Freedom of expression is a cornerstone to any thriving democracy.
This idea came to life while I spent three days at UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day in Tunisia, where I had the opportunity to listen to and engage with journalists, bloggers, and citizen activists from across the Middle East and North Africa and beyond.
I arrived May 3 in Tunis to deliver remarks at Tunisia's Presidential Palace to a crowd of more than 400 in attendance, and thousands more watching virtually. The audience welcomed video remarks from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said "Voice by voice, text by text, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, and many others have dared to say what they believe and stand up for their own rights. Many others have dared to report on what they see happening, even when their lives were at risk."
The conference was abuzz that day. It was not only the first day, but also the day on which a Tunisian court rendered its verdict in an extremely sensitive case on freedom of expression. The verdict fined Nabil Karoui of NESSMA TV for showing the animated film Persepolis, which depicted religious imagery. The conviction raises serious concerns about tolerance and freedom of expression in the new Tunisia.
From what I heard, it is clear that Tunisia is at an important juncture as it attempts to re-establish freedom of expression and respect for a diversity of views after many years when the state had a monopoly on all expression. While freedom of expression remains a cornerstone of democracy that Tunisia's new government should seek to vigilantly protect, we recognize that Tunisia has made significant advances in this area since its January 2011 revolution. We are pleased that the defendant has the right to appeal. We are also pleased that Tunisian journalists were able to speak candidly -- and in public -- about their hopes, dreams, and disappointments. I was interviewed in public in the lobby of a hotel by a Tunisian correspondent from a local TV channel -- something that would have been impossible during the Ben Ali regime.
I also heard from journalists from Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Libya, and Bahrain. While each country has its own personality and challenges, there is a universal desire. That is the desire to be able to speak out: openly and truthfully without peril or consequences.
I headed a delegation of six -- including three diplomats from the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. We were told repeatedly by UN officials and others attending the conference how important it was that the United States not only showed up but also engaged. "It shows those who are on the frontlines of the battle to keep speech free that the U.S. cares in a real way."
A highlight was a session with four special rapporteurs on freedom of expression, authorized respectively by the UN, the Organization of American States (OAS), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the African Union (AU). They discussed the challenges each region faced, and those that are universal. It is important to thread human rights, freedom of expression, and the power of multilateralism together. By bringing special rapporteurs from various regions into one room to share and discuss their issues with civil society, they were able to find common ground.
A troubling commonality: Violence against journalists is on the rise across the globe. "Because the internet is so powerful," Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, told a packed audience. "Politicians are more scared and violence against journalists is on the rise. There is a progressive criminalization of speech. We cannot allow this."
In today's world restricting the media means not just stopping the presses, but threatening the journalist.