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Dangerous Speech: Historian Timothy Ash on Regulating Free Speech During Information War
11 December, 2018

“The internet is a fantastic opportunity for free speech, and a fantastic danger to free speech,” says historian and writer Timothy Garton Ash. The author argues that the internet is increasingly being used to spread fake news, hazardous ideas and even hate speech.

His book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World explores some of the potential threats the information era poses to our freedom of speech and how to overcome them.

Ash defines dangerous speech as “speech that is intended and likely to create violence – this is a direct incitement of violence” – something with which Ukraine is all too familiar with right now.  

British historian and writer Timothy Garton Ash, when he was awarded the international Charlemagne Prize for his contribution to European unification, Aachen, Germany, May 25, 2017. Photo:PA/FRIEDEMANN VOGEL

“I think your context in Ukraine is so special because you are effectively in war, semi-war, let's call it a state of war, and so you have imminent violence, violence going on, and there have always been accepted some limits to free speech on the grounds of national security,” Ash commented.

In dealing with dangerous speech in Ukraine, which is the overt aim of Russia’s information war against the country, Ash believes the key question is where to draw the line.

“Think where you would want the lines drawn for making the Ukrainian case in Moscow, right? And think whether you're going too far in terms of banning views that are simply offensive and hateful, particularly in this context, rather than actually being part of a consolidated campaign for violence,” Ash advises.

Therefore, in order for freedom of speech to prevail in Ukraine, the government also needs to take a step back in controlling the country’s information space. Instead, Ash stresses the need for an independent regulator, separate from the government, like the U.K.’s Ofcom.

“You want to have [a regulator] removed from the state because, if it's directly the government, then there'll be politics in it. There's no way round that, and it's always dangerous to have the government rather than independent courts, or independent regulators,” Ash comments.

Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk sat down with the author to take a closer look at the internet’s role in proliferating so-called dangerous speech and what this means in Ukraine, where Russia’s information war aims to destabilize the country from the inside.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk