Observer journalist Kenan Malik had tweeted out a Jesus and Mo cartoon (do check them out – it’s quality stuff), and was just penning a piece about the ECHR judgment on the Austrian court’s decision to fine a woman for calling Mohammed a ‘paedophile’ when an email popped into his inbox. It was from the Twitter Thought Police. The Jesus and Mo cartoon he had tweeted was apparently ‘illegal’:
The email continued: “We may be obligated to take action regarding the content identified in the complaint in the future. Please let us know by replying to this email as soon as possible if you decide to voluntarily remove the content identified on your account.”
There was no debate to be had: the allegation was of illegality; the remedy self-censorship. Mr Malik mused that the ‘official correspondence’ Twitter had been sent may have originated in Pakistan, where his website is already blocked, (and the Jesus and Mo cartoon was indeed a discussion about Imran Khan’s political priorities), but he couldn’t be sure. It isn’t clear what the Twitter Thought Police consider to be ‘official correspondence’, nor is it clear which jurisdiction of law is being adduced to determine the tweets illegality. If a Bulgarian 14-year-old girl boasts about her sex life on Twitter – and would be perfectly free to do so in Bulgaria where the age of consent is 14 – might Twitter write to inform her that the tweet is ‘illegal’ as established by ‘official correspondence’ from Pakistan, where the only consensual context for sex is within marriage?
Surely Twitter isn’t applying Pakistan’s sharia blasphemy code in the UK, are they? They’re not demanding that all Tweets conform to the ECHR-affirmed Austrian Criminal Code, are they? Section 188 of that Code prohibits giving “justified offense” by “publicly disparag[ing] or ridicul[ing] a person who, or an object which, is the subject of veneration of a domestically established church or religious community, or a dogma, a lawful custom or a lawful institution of such a church or religious community.” Is this Twitter’s new blasphemy touchstone?
Kenan Malik isn’t inciting hatred, though he may be hurting a few feelings. Do the Twitter Thought Police now protect people’s feelings? Do they intervene when any religious belief is disparaged or foundational precept transgressed? Does criminal blasphemy now trump freedom of expression on UK Twitter accounts?
The alleged illegality doesn’t concern something banal such as a breach of copyright, because Jesus and Mo themselves received the same warning from Twitter:
So the Twitter Thought Police manifestly have a problem with that particular cartoon, but it isn’t at all clear why. Is it illegal in the UK to highlight Pakistan’s high levels of political corruption, poverty, illiteracy and its woeful system of healthcare? Is it illegal in the UK to query Imran Khan’s robust defence of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws? Or is it illegal simply to point out inconvenient facts concerning any religion?
Perhaps we need to find out…