The West Bank version of the Twitter joke trial


By Jennifer Lipman
November 12, 2010
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The Twittersphere is in uproar. Yesterday a man named Paul Chambers lost an appeal against a conviction for making a (very bad) joke on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood airport.

Former accountant Paul Chambers, 27, now owes a fine and costs totaling £3,600 (Stephen Fry has kindly offered to cover it), but Twitter isn’t done. At the time of blogging, the hashtag #IamSpartacus – a repeat of Mr Chambers’ original joke – is trending in Britain.

It’s all very entertaining, but the wider issue is that of free speech – anyone can see that this was a joke, albeit a foolish one.

I’m all for vigilant security checks, but in the last month we’ve learnt that unscanned print cartridges and cargo pose rather more of a threat to airport security than bad comedy on a social networking site.

What has effectively happened here is that the Crown Prosecution Service didn’t get the joke, and so have used the law to clamp down on comedy. Politically correct as Britain is, I thought we could still laugh at ourselves.

This probably isn’t quite the “death of free speech” that agreived Twitter users are suggesting it is – Paul Chambers, after all, is not behind bars.

But another “joker” is. A blogger in the West Bank, the son of a Muslim scholar, is now in prison for using Facebook to claim he was God and hurl insults at the Prophet Muhammad.

Walid Husayin, 26 and from the religious town of Qalqiliya, posted anti-religion rants on the website on a regular basis.

According to AP: Now, he faces a potential life prison sentence on heresy charges for "insulting the divine essence." Many in this conservative Muslim town say he should be killed for renouncing Islam, and even family members say he should remain behind bars for life.

Among his crimes, he “ordered his followers…to smoke marijuana in verses that spoof the Muslim holy book, the Quran”, attracting 70,000 visitors to his blog.

One local said: "He should be burned to death," or executed in public "to be an example to others.”

His case, I suppose, makes that of Paul Chambers seem less extreme. And at least he and Mr Husayin could go on Faceboook or Twitter. In places like China or Burma, even those are obstructed.

But Britain isn’t Burma, China, or the West Bank. And it’s a sad state of affairs for free speech when a bad but innocent joke becomes a matter for the courts.

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