All posts by Jacques Rousseau

Statement on Charlie Hebdo attack – Free Society Institute

downloadThe Free Society Institute stands with Charlie Hebdo and all defenders of free speech and civil liberty in condemning the murder of two police officers, three cartoonists, and eight journalists in Paris on January 7.

As offended as those of the Muslim faith might find blasphemy to be, that offence pales into insignificance compared to the brutality of Islamo-fascist terrorism such as this. Being offended does not grant one warrant for ending the lives of others.

The right to free speech does not, however, say anything about when it is wise to exercise that freedom or not.Neither does the fact that these terrorists were recorded as shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet” during their attack tell us anything incontrovertible about Islam in general.

Tragedies such as these, that shock and confuse, can make easy answers attractive to us, in that they can lend themselves to stereotype and simplistic analysis. This is not the time for either of these.

Instead, this is the time for two simple things: to express our sympathy to all who are affected, and second, to recognise that we are all affected, in that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of civilised society, and is slightly more under threat to us all in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo attack.

Jacques Rousseau
Chairperson – Free Society Institute

IHEU report on social media and discrimination against the non-religious

The IHEU is today releasing a report on discrimination against non-religious people, with examples drawn from all over the world. It makes for interesting reading, because in addition to all the cases that get widespread media attention, the problem of discrimination against the non-religious is perhaps a larger one than many people realise. The report offers many examples of such discrimination, sometimes in the expected places, but also in jurisdictions where you’d hope for freedom from persecution on grounds of non-belief.

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Blasphemy prosecutions rise with social media

New report highlights persecution of atheists

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has produced the first report focusing on how countries around the world discriminate against non-religious people. Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious (pdf) has been published to mark Human Rights Day, Monday 10 December.

Freedom of Thought 2012 covers laws affecting freedom of conscience in 60 countries and lists numerous individual cases where atheists have been prosecuted for their beliefs in 2012. It reports on laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.

The report highlights a sharp increase in arrests for “blasphemy” on social media this year. The previous three years saw just three such cases, but in 2012 more than a dozen people in ten countries have been prosecuted for “blasphemy” on Facebook or Twitter, including:

  • In Indonesia, Alexander Aan was jailed for two-and-a-half years for Facebook posts on atheism.
  • In Tunisia, two young atheists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for Facebook postings that were judged blasphemous.
  • In Turkey, pianist and atheist Fazil Say faces jail for “blasphemous” tweets.
  • In Greece, Phillipos Loizos created a Facebook page that poked fun at Greeks’ belief in miracles and is now charged with insulting religion.
  • In Egypt, 17-year-old Gamal Abdou Massoud was sentenced to three years in jail, and Bishoy Kamel was imprisoned for six years, both for posting “blasphemous” cartoons on Facebook.
  • The founder of Egypt’s Facebook Atheists, Alber Saber, faces jail time (he will be sentenced on 12 December).

“When 21st century technology collides with medieval blasphemy laws, it seems to be atheists who are getting hurt, as more of them go to prison for sharing their personal beliefs via social media,” said Matt Cherry, the report’s editor. “Across the world the reactionary impulse to punish new ideas, or in some cases the merest expression of disbelief, recurs again and again. We even have a case in Tunisia of a journalist arrested for daring to criticize a proposed blasphemy law!”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, welcomed the research. In a foreword to the report Bielefeldt notes that there is often “little awareness” that international human rights treaties mean freedom of conscience applies equally to “atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations. I am therefore delighted that for the first time the Humanist community has produced a global report on discrimination against atheists. I hope it will be given careful consideration by everyone concerned with freedom of religion or belief.”

Notes

An advance copy of the Freedom of Thought 2012 report is available from:

http://www.iheu.org/files/IHEU Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella group bringing together more than 100 Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and freethought organizations from 40 countries.

