Wednesday 15 April 2020

How free speech saves lives

Little did I think, when I started work on my series of radio documentaries about the future of free speech, that I would end up with the starkest of conclusions: that restrictions on free speech can cause tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

As I said in the last programme of the series, broadcast today on the BBC World Service and available online here, the coronavirus pandemic is proof what can happen when free speech is denied us. The reasoning is inescapable: if doctors in the Chinese city of Wuhan (population: 11 million) who first identified the new virus had been free to speak out, we would not now be where we are.

(If you missed the earlier episodes in the series, they are all available here.)

Perhaps you still remember the case of Dr Li Wenliang, who on 30 December last year sent a message to his medical school alumni group on the WeChat social media site warning them that seven patients at his hospital in Wuhan had been placed in isolation after being diagnosed with a SARS-like virus. He was detained for ‘spreading rumours’ and forced to sign a statement promising to stop his ‘illegal behaviour’.

Li died on 7 February, having contracted the virus himself. He was 33 years old.

Why am I so sure that if the authorities had not tried to gag him and his colleagues, thousands of lives would have been saved? Because a detailed study published by Southampton University lays it out with crystal clarity: if China had taken immediate action as soon as the Wuhan doctors raised the alarm, the number of cases would have been reduced by 95 per cent.

95 per cent.

Instead, they waited until 23 January before they put Wuhan into lockdown. It was, of course, far too late – more than 500 infections had already been reported, including in the US, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and South Korea. Most worrying for those of us living in the UK, between the date of Dr Li’s warning and the Wuhan lockdown, 17 flights had arrived in the UK direct from Wuhan, and 600 more from elsewhere in China.

Freedom of speech has long been regarded as a basic human right. If you heard the first programme in my series, you will have heard me standing awe-struck in front of the original copy of the First Amendment to the US constitution, in the US National Archive in Washington DC. It’s the one that every journalist has engraved on their heart: ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press ...’

I started the series worried that free speech was coming under increasing pressure from a variety of sources: authoritarian governments in Russia, China, Turkey, India, Brazil, Hungary and many other places; identitarian lobby groups seeking to close down debate on issues that risked offending or upsetting some people’s sense of identity; and the social media titans whose all-seeing algorithms increasingly dictate the parameters of what we are shown online.

But by the time we had finished making all five programmes in the series – luckily, our overseas reporting trips just beat the coronavirus clamp-down – I was even more worried. I discovered that my anxiety is widely shared, but that there is still no real agreement on how best to protect our right to free speech.

As I said at the end of the last programme: ‘Of one thing I am more convinced than ever. Free speech is a precious human right – but we do need to handle it responsibly to ensure that it is never taken away from us. The coronavirus pandemic is proof of what can happen when it is denied us.’