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Freedom of Expression – Missing in Action?

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Litteraturhuset, Oslo, 7 April 2008

Today I pledge that Norway will intensify its efforts in promoting the freedom of expression. First, we pledge to intensify our reactions to threats against and harassment of journalists. When journalists are killed while performing their work, we will use all possible channels to ensure that impunity does not prevail.

Check against delivery.
(A final version of the speech will be published later.)

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,  

I would like to welcome you to Oslo – a city where you are invited to speak your mind. Where you are free to express your views. Where freedom of expression is a backbone of our culture and democratic tradition. 

It almost feels strange to say this because these rights are so obvious to us. Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves from time to time that these obvious global rights are not enjoyed by everyone. Far from it. That everyday people are being denied these fundamental human rights. Journalists are being arrested. Some are killed. Others face outright danger in carrying out their mission.  

We are here to focus on all of these voices – all too many of which are being silenced as we speak.  

The whole world is now looking to Beijing and the Olympic Games in August. We knew the nature of China’s political system when Beijing was awarded the Games. We knew where China excels. And we where China is failing to live up to its universal obligations. 

At the same time, we know that any government that opens the door to such a festival of sports also opens the door to scrutiny. We know that the Games starting at 8 pm on the 8th of August 2008 offer an opportunity to set a broad spotlight on modern China. This is our opportunity. To set a spotlight on China. On everything that the hosts are presenting to the world. But also on the sides they wish to hide.  

An important promise has been made: that foreign correspondents in China will be allowed to report freely from all over the country. The presence of tens of thousands of international journalists provides a major leverage point. They will call our attention to events far beyond the sports arenas. 

We know that this will be a complex task. It is already complex. A whole world has been troubled by the recent events in Tibet. Norway has voiced concern and called for the highest level of China’s political system to show constraint.  

The information vacuum surrounding these incidents has made international engagement difficult. We have a right to be suspicious when an authoritarian government shuts out independent reporters.  

We have called for media access and for freedom for the Tibetan people to speak out. We know there are many stories waiting to be told.  

China has invited the world to Beijing. The world will be there. It is by engaging China that we can convey our views and hold the government accountable. It is by being there to watch, observe, report and testify that we can measure the accomplishments – not only on the arenas, but also the respect for human rights, respect for the minorities and for the freedom of the press. 

The Tibetan author Tsering Woeser lives in Beijing. She was honoured with the Norwegian Authors’ Union’s Freedom of Expression Award for 2007. She was not allowed to go to Norway to receive the award. Despite strong pressure, she has not been silenced.  

And there are other voices waiting for a channel, waiting to be heard. I believe we should seize the opportunity to broadcast such voices – and that by doing this, we send the strongest signal to China. 

Again: China knows that the world is watching. Because this is what China initiated by hosting the games – a watching world. What we see as we watch is a China undergoing profound changes. Many of them are impressive, such as the massive gains made in lifting millions of people out of poverty at a pace the world never has seen before.  

But the world will also watch how China respects human rights. How it treats human rights defenders, journalists and writers. It is all a part of the package when you invite the world to your capital. 

Dear friends, 

Can the rule of law and respect for the capabilities of every human being be envisaged without freedom of expression? Clearly not. 

Can we envisage a world free of discrimination, corruption, persecution or suppression – without freedom of expression? We cannot.  

Today we are setting the spotlight on freedom of expression and independent media in areas of conflict and countries where democracy is weak or absent.

The question we ask is simple, yet challenging: What can be done to strengthen freedom of expression and, in particular, free and independent media?  

Today I pledge that Norway will intensify its efforts – and seek to be more strategic in promoting the freedom of expression. 

First, we pledge to intensify our reactions to threats against and harassment of journalists. When journalists are killed while performing their work, we will use all possible channels to ensure that impunity does not prevail. This requires closer cooperation with Norwegian and international press organisations. 

We are already sponsoring media projects in the Middle East and in East Africa. In Afghanistan we support the writers’ house in Kabul. In Russia the Norwegian Union of Journalists assists in union building among journalists with our support. And with our support Oslo University College is creating a masters degree in Global Journalism – cooperating with universities in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Indonesia. 

We will support the Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2008 here in Norway in September. And in June 2009 Fritt Ord, Norwegian PEN and IFEX will arrange a global freedom of expression event in Oslo. We are proud to be a sponsor. 

Second, we will increase Norwegian funding for freedom of expression and independent media efforts by NOK 15 million. These new funds will be used to boost freedom of expression and independent media in countries in conflict and countries where journalists are under pressure. Again we will be working closely with independent media organisations.  

Third, we will be putting more emphasis on the fact that freedom of expression constitutes a core value in our policy of engagement and our human rights policy. 

We are strengthening the freedom of expression component in our human rights dialogues with China, Vietnam and Indonesia. Our aim is to identify concrete projects where experts on both sides can cooperate. 

In May, the third Global Intermedia Dialogue, which we initiated together with Indonesia, will take place in Bali. Up to 100 editors and journalists will meet to discuss ethical journalism and how to report from countries in conflict.  

