Governments must respect the freedom of speech

Heidi Hautala spoke in a seminar on freedom of speech and censorship at the European Writers’ Council’s annual meeting in Turku on 26 May 2011.


Listen to the speech on a video (.mp4, 211 MB)

Dear colleagues, dear friends,

I am very happy to have been asked to participate to this “Literacy and Culture of Reading” seminar, by the European Writers’ Council, the Finnish Writer Association, the Finnish Association of Non-Fiction Writers, the French PEN and the City of Turku, European Capital of Culture 2011.

In my speech, I wish to address the issue of freedom of speech and link it to the discussion concerning censorship, addressed by the two previous speakers. These two issues are very closely linked. To address the current challenges to the freedom of speech, it is most necessary that the issue of censorship be addressed too.

To be able to discuss the challenges we face today, it is necessary to remember the foundation of the freedom of speech. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression and that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to freedom of expression comprises three different elements: first; the right to hold opinions without interference, second; the right to seek and receive and the right of access to information and third; the right to impart information and ideas, either orally, in writing, in print or through media.

Last week in Mexico, I was able to meet with an NGO called Article 19 and with them I discussed the very same issues.

We must also be mindful of the fact that the right to freedom expression, like all rights, imposes legal obligations upon governments. Firstly, governments must respect that right and refrain from interfering with the enjoyment of that right. Secondly, governments must take proactive measures to ensure that the people are able to exercise this right. Lastly, a government must prevent and provide redress for any harm caused by other individuals by way of expressing their views and opinions.
Dear friends, the importance of the right to freedom of expression for the development of genuinely democratic systems stems from the fact that this right is closely linked to the rights to freedom of association, assembly, thought, conscience and religion, and right to take part in public affairs and decision making.

As such, the effective enjoyment of this right is an important indicator with respect to the protection of other human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is an important tool for combating impunity and corruption, as well.

Indeed, my late colleague, prominent Finnish human rights lawyer Matti Wuori, called the respect for freedom of speech the litmus test of the strength democracy of all the societies. Against this background it is easy to see how grave the challenge of censorship can be to democratic societies.

As has been pointed out by the previous speakers, the challenge of censorship it twofold; we can talk about visible and invisible censorship.

I won’t spend much time talking about the visible censorship, since it is the most common and understandable form of redaction of information. What I want to focus on is precisely the other form, the invisible censorship, the more dangerous one. It is often difficult to realize that it has been put into place.

For example, if we look at the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been described by the media, we can see that different language and terms are used by different media outlets.

Whether the issue concerns Israel’s surprise attack in Gaza on 27 December 2008 and the three week hostilities, the Goldstone report that followed, or settlements or intifada, the reports across the political lines differ greatly with regard their substantive allegations.

State channels in China have largely ignored the Arab uprising. According to Egyptian state television there were hardly any demonstrations at a time when Mubarak was already about to resign.

Aljazeera has portrayed the Arab uprising as a secular movement calling for democracy, whereas the Iranian Press TV has branded it as Islamic revolution.

Immigration is portrayed in different countries, even in European Union countries, in very different ways. As the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt unfolded, I was very frustrated because in most interviews the journalists were interested only about refugees coming into Europe when the focus in my opinion should have been on how the EU can help the demonstrators.

In this context, it is essential to talk also about internet. In the year 2000, there was the idea that nobody could limit or block internet. Nowadays we know that it is indeed possible. Some repressive regimes just gather all the servers in the same place, so that the government can easily shut everything down. Certain words perceived as a threat such as Jasmine – stemming from the Tunisian Jasmine revolution – has been blocked in China. The “Jasmine crackdown” has turned out to be the largest crackdown on dissent in China for over a decade. Iranian authorities have broken into communication networks in order to crackdown on the democracy activists. New technology has enabled many of the revolts to take place; this is exactly why the censorship in the cyber world has spread like a wild fire.

In such a politicized and cynical environment, it is most useful to go back to the basics of the freedom of speech. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, usefully also foresees that everyone has the right to seek information. This means that people have a right to try to find out the truth of the matters that are reported to them by their authorities and the press. The other most useful component of Article 19 is that the Governments should indeed take all necessary measures to improve access to public information.

This is in fact what I have been working on for many years. At the moment I am preparing a report for the European Parliament on the need for more transparency and openness in the EU.

Effective access to information is another vital precondition for the democratic foundation. Only by being able to exercise this right the people can hold their authorities accountable.

There are certain elements that all policies concerning the access to information must include; narrowly defined limitations to the public access, the presumption of the public nature of documents; reasonable fees and time limits; independent review of refusals to disclose information and penalty for noncompliance.

If mechanisms to promote the right of access to public information are lacking, then the members of society will not be able to participate, and decision-making will not be democratic. 

In the spirit of Article 19 of the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Council in its resolution 12/16, noted that “the freedom of expression is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, is enabled by a democratic environment, is essential to full and effective participation in a free and democratic society, and is instrumental to the development and strengthening of effective democratic systems”.

While the non-democratic systems and non-democratic values are the root of censorship problems, they are also the outcome of systematic manipulation of information. Dear participants, to stop this vicious cycle or corruption, oppression and censorship, the one thing we can do is to stand up for our rights to speak, rights to know and access to information.

I pay tribute to the European Writers’ Council, the Finnish Writer Association, the Finnish Association of Non-Fiction Writers, the international PEN and other organizations who stand up for everyone’s right to express their views freely and without fear.