the limits of this freedom, depending on the state, its relations with other states, its involvement in any conflicts, the type of information the citizen shares, and the person who receives this information. Freedom of speech is not a concept that exists independently from international relations but is defined by those and vice versa. The poem What Must Be Said by German writer Günter Grass serves as an example of this concept; this written work was marked as controversial and led to serious debates in and outside of Germany. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that after the publication of this poem, Grass would become a persona non grata in Israel (Horn, 2012). Although the writer posted the poem because of his right to express himself freely as guaranteed by the German constitution, his action also led to particular complexities in Israel–Germany relationships.

Another example of how freedom of speech is defined by and influences international relationships is the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. After Rushdie’s controversial book The Satanic Verses was published, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared that the assassination of Rushdie would be supported officially. Since Salman Rushdie is a British-Indian writer, such statements “caused the UK to sever diplomatic relations with Iran for nearly a decade” (Cain, 2016, para. 3). Furthermore, the author also lived “under UK police protection” after the fatwa was declared (Cain, 2016, para. 5). The conflict between various definitions, statements made, and information disclosed can often lead to worsened diplomatic relations between countries. The lack of a clear definition leads to misunderstandings that cause conflicts in international relationships.

Conclusion

Freedom of speech is a human right that is guaranteed by the majority of modern constitutions. Nevertheless, any state can limit this freedom if it feels the need to address a specific political event or criticism or wants to have control over information and the citizens of the state. Freedom of speech can lead to international conflicts and even wars, especially if the definition of the concept is different for different states. At the same time, although freedom of speech is seen as an international norm, states have necessary tools such as mass surveillance or censorship programs that limit individuals’ rights in this area. This norm has the potential to either improve or worsen diplomatic relations, cease or cause conflicts, and even lead to or prevent uprisings that might or might not be supported by other states.

References

Bauman, Z., Bigo, D., Esteves, P., Guild, E., Jabri, V., Lyon, D., & Walker, R. B. (2014). After Snowden: Rethinking the impact of surveillance. International Political Sociology, 8(2), 121-144.

Cain, S. (2016). Web.

Deibert, R. J., & Crete-Nishihata, M. (2012). Global governance and the spread of cyberspace controls. Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 18(3), 339-361.

Horn, H. (2012). Web.

Hugelier, S. (2011). Freedom of expression and transparency: Two sides of one coin. Jura Falconis Jg., 47(1), 61-92.

King, G., Pan, J., & Roberts, M. E. (2013). How censorship in China allows government criticism but silences collective expression. American Political Science Review, 107(2), 326-343.

Rugh, W. A. (2012). Egyptian politics and American diplomacy. Middle East Policy, 19(2), 36-48.

Stone, R. (2014). Textbook on civil liberties and human rights. London, England: OUP.

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