For more information contact:

Bob Churchill, +44 207 636 4797, comms@iheu.org

Or Matt Cherry, +1 518 632 1040, Matt@IHEU.org

The German circumcision ruling

In June this year, a court in the German city of Cologne heard a case involving a four-year-old child from a Muslim family who was admitted to hospital with bleeding following a circumcision. The doctor who performed the circumcision did so at the request of the boy’s parents, and was acquitted of the charge of grievous bodily harm for this reason.

While this particular doctor was acquitted, the court made the general observation that circumcision violated a child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity”, and that this right outweighed the rights of parents. While leaving room for circumcision to be permissible on medical grounds, the court, in other words, ruled that ritual circumcision amounts to impermissible bodily harm and also constituted a violation of the rights of children.

Contrary to the predictable cries of anti-Semitism that have resulted (and how convenient it is for critics that a German court made the ruling), this is a victory for freedom of religion. Yes, one element of one ritual is outlawed, namely that parents can no longer choose to cut flesh from the penis of their non-consenting child. But why should they ever have had that “right”?

Read more at the Daily Maverick.

Staring into the abyss of special privileges

Take a vast chasm, a tightrope, pea-soup mists and swirling, vicious gusts of wind – then a person steps onto that rope, destination unseen. Such are the ingredients for the kind of ‘recipe for disaster’ if a country embarks on creating charter upon charter of special privileges for one or more interest groups – no matter how profound the interest.

Read more on the proposed South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms in the Daily Maverick.

Comment to the Press Freedom Commission on regulating the print media

The Press Freedom Commission “released a call for the SA public to voice its opinion about press freedom and the regulation of print media”. What follows is a submission made by the FSI Chairman (not a consensus statement by the FSI generally).

 

To whom it may concern,

SUBMISSION WITH REGARD TO PRESS FREEDOM AND THE REGULATION OF PRINT MEDIA

This submission is intended to express support for the model of independent regulation, where a South African Press Council operates independently of both the media and government.

Rationale
Regardless of the actual motives of proponents of measures such as the Media Appeals Tribunal, the Protection of State Information Bill, and the Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill, any constraints on free dissemination and access to information could be used for both noble and ignoble ends. It is for this reason that we’re wary of dictatorships, no matter how benign – if the framework for oppression exists, it would be naive to trust that such a framework will always be used to defend our best interests.

In a constitutional democracy, any presumptions made with regard to regulatory frameworks should favour freedom, with any limitations to the freedom of citizens and the press needing special justification. But there are nevertheless plausible circumstances in which some form of control over information could be merited. Even though one might be fully in support of adult access to pornography, restrictions on access by minors would be appropriate. Even though the citizenry should have access to as much information as possible about the workings of the state, it is nevertheless plausible that some information might present threats to national security, if widely broadcast. And while the media is rendered largely pointless if it can’t serve as a watchdog, there are legitimate questions to be asked about accountability and the reputational damage that might occur as a result of a media that thrives on scandal, and which is incentivised to publish news before their competitors do.

Neither the media itself, nor the state, should enjoy special authority with regard to press regulation. Not the media, for two primary reasons:
1. While some South African media attempt to uphold journalistic ethics, and to refrain from disseminating false, misleading or defamatory information, our media is not of equal quality in this regard. Yet, we cannot have different regulations for different media, in that these judgments are both impractical, and have no clear authority in terms of who would make them. The pressure to scoop your competitors can result in a deficit of prudence in this regard, especially for those media that thrive on scandal or controversy. In these cases, self-regulation will tend towards protecting the rights of those media to continue favouring sensation over more balanced coverage.
2. Second, the media is not populated by professionals to the extent that it once was. Pressures from Internet sources such as blogs, where information and analysis is frequently available without cost, have made operating a newspaper more difficult, and have cut profit margins to such an extent that the employment of a class of seasoned journalists, sub-editors and editors is now the exception rather than the rule. This raises an issue of competence, as increasingly junior (and often temporary) staff in newsrooms may lack the experience and wisdom to understand the long-range implications of what they report, even in cases where they don’t publish any actual untruths.

