Freedom of expression: Does it come at a cost?

Özil and Kaepernick have suffered for their views; should we all?

In Summary

• Freedom of expression is not absolute; we have to beware of consequences

French President Emmanuel Macron.
French President Emmanuel Macron.
Image: FILE

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself engrossed in sports article by the New York Times. The column, titled The Erasure of Mesut Özil, had me hooked for reasons other than football.

I am not a big football fan per se, and the only thing I know about the player is that he is a Turkish football player who plays for Arsenal. However, the article was not focused much on the sport as it was on the current situation of the player.

The article recounted how the talented player turned into a FIFA pariah because of his personal views. As it turns out, in December 2019, Özil sent out a strong condemning tweet on China’s treatment of the Uighurs Muslims in Xinjiang. Apparently, he ignored the advice on the ramifications of sending out such a personal worded statement.

Within days of his tweet, the entire team faced the consequences of his tweets as China’s broadcast stations refused to air Arsenal matches. Arsenal, like most football clubs, were impacted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced most players to take a pay cut. Again Özil refused, and he has been benched since March. Rumour has it that club has been trying to trade him, but it seems nobody from the Premier League wants to take on a player with such complications.

Everybody in the world who is not an American football fan has heard of Colin Kaepernick. Not because any of us are familiar with the game or the player but because of how Kaepernick’s political standpoint made him famous the world over. Colin Kaepernick made headlines when he knelt during the national anthem at the NFL games in protest at police brutality. Kaepernick was eventually forced to buy out his contract and was blackballed in the NFL community. 

The question then remains: should public figures like athletes be ostracised for having their own views in political issues? In most sovereign countries, constitutions allow citizens to enjoy a bill of rights. Some of the rights that most people in independent nations have include: the right to life, the freedom of worship and the freedom of expression. Therefore, if a person is automatically afforded certain rights as a citizen of a country, why then would implementing them be a step into one’s own demise?

In a journalism ethics class back in my undergraduate years, my lecturer said, “freedom is not absolute”. He proceeded to explain that a person’s freedom stops where it infringes on another person’s freedom. The words have stayed with me ever since. If you think about it, we are hardly ever concerned with other people and their rights. We just want our rights respected and our freedoms preserved.  We are free to believe what we want, yell about it in the streets at the top of our voices, but we must beware that all actions are consequential.

I found myself in the same boat as Kaepernick and Özil earlier this week, when a friend sent me an online petition to sign. The petition called out the French government for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). As a Muslim, I stand firmly against the portrayal of the prophet in any kind. Only because even among ourselves we, the Muslims, do not condone it. I, like most Muslims, believe it is a violation for non-Muslims do something that is forbidden in Islam.

However, when it came to signing the online petition, I had to draw back and think about it. I already knew what my views were but by putting a public stand, I had to be prepared for the consequences. Due to personal reasons that somehow connected to the European Union, I was unable to take such a public stand. I understood that my actions would have consequences and I chose to refrain from taking my grievances public.

However, does that change my opinion on the matter? Absolutely not! I still believe strongly that people should be able to exercise their rights wholly. Nonetheless, we must always keep in mind that decisions almost always have consequences and we should be ready to bear the cost of our choices.