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Thoughts On Freedom Of Speech in Europe

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We cannot conceive democracy without freedom of speech. Finnish On-line magazine Journalisti.fi classifies Finland, Switzerland, Iceland and Sweden as the leading countries in freedom of speech; do they share a trait that differs them from the rest and partly explains the wellbeing of it?

Absolutist kings ruled Southern and Central Europe for hundreds of years; but not Scandinavia and Switzerland. The people lack the imprint of fear and slyness that tyranny leaves. For the past 500 years, they've been free of the dark side of the Catholic Church (hypocrisy, greed for power and wealth). Protestantism emphasized from its very beginning values that support democracy: independence (no mediation of a priest in confession; the Bible in vernacular language); high work ethics (serve God through work); asceticism (images of saints and decorations removed from churches) and honesty (celibacy abolished). Even though religion has been mostly forgotten, morals grow from the religious concepts of good and evil. Switzerland and Scandinavia were never worldwide empires. And the Social Democracy of recent history has established these equalitarian societies with a strong sense of community.

History links us to contemporary European stories related to freedom of speech.

I've seen how the freedom of speech of colleagues in Spain has been maimed. For fear of being sued by the government and by politicians a few Spanish online newspapers removed columns after their publication and sacked journalists. The atmosphere is tense in Spain. Politicians are hypersensitive and sue journalists and the media for the smallest criticism. Fear reigns. History shows that dictators and absolutist kings ruled Spain ever since Roman times, except for the period of the Visigoths (415 - 725 A.D.), when something close to democracy happened, and the two maladroit republics in the 20th century. The Spanish people got used to rulers whose criticising led to big trouble. Then, modern democracy came in the 70s, but 40 years versus 3000 weigh little.

In the Internet Age the problematic issue of freedom of speech doesn't limit itself to media anymore, but has spread to the Web, where it is much more complicated. How can we control the millions of published messages daily?

Even though Blogs and forums are not legally in the same category as the press, the Freedom of Speech Law throughout Europe considers Bloggers and owners of forums as finally responsible of messages published in their sites; now the problems blow into colossal magnitude.

Some surprising law cases bring forth the differences between attitudes towards freedom of speech in various countries: recently the German Court sentenced Finnish Net-company WOT Services Ltd. to remove from its site certain comments and ratings considered defamatory, under the threat of fines and a prison sentence. Nevertheless the German Court didn't show any interest in finding out the authors of the comments.

WOT Services Ltd. gives away a service called Web of Trust. Its aim is to improve security in the Web by showing the reputation of sites, which is built with the feedback of users. During the past three months some preliminary injunctions have been issued in Germany against the company for comments considered defamatory. Abundant warning letters are received. WOT works worldwide and no other country sends as many warning letters and preliminary injunctions. Why Germany?

The facts that princes and emperors ruled Germany for hundreds of years and the harsh National Socialistic dictatorship of near history might partly explain the national psyche of the German people. Psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson states in his book 'Child and Society' (1950) that Germany's Nazi past might be a consequence of governmental fragmentation, thus also cultural, which prevented the development of a solid national identity. The lack of a strong national identity makes the people feel lost, and is fertile land to hysterical extremist ideologies. The abundant sues issued in Germany can be interpreted as hysterical overreacting, especially when we compare to the ways of other countries.

Is it easy to define what is defamation and what is just an acerbic opinion? Where goes the fine line? In both the WOT Services Ltd. case and the Spanish journalists' the attitudes towards the conflictive messages are discordant. Are we allowed to express publicly an unpleasant truth? Is truth just a subjective, labile thing that no one can but interpret and never state objectively? May we criticise a politician, publish truthful but sensitive information or express the unreliability of a Website without being punished for it? Do we have the right to express publicly our dissatisfaction or must we stay silent for fear of a sentence? An opinion is always subjective and anybody can freely respond to it without having to sue anybody. Are journalists and critical Web users really so dangerous?

The restrictions on freedom of speech and the tightening of censorship hinder our evolution in responsibility and criticism. Today the tolerance shown towards freedom of speech varies from country to country, yet dissatisfaction and worry seem to be in the mind of Web users, Bloggers and journalists all over Europe. A society cannot bloom in a paranoid atmosphere. It might come handy to increase flexibility and tolerance, and to decrease susceptibility, without ever forgetting respect for others.

Fear is a bad travel companion to the traveller who observes his environment with a critical mind.

• Quote from T.S. Eliot's poem 'The Hollow Men'