The case against the state having special authority with regard to regulation of the media is clear: A free society needs a fearless press to expose malfeasance or incompetence on the part of the state. The state has a vested interest in suppressing damaging information, or at least disincentivising its publication. We cannot trust that a state-controlled media will allow itself to be subjected to robust criticism, and their authority with regard to press regulation therefore needs to be restrained.

However, both the state and the media itself have legitimate interests in the regulation of print media, which need not be understood as an adversarial one. As any journalist would know, sound relationships with state officials can only contribute to the breadth and depth of coverage, and likewise state officials would know that the prospects of unfavourable coverage could be enhanced if the press media has no reason to regard them as honourable and fair participants in the production of press outputs.

A third party that also has legitimate interests in the regulation of print media is the public itself, many members of which desire fair and accurate reporting, and who might also abhor the sensationalistic tendencies of some of the press, particularly the tabloid media.

These three parties – the state, the press and the public – should therefore be participants in any regulatory process regarding the print media. Seeing as this regulation requires “passing judgement on complicated matters of journalistic reporting”, frequently involving ethical concerns, representation on any Press Council should also include those who have expertise in the area of ethics. Here, I would strongly caution against the frequent assumption – particularly in South Africa – that ethics and religion are easy bedfellows. In other words, it cannot be taken for granted that independent ethical opinion can be provided via the presence of religious leaders on a Press Council (even though they should of course be eligible). Ethics is after all a matter of academic enquiry, and our universities are well stocked with people who have this specialisation (as are various NGO’s).

The proposal here is therefore that a press council should contain representatives from all three sectors, including persons from outside the state and the press itself who have expertise in the field of ethics. The precise composition of such a council in terms of how many representatives it should contain, in what proportions, and questions of voting rights and veto’s is of course a complex matter, which can only be addressed briefly here. A summary of the composition envisaged here would be as follows:

A Council consisting of 10 members with equal voting rights, with
– 5 representatives from SANEF (or their delegated representatives)
– 3 members of the public
– 2 representatives of the state

Jacques Rousseau

Chairman: Free Society Institute

Religion at South African universities

It appears that not only South African schools are willing to ignore the National Policy on Religion and Education (pdf). As previously observed, certain schools routinely violate the requirement that religious instruction needs to focus on religion in general – allowing for freedom of belief by not requiring that students are exposed to only one religion, nor requiring them to accept one religion’s view regarding morality to take precedence over others.

Students enrolled for the B.Ed (Early Childhood Development and Foundation Phase) at the University of Pretoria are prescribed a textbook titled Addressing barriers to learning – a South African perspective, edited by Emmerentia Landsberg and published by Van Schaik (2nd edition, 2011). In the chapter entitled ‘Socio-economic barriers to learning in contemporary society’ by Erna Prinsloo, we read the following (pp. 36-37):

Normative development is initiated and established within the family context. Parents/caregivers are responsible for guiding children towards acceptance of religion and religious principles. Only in a personal relationship with a higher Being do children truly learn that there are lasting consequences for their actions. In the collective and mutual relationships with parents and God, children can be supported to experience love and safety and to accept responsibility for the way in which they live and learn. In the absence of such relationships and religious principles it becomes extremely difficult to teach children the value of discipline, self-discipline and consideration of the self and others. Where parents and caregivers abandon religion and religious principles and live a life of self-gratification with meeting one’s own needs as only principle, children and youth’s development towards a positive value system and eventual self-actualisation will be severely impeded.

Besides the contradiction entailed by “only in a personal relationship with a higher Being” and “in the absence of such … religious principles it becomes extremely difficult“, neither of these claims are true – and both of them present the viewpoint that without religion, your child is basically doomed to psychopathy of one form or another. While most of the University of Pretoria’s policies are hidden on a password-protected Intranet, we can read the following on the section of their website devoted to “Education Principles” (emphasis added):

