A watershed for freedom of expression

Article in Dagens Næringsliv, 13 January 2015

On the flight home from Paris, having taken part in the historic rally against extremism and terrorism, it became increasingly clear to me that the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo will stand as a watershed moment in the history of freedom of expression in Europe.

The terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a direct attack on one of the most fundamental democratic rights. It was a direct attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press.  

An attack of this kind should always, and must always, be condemned. Freedom of expression is at the heart of every democracy. ‘If liberty means anything at all,’ George Orwell wrote in his Preface to Animal Farm, ‘it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

We must stand up for freedom of expression. Not because we agree with all views that are expressed, but because freedom of expression is the foundation on which all other democratic freedoms rest. Today, it is more important than ever to raise the banner of freedom of expression. We must not allow ourselves to be frightened into silence. Fear is what terrorists want us to feel. Silence is what they hope to achieve. We must not let extremists succeed in these aims.

We must defend freedom of expression, and we must confront injustice. When something strikes us as wrong, we must ask questions. We must challenge established truths. This is how we hold those in power accountable, how we build knowledge, and how we can achieve true democracy.

The atrocities in Paris will spur a new debate on freedom of expression and religious intolerance. We know that hate speech and hate crime often follow in the wake of events of this kind. Freedom of expression in Europe is being threatened from a number of quarters. But building new barriers between people is not in our interest. Greater suspicion and mistrust are not in our interest. What we need now is solidarity, common values, a common will, common goals and common dreams. In a world that is ever more closely interconnected, these values should inspire us to promote peace, build inclusive societies, and jointly address the challenges we face. 

Viewpoints expressed should be countered with other viewpoints, never with violence and never with terror. We must use democratic means in the fight for democracy and in the fight against extremism and violence. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is the worst massacre of journalists in Europe in recent times. In other parts of the world, killings of journalists are frequent and systematic. Last year, 118 journalists and media professionals were killed. The vast majority of them were local journalists who had uncovered cases of corruption, organised crime, or abuse of power.

In the white paper on human rights presented by the Government in December, freedom of expression has a central place. The events of last week in Paris provide a grotesque illustration of the need to intensify our efforts in this area.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already initiated work on a strategy for strengthening the focus on freedom of expression in Norwegian foreign and development policy. We must provide protection for journalists and other media professionals, and we must fight impunity for the perpetrators of attacks on those who promote free speech. We are already doing this in many different arenas, but we will redouble our efforts in this field.

Last week, it was the events in Paris that shocked us, but I would also like to draw a parallel to what happened in Peshawar before Christmas. This, too, was an attack on universal human rights, on the very essence of what we all hold dear, and on what makes our societies civilised. It is less than four weeks since we gathered in the courtyard outside the Red Cross offices in Oslo to remember the victims of the Peshawar attack: 148 innocent people, 132 of them children, killed deliberately and in cold blood by brutal terrorists. Children who had come to school to learn – each with their own dreams and aspirations – lost their lives in an instant.

This was an attack on children and families, on the school, on the right to education, on Peshawar and Pakistan, on the whole of humankind, on all of us. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Peshawar show without a shadow of doubt that domestic and foreign policy are becoming increasingly intertwined. When the schoolchildren in Peshawar were killed, we were directly affected. Many Norwegians, not least in Norway’s large Pakistani community, grieved for the victims. The attack in Pakistan had reverberations that were felt in Norway.

There are no longer any clear dividing lines between domestic and foreign policy. Now, more than ever, we should be aware that the fight for freedom, justice, human rights and democracy involves us all, whether it is taking place in Afghanistan, France, Yemen, Pakistan or Norway. That is why we are intensifying our work to promote human rights in Norway’s foreign and development policy.