Presentation of new strategy for freedom of expression and independent media in foreign and development policy

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Børge Brende, held this speech when he presented Norway's new strategy for freedom of expression and independent media in foreign and development policy. The presentation took place in Oslo 18 January.

Dear friends of independent media and free speech.

I am pleased to see so many here this morning.

It gives me great pleasure to present to you Norway's new strategy for the promotion of freedom of expression and independent media in our foreign and development policy.

Freedom of expression is essential for the self-fulfilment of each and one of us. But it is also so much more.

It is necessary for the realisation of other human rights, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.

It is a prerequisite for democracy and good governance.

We need free exchanges of opinion if we are to choose the best policy options. And we need access to information if we are to hold our governments accountable.

If recent history has taught us anything, it is that political crises and human rights violations are two sides of the same coin.

We have seen it again and again: censorship, repression of free speech and increased use of propaganda are often signs of an impending crisis.

We must become better at seeing these signs – and responding to them.

And we must recognise that inclusive dialogue and the free exchange of opinions is our best – and sometimes the only – alternative to repression, violence and conflict.

For these reasons, Norway is committed to increase our efforts in support of freedom of expression as part of our foreign policy and in our development assistance.

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Regrettably, freedom of expression is increasingly under pressure from both state and non-state actors.

The terrorist attacks last year against Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and in Copenhagen, are stark reminders that freedom of expression must never be taken for granted. Neither in Europe nor elsewhere in the world.

According to the Freedom House report for 2015, freedom of the press is declining.

Today, only 14 % of the world's population live in countries with a free press in the 21st century. It is surreal.

Although the challenges vary within countries and between regions, some trends are clear:

  • All too often, individuals who use their freedom of expression are subject to intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention.
  • Impunity for perpetrators prevails.
  • Censorship and blocking of social media is widespread.
  • Self-censorship is increasing.

I have witnessed this with my own eyes. In many countries, I have met brave journalists, bloggers, activists and others who at great risk to themselves are determined not to be silenced.

In some cases, human rights obligations are not respected because states are too weak and lack the means to do so.

But just as often, it is due to a lack of political will.

Governments, whose responsibility it is to protect and implement human rights, are instead imposing laws and policies that undermine freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Others misuse existing legislation to prevent criticism and dissent, or to restrict access to information.

Unfortunately, governments that limit the space for free debate and information sharing are learning from and copying each other. 'Worst practices' are being shared between countries.

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These trends need to be reversed.

Freedom of expression must be safeguarded and promoted - tirelessly, every day and in every country.

The Norwegian Parliament has on several occasions made it clear that promoting freedom of expression is an important part of Norway's foreign policy.

Norway has a track record as a fearless defender of human rights.

We are the main sponsor of the UN resolutions on human rights defenders.

Norway can and should make a difference.

We will focus our efforts on three key areas.

  • 1) First, we will support independent media.

There must be room for a wide range of voices and channels of expression, including artistic expressions and specialised media with controversial viewpoints. Both online and offline.

Protection of sources and digital security are crucial for journalists in their work.

Norway will work to ensure good conditions for independent media.

It is important that journalists have the skills they need to seek, analyse and communicate information in a factual manner.

Norway will therefore support the training of media leaders, journalists and other media staff.

  • 2) The second focus area is protection.

Regardless of whether people are fighting for freedom of religion or indigenous rights, advocating for gender equality or LGBT rights, Norway will insist on their right to make their voice heard.

No one should risk harassments, persecution or being attacked because of the opinions they express.

For every journalist, human rights defender or other individual who is killed for using his or her freedom of expression, many others are pressured into silence.

In 2015, 115 journalists and media workers and more than 150 human rights defenders were killed.

Sadly, the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. More than 9 out of 10 killings of journalists go unpunished.

Such attacks and killings must be stopped. Every case must be investigated. And the perpetrators must be punished.

Ensuring accountability for such violations is a priority.

  • 3) Third, we will focus on access to information.

Only when people have access to information can they make informed decisions about their own lives, and to have informed opinions.

The UN member states endorsed this principle when they adopted the new Sustainable Development Goals. Target 16.10 calls on countries to ensure public access to information and to protect fundamental freedoms.

Norway will initiate further development of international norms on the right to information.

The internet and information technology have changed the way we access information and express ourselves.

Today, about 3 billion people are online. By 2020, we will be more than 5 billion, representing 60% of the global population.

With the right policies, internet is a unique global platform for accessing information and connecting people.

But the wrong internet policies can lead to more inequality, less development, greater control and new information monopolies.

To promote internet freedom and fundamental rights online, Norway recently joined the Freedom Online Coalition.

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Let there be no doubt: the promotion and protection of human rights is the responsibility of every UN member state.

Thus, it is crucial that change comes from within each country.

But at the same time, all states have a shared obligation to support and protect those who are working so hard to bring about change.

This is why Norway supports individuals, organisations and networks that are fighting for freedom of expression in many countries.

The new strategy places freedom of expression at the heart of Norway's foreign policy. It shall ensure that promoting free speech and independent media becomes an integral part of Norway's development assistance.

Only then can we achieve inclusive and sustainable development where governments are held accountable by the citizens.

We are committed to working with a wide range of partners, including governments and civil society organisations.

And we will work with the UN and the regional organisations to strengthen the normative framework that obliges governments to grant all citizens the right to express themselves freely and to access information.

I am pleased that UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye and OSCE representative on Freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, are here in Oslo today. The work they do is invaluable, and we commend them for sending clear and constructive messages to governments.

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Let's not pretend that promoting freedom of expression is easy. Or that it can be done without facing dilemmas.

An extreme example is how ISIL is using internet to spread horror and recruit terrorists.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, but it is not absolute. Distinguishing between lawful and unlawful expressions is complex and controversial.

We must continuously discuss where to draw the line.

We have to find ways to deal with hate speech and discriminatory statements without undermining people's freedom of expression and access to information.

But, in ensuring freedom of expression as a universal and fundamental human right, we will have to accept controversial, offensive and even insulting statements.

This also applies when expressions deal with religion or are published online.

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In closing, I would like to thank our partners in civil society, academia and likeminded governments for their valuable input during the drafting of this strategy.

Now, I am looking forward to working with you in the follow-up.

We must redouble our efforts as we stand up for people's opportunities to express themselves.

And we must continually remind ourselves – and each other – that freedom of expression is as fundamental as it is universal.

Thank you.