Richard G. Jones, Jr.
Scholar, Educator, Author

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Free Speech and Internet Access:

Nov 29, 2012

Communication Ethics in India and Syria

Two news stories today are bringing issues of free speech and access to communication technology to international attention again.

Shaheen Dhada is at the forefront of a national and international discussion regarding social media and freedom of speech. The 21-year-old, who lives a couple hours outside of Mumbai, posted a message on Facebook last week that led to her arrest. As NPR reports, “her ‘crime’ was questioning the shutdown of Mumbai as mourners gathered for the cremation of Bal Thackeray, who had dominated the city's political stage for decades with cagey intimidation tactics.” In her November 18, 2012 Facebook posting, she wrote: "Every day thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. ... Today, Mumbai shuts down out of fear, not out of respect."

The NPR story quoted Dhada as saying: "Within 10 minutes, the police came and told me to come to the police station. I had to apologize in a written statement." She was held at the station until 2 a.m. when she was let out after bail was posted. A friend of Dhada’s who “liked” the posting was also detained by the police and a mob of people angered by Dhada’s posting surrounded the police station, scaring both Dhada and her friend.NPR quotes Dhada’s father as saying that freedom of speech in India "exists only on paper."

It was also reported that essentially all high-speed internet in Syria was shut off today, presumably to hinder the communication and fighting ability of rebels who have been challenging the government of President Assad.

In stark contrast to this move, presumably made by Assad’s government, some countries including Finland have included, since 2010, access to high speed internet as a human right guaranteed by the constitution.

Further, the National Communication Association’s “Credo for Ethical Communication” reminds us that communication ethics is relevant across contexts, is a central part of democracy, and applies to every channel of communication, including media. The credo states that human worth and dignity are fostered through ethical communication practices such as truthfulness, fairness, integrity, and respect for self and others.

While the Credo advocates for, endorses, and promotes certain ideals, it is up to each one of us to put them into practice.

Here are some of the principles stated in the Credo:

We endorse freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent to achieve the informed and responsible decision-making fundamental to a civil society.

We condemn communication that degrades individuals and humanity…through the expression of intolerance and hatred.

We are committed to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice.

We accept responsibility for the short- and long-term consequences of our own communication and expect the same of others.

You can read the rest of the Credo, as well as other statements by NCA about communication, technology, democracy, and ethics here:http://natcom.org/Tertiary.aspx?id=2119&terms=ethical%20credo

Questions to consider:

Should Dhada's comments on Facebook be protected as "freedom of speech"?

Where should social media sites, governments, and individuals draw the line between freedom of expression and speech that threatens national security or public safety?

Are there any situations in which you would think it okay for the government to cut off internet access?