  • Nurturing complexity and critical thinking (deep knowledge): Teaching should promote the use of higher-order thinking skills, e.g. the ability to engage actively and critically with ideas and current debates, synthesize, reflect on learning and apply principles to new problems and situations (the transfer of learning). It should develop analytical problem-solving skills; encourage students to think creatively and holistically; develop intellectual and cultural curiosity; encourage students to challenge assumptions, existing knowledge and beliefs, and to embrace new thinking.
  • Respecting diversity: Teaching acknowledges and actively engages diverse values, beliefs, talents, backgrounds, thinking and learning preferences, needs (including special needs), goals and educational experiences.
If we take them at their word, it seems entirely inappropriate – on UP’s own standards, regardless of the National Policy – that a textbook which teaches that God is necessary for self-actualisation, compassion and so forth be prescribed to students. Furthermore, the home page of the Department of Biblical & Religious Studies seems aware of their responsibilities in terms of the Policy, as we can read there that:

In accordance with the requirements of the new National Curriculum Policy on Education for religious education to focus on the general phenomenon of religion and not on a specific religion only, the name of the subject Biblical and Religious Studies changed to Religion Studies (code: REL) in 2006. Contents of the course now focus not only on the Bible, but also on various other world religions, without alienating our traditional students from the subject.

This doesn’t go quite far enough, of course, in that Religious Studies should also address worldviews that reject religion, or are free of religion. It would however be understandable if UP’s target market included few who might be interested in those topics, and the Religious Studies Department has at least (apparently) ceased to offer instruction which privileges the Christian religion. The Faculty of Education has no such excuses available to it. Even though the CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement) don’t go far enough in eliminating religious bias from primary education (what these UP students are presumably learning towards offering), they at least don’t privilege a monotheistic – probably Christian – “God” as this textbook does.

We can only hope that this is merely an oversight, and that this textbook will either be revised for next year, or not prescribed at all. Anyone who is involved with any public education institution in South Africa should read and pass the Policy on, and hold your institutions to account when they violate its principles. The policy itself makes clear that “the spirit of the policy, which is to embrace the religious diversity of South Africa, must also be applied at other levels of the education system” – even though it’s applied inconsistently in schools, it’s not only for schools but also for universities. Including the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Education.

P.S. If you have children at a South African school and can read Afrikaans, Hans Pietersen’s book Die Vrese van Ons Vaders deals explicitly, and critically, with religion education in South African (Afrikaans) schools.

UFOs meet ‘numerical science’ in a festival of nonsense

The Cape Times today reports that:

SA’s first UFO event to be held
South Africa will experience its first conference on unidentified flying obects (UFOs) in November.
“Millions of people in SA have had their own personal experience with ETs and UFOs – but most have in the past been too nervous to raise the subject, afraid of ridicule,”, conference host Michael Tellinger said yesterday.
The gathering would allow “those in the know” an opportunity to express themselves on issues like extraterrestrial (ET) contact.
He said 13 internationally recognised and published leaders in the fields of UFOlogy, genetics, microbiology and biomimicry would speak at the event in Johannesburg.
Speakers would also address topics including alchemy, ancient wisdom, numeric science and the formation of a money-less society.

In case you haven’t heard of the organiser Michael Tellinger, you can learn more about his work at the website devoted to the ideas expressed in his book ‘Slave species of god“. You’d however have to buy the book itself to learn about topics like:

Were humans created by “god” as SLAVES?
Was Abraham the first human SPY?
Was Jesus an accidental MESSIAH?

I presume that these sorts of issues will be among the topics discussed under the ‘ancient wisdom’ category of the conference. But there’s clearly more on offer, dressed in impressive-sounding descriptions. But ‘numerical science’ doesn’t become more interesting or worth paying attention to than ‘numerology’ via the addition of the word ‘science’, and I’m afraid that the ridicule mentioned in the press release will probably not abate following this conference.

