When it seems anyone can say or write almost anything and have it published on the internet, recent events offer reminders that the freedom of expression is not universal.
The Financial Times first reported this week that the Chinese government has banned Winnie-the-Pooh’s likeness and name on social media.
Yes, that Winnie-the-Pooh, the anthropomorphic bear created by author A.A. Milne and digitized by Disney. As USA Today reported in a follow-up: ”The character’s name in Chinese was censored in posts on Sina Weibo, a social media platform similar to Twitter, while a collection of Winnie-the-Pooh gifts vanished from social messaging service WeChat. ... Any attempts to post Pooh’s Chinese name on Weibo prompted a message: 'Content is illegal.' "
Insiders speculated that government censors acted on behalf of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was the subject of an internet meme featuring roly-poly Pooh and his wiry pal Tigger. Those images emerged in 2013 after the stout Xi was photographed with the slender President Barack Obama.
As is often the case, examples of absurd government censorship in China and elsewhere are accompanied by appalling abuses of human rights. Too often one leads to another, or vice versa.
It has been widely reported in the free world that Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recently died in Chinese custody — denied access to his wife, who is under house arrest. But Chinese officials who control the media have been on social sites busily blocking news of Liu’s death and monitoring “private” conversations.
Liu was in state custody because he had been sentenced to 11 years in prison for writing about and advocating “universal values shared by all humankind,” including human rights, equality, freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
For advocating universal values “shared by all humankind.”
China is one of the most populous offenders but hardly alone. We have written previously about Raif Badawi, a blogger who has criticized the entanglement of religion, namely Islam, and government in Saudi Arabia — and was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes as a result. Considered a foe of the state and the national religion, he remains in custody; little is known about his condition or the extent of the beatings he has suffered.
Examples of repression are everywhere. Credible reports by watchdogs show that 34 journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000 — with evidence that the killings were in retribution for coverage of public- and private-sector corruption. Turkey has recently jailed human-rights advocates.
And, yes, in the United States, there are troubling signs of intolerance: Campus speakers have been threatened and shouted down by political opponents, the tenor of the cultural wars is increasingly hostile and “dishonest” journalists have been labeled by the president as enemies of the people.
But at least in America we have the First Amendment and its protections, which have seldom seemed more necessary and valuable.
This editorial was originally published in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, a sister newspaper of the Daily News within GateHouse Media.