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The Cost of Free Speech: Julian Burnside, Thando Sibanda and Antony Loewenstein

The definition of free speech can arguably be defined as depending on the circumstance of the person or people defining it.

Crime writer P.M. Newton chaired a discussion between writer and performing poet, Thando Sibanda, journalist, Antony Loewenstein and barrister, Julian Burnside.

Zimbabwean poet, Thando Sibanda on the state of free speech in his home country.  Photo: Greg Saunders

Zimbabwean poet, Thando Sibanda on the state of free speech in his home country. Photo: Greg Saunders

Zimbabwean performance poet Sibanda kicked off the discussion by defining free speech as “having the ability to criticise your leadership”.

Loewenstein agreed and also added: “Truly believing in free speech means that you believe in the right to be profoundly offensive and to defend that right,” he said.

Burnside continued in agreeing with his fellow panellists and summarised free speech as “the right to say, that which is unpopular” and also supported Sibanda’s definition.

“You’ve got to be able to criticise those in power, because that will almost always be an unpopular idea,” he said.

Newton then prompted Burnside and Loewenstein to describe what they thought the health of free speech is like in Australia, and Zimbabwe for Sibanda.

“The state of free speech in Australia is not too bad by international standards,” said Burnside. He continued, “…It was implied in the Australian Constitution a right of free political speech, so that one can say with impunity that Scott Morrison is a liar, hypocrite and a psychopath.”

As the audience’s laughter from Burnside’s remark subsided, Loewenstein spoke of his experience as a journalist reporting on things that are somewhat unpopular and how he finds that people “self-censor, rather than being censored”.

“Thinking about the issue of Israel and Palestine, …human beings are reluctant to speak out about these questions because they fear they are going to be attacked,” he said.

Sibanda described the state of free speech in Zimbabwe on a scale of negative one to ten, ten being the best, and said, “in most cases we are in the negative”.

“We have laws that require if people are gathering, like what we are doing right now, they would definitely need police clearance,” he said.

Antony Lowenstein and Julian Burnside on Australia's attitude and handling of free speech. Photo: Greg Saunders

Antony Lowenstein and Julian Burnside on Australia’s attitude and handling of free speech. Photo: Greg Saunders

Sibanda’s descriptions of the state of freedom of speech in Zimbabwe left a bad taste in my mouth. He explained that in Australia if you are charged with defamation you go to court, in Zimbabwe you go to jail.

“I don’t know why the laws are put that way, I believe if you are a leader you should be open to criticism.”

A topic that continually came up during discussions was legislation around free speech.

Newton posed the question, “how do you go about legislating freedom of speech?”

Burnside explained that one of the difficulties of protecting free speech is it has to be limited where it comes into conflict with other human rights.

He quoted one of his lecturers from Monash University in saying: “Your right to swing your fist stops just short of my nose,”

“The problem, of course, is figuring out where the fist is and where the nose is,” he said.

Sibanda made a statement that really stood out to me and seemed to be the basis of what free speech is about: “Free speech should take paramount position. Where there is free speech and acceptance of free speech we will improve, eventually, as human beings.”

Sophie Sambrook is a Southern Cross University Media student.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Talking vulture capitalism at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival — Antony Loewenstein

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