Maybe I’m wrong. After all, the speakers have some impressive pedigrees. Here’s a summary:

  • Miceal Ledwith: 17 years as an adviser to the last two Popes
  • David Hudson: The man who introduced us to ORMEs – Orbitally Rearranged Mono-atomic Elements. Or as the Bible calls it MANNA from heaven or the white powder of gold – sought by gods and men since the beginning of time.
  • Kerry Cassidy: As a founding member of Project Camelot, Kerry has interviewed hundreds of whistle blowers in a wide area of subjects. From secret government projects, to geneticists, ET contactees to architects of off-world bases.
  • Laura M Eisenhower: The great granddaughter of Pres. Dwight Eisenhower famous for his Area 51 meeting with an ET delegation. Laura follows in his footsteps by sharing her insider information about life in the universe, the secret bases on Mars and the treaties signed by our governments and ETs.
  • Bob Dean: 27 years in the US Army – retired Command Sergeant Major – one of the few holders of first-hand knowledge about government involvement with alien life. Bob Dean tells us that “we are not alone on this planet & we have never been alone” He shares the content of a highly classified document he came across in 1964 while in service, and ETs among us.
  • James Gilliland: Author; teacher; energetic healer; spiritual counselor; the founder of the ECETI organization – the Enlightened Contact with Extraterrestrial Intelligence; keeper of the documentation of the appearance of Spiritual Masters and other Off World visitors.
In other words, if you want to compress an entire lifetime’s worth of woo-woo into three days of your life, November 25-27 are the days for you. It’s taking place at Wits university, and attendance costs R390 per day. It’s probably not much use going there in an attempt to disabuse them of any of their insanities, but if you encounter anyone who expresses interest, you could point out to them that Tellinger is a South African version of someone like Zecharia Sitchin, who himself is such a crackpot that even some other crackpots have disowned him.

Stop Secrecy Week

Anyone in Cape Town and surrounding areas is encouraged to attend any of these events – but particularly the march on Saturday, in protest of the POI Bill.

Students Against Secrecy, a coalition of student organizations have put together a week of action to raise awareness about and activism against the Protection of Information Bill. Through a series of discussions, debates and campus displays we seek to provide a platform to engage UCT students in this vital question, which is at the very heart of our continent’s most vibrant democracy.

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MONDAY 1PM – Business on Secrecy: Why Information is the Lifeblood of the Economy – Viola Manuel (Executive Director of the Cape Chamber of Commerce) – Leslie Social 2B

TUESDAY 1PM: The Secrecy Bill: An Introduction – Nkwame Cedile and Murray Hunter of Right2Know explain why the Protection of Information Bill still fails the freedom test. – Arts 100

TUESDAY 6PM – A Case Study: Uncovering and Reporting on the Arms Deal – Paul Hoffman (Director of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa), Christi van der Westhueyzen (award-winning journalist author of White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party) and Hennie van Vuuren (head of the Institute for Security Studies) – Beatie 115

WEDNESDAY 1PM – Academics on Freedom – Dr. Max Price (UCT Vice-Chancellor) and Professor David Benatar (Head of the UCT Department of Philosophy) – Leslie Social 2B

THURSDAY 5.30PM – The Great Debate – Chair: Judge Dennis Davis. Panel: Martin Welz (Editor of Noseweek), Fatima Hassan (Co-Director of Ndifuna Ukwazi [Dare to Know]), Dario Milo (Senior Partner at Webber Wentzel) and Dennis Dlomo (Special Adviser to the Minister of State Security) – Jameson Hall. NB: Tickets must be collected from the SRC Office, Level 7, Steve Biko Building from Monday

SATURDAY 10AM – Right2Know March to Parliament from Kaizersgracht Street

Atheists and the politics of productive engagement

Prominent spokespersons for divisive views can make their arguments in more or less divisive ways. And while we shouldn’t confuse whatever offence is caused by antagonistic expressions of a viewpoint with the legitimacy of that viewpoint, we also shouldn’t ignore the fact that persuasion becomes more difficult when your audience is pissed off. Read more at Synapses.

Sam Harris, ‘new atheism’ and alleged Islamophobia

André Gide remarked that “everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again”. So it is with the recent article by Mandy de Waal, who took Sam Harris (and the ‘new atheists’ in general) to task for ‘hate speech’, ‘bigotry’ and encouraging so-called Islamophobia. It’s difficult to know just where to begin in responding, as I find the content of de Waal’s piece disagreeable in almost every aspect. Read more at Synapses.