Martha O’Donovan, a 25-year-old American, is trapped in Zimbabwe, charged by police with insulting Zimbabwe’s president and plotting to overthrow its government.
Her crime? She allegedly sent an anonymous tweet — "We are being led by a selfish and sick man” — apparently referring to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who is 93 and has ruled the country for nearly four decades. O’Donovan is one of the first people to run afoul of Zimbabwe’s new Ministry of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation, which opened last month. She adamantly denies the charges, which carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Police have confiscated her passport so she cannot leave.
As America reacts to President Trump’s tweets or questions Russia’s influence on Facebook and other social media websites, it is easy to overlook a glaring truth: Social media is showing us how billions of people around the world lack basic freedom of speech.
I’m not talking about hate speech or falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. I’m talking about posting basic opinions, or disagreeing with the government, or questioning government leaders, or even posting a bad joke. Our Constitutional right to express ourselves is far from a universal right or a universal value.
While some Americans are understandably appalled at the crude and divisive comments and rants that appear on social media, in many other nations just posting a tweet on Twitter or sharing a poem on Instagram can be cause for arrest or a jail sentence.
Last year, a Turkish court found model and former Miss Turkey, Merve Buyuksarac, 27, guilty of insulting a public official. How? She had posted a satirical poem about the Turkish president on Instagram. Her punishment: a 14 month jail sentence (in Turkey, the crime of insulting the president is punishable by up to four years in jail). The Turkish court did suspend her jail time — if she does not commit a similar offense in the next five years.
In 2012, in the Indian city of Mumbai, a mild protest message on a Facebook resulted in the arrest of a 21-year old medical student and a friend who had “liked” her post.
Many countries also repeatedly shut down or ban social media sites altogether. China has banned Facebook since 2009, and it also bans Snapchat and more recently Pinterest. Iran routinely blocks access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Vietnam has access to Facebook but users post comments critical of the government at their own peril.
Some European nations now restrict what can be said on social media. Last month, Germany put in place a law that requires larger social networks to take down hate speech, which includes "defamation of religions, religious and ideological associations,” and illegal content within 24 hours or face fines of 50 million Euros. Moreover, the new law gives German government greater freedom to step all over religious rights. In Great Britain, London authorities alone arrested more than two people every day in 2015 for putting up social media posts that violated the country’s Communications Act 2003, which prohibits offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing messages.
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When I was a young lawyer, I represented many people who protested at the White House — from nuns who tried to chain themselves to the fence to citizens who camped out for years, displaying giant signs protesting nuclear weapons. Some people thought these signs were eyesores next to the gorgeous White House. But when I looked at them, I thought: "Wow! This is the First Amendment in action."
The First Amendment was added to the Constitution not to encourage manners but to protect minority thought and speech from the majority. Majority speech needs no protection. Minority speech does — even if that minority speech is dumb, mean or rude. Otherwise, people can be bullied into saying nothing at all. Over the years, I have defended all sorts of First Amendment expressions, even those I didn’t personally agree with, because the First Amendment is THAT important.
As our government, and all of us, try to decide what will and will not be allowed on social media sites, let us not forget the First Amendment. Let us not become a nation that would arrest a young woman for putting up a poem on Instagram. Or where our own local police departments would send out a message like this one, which was tweeted in April 2016 by Scotland’s Greater Glasgow police account: “Think before you post or you may receive a visit from us this weekend. Use the internet safely. #thinkbeforeyoupost." Free speech matters, now more than ever.
We all should know the difference between being strong and provoking robust debate and being indecent or hateful. Let’s keep our First Amendment free.
Greta Van Susteren is the author of just released “Everything You Need To Know About Social Media Without Having to call A Kid” (Simon and Schuster) and creator of just released Sorry App and long time cable news anchor. Follow her on Twitter: @greta.