In the second part of Rachel Potter’s interview with him, former President of International PEN John Ralston Saul talks free expression, the impact of the internet and hate speech.
John Ralston Saul suggests that today’s free speech and free expression issues stem from globalisation and cultures which were local coming into closer proximity than ever before.
During his presidency of international PEN a number of free expression issues began to emerge, largely as a result of wide spread internet access and the proliferation of social media as a vehicle for both outrage and defiance.
This, he maintains, is part of the problem with the Charlie Hebdo case.
‘[O]ne of the effects of the internet has been to take this very local phenomenon of humour and make it international. Suddenly something which makes somebody in the sixth arrondissment [of Paris] or East London, or Moscow, laugh, is being seen in Tehran. And that creates a new situation and that’s where we are. We don’t have the answer to that.’
Essentially, he feels, the issue is one not of a global system of censorship or policing of speech or expression, but a sense of shared responsibility and foresight as to the consequences of these kinds of global systems and processes.
‘My own gut feeling is that, and this is in an ideal world; my gut feel is that writers have a job, that editors have a job, that publishers have a job. Let’s call that job ‘responsibility’.
‘You could even call it professionalism. Our job is to write, but to stand as a barrier to hatred.’
There is also a responsibility which lies, for Ralston Saul, with the global media platforms which allow this sort of information to proliferate however:
‘We’re seeing this with Facebook right now.
‘Just because you’re thirty years old and wearing a t-shirt and pretending you’re eighteen and you are the head of Facebook and you talk like somebody who is not very sophisticated and ‘Golly-gee we’re just an organisation that allows people to have communities’…like hell.
‘You have a responsibility. You have a responsibility as an Editor and as a Publisher. You have a responsibility to ensure that your system of distribution is not used to provoke hatred. That is a responsibility.
‘People like Facebook are not doing their job. I’m sorry. These internet organisations are trying to get away with murder.’
‘I do mean murder. The racist Buddhist monk in Myanmar who has led the violent actions against the Rohingya has done this to a great extent through the internet.
‘He sets up accounts on Facebook and says these incredibly untrue and racist things, which cause riots and cause murder. Eventually Facebook shuts him down and he simply sets up another page.
‘I’m terribly sorry, Facebook has an enormous responsibility. They are associated with murder. So let’s not be soft about this.’
Read the rest of the second part of the interview here.