Fourth, we will seek appropriate ways of lifting this matter onto the international arena, to the wide range of multilateral organisations.  We will do so together with countries that share our approach. 

Over the last few years we have witnessed a worrying trend within the UN towards considering freedom of expression as a symbol of division – one that is emotionally and politically charged.  

The heated debate triggered by the publishing of the cartoons has left us with a more divisive atmosphere. Some of this is based on real differences of view, and we need to respect that. But we need to initiate processes where the conditions for the exercise of freedom of expression can be addressed. Despite its flaws and inherent weaknesses, the UN is still the logical prime arena for international efforts for the protection of human rights. The fact is – we really have no other alternative.  

We need to make the case that freedom of expression is an essential value that bridges different cultures and languages, and geographical, political and religious divides.  

When the General Assembly meets this autumn, we will be celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We will be working to ensure that freedom of expression is given the focus it deserves. 

We should gather a group of states from across the continents in New York this autumn when the UN General Assembly comes together in September. We need a coalition of countries with diverse backgrounds that can join forces in advancing the freedom of expression agenda – expressing a cross-cultural, cross-political, cross-geographical engagement to get international efforts back on track.  

Norway has announced our candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council. As a member of the main UN body on human rights, we would support every effort to strengthen freedom of expression.  

Dear friends, 

Today new anti-terrorist legislation and state secrecy laws are being passed, and we are seeing increasing use of defamation laws and media censorship.  

Journalists are threatened, imprisoned or killed for criticising their governments. Radio transmissions are jammed, newspapers and books are confiscated, media laws make it difficult for journalists to protect their sources, and licences are withdrawn.

This is unacceptable. And again – we need to refocus the debate in the relevant international settings.  

In his 2007 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Ambeyi Ligabo, pointed out that threats to the safety and protection of journalists remain one of the key obstacles to realising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. 

The figures testify to the horrors experienced by journalists across the globe. 

Last year, 86 journalists and 20 other media workers were killed. This is a dramatic increase over the past five years and the highest figure since 1994. A total of 1511 media professionals were physically attacked, and 67 were kidnapped.  

The figures also show that armed conflict is by far the greatest threat to the security of media professionals. Over half of the journalists killed last year died in Iraq, and the vast majority of them worked for local media.  

Eight journalists were killed in Somalia, and many others had to flee the country. Journalists also lost their lives in others areas of ongoing conflict, like Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.  

Our initiative to put a particular focus on the role of media in conflict situations is a response to this dire situation. It is based on the recognition that freedom of speech and of the media has a decisive role to play in protecting human rights and strengthening democracy.  

Why? Because firstly, when independent media function well, politicians are held accountable. The media can set a spotlight on intolerance and expose injustice and discrimination.  

Secondly, by telling the stories of struggle, pain and courage of real people, the media can empower vulnerable and voiceless groups in society. 

Thirdly, the confrontation of ideas, even controversial ones, and a critical public debate are always a sign of a strong democracy. The democratic role of the free media is to deepen our understanding, broaden our perspectives and provide us with the information we need to develop our own opinions. 

At the same time, we also know that media can spread hatred and incite persecution and violence. 

We have only to recall the terrible example of Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda in 1994, which systematically transmitted messages of hate that directly fuelled the genocide. It created a false but extremely effective notion of legitimacy that allowed the perpetrators to condone their atrocities. 

So this too has to be part of our debate: We must learn to distinguish between expressions that seek only to degrade, humiliate and dehumanise, and those that seek to provide information and viewpoints – even though these may be painful, troubling or controversial. Finding the right balance is a daily responsibility of the press and the editor.  

Power, of course, is an important factor. Expressions of hatred are targeted at vulnerable groups in society – the minorities, the powerless. While legitimate dissent is aimed at the wielders of power.  

This, in my view, is one of the reasons why the recent increase in the number and severity of defamation laws is a worrying trend. Defamation laws tend to protect those already in power. Moreover, much of what is viewed as defamation through the lens of these laws is in fact legitimate dissent.

During armed conflicts, power structures change fundamentally; power shifts from those who represent the will of the people to those who have the most powerful weapons. And where power is based on weapons, freedom of information and of expression is usually one of the first casualties. Control of information soon becomes a weapon in itself. Self-censorship is triggered by threats and a climate of impunity.  

Dear friends, 

We want to do our share to end the climate of impunity and to lessen the vulnerability of all those who live by the pen. After all, as so eloquently put by Albert Camus: A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything but bad. 

And sadly, the bad lessons are many. We all remember Heinrich Heine’s words: Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.  

The well-known Heine quote is from his play Almansor (from 1821). What is less well known is that the book in question is the Qur’an, and that the play was set in the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  

A century after Heine wrote the play, during the early days of the Nazi regime; his own books were cast into the flames.  

It was an early warning of what was to come. And it should serve as an inspiration for us to sharpen our attention today.