Freedom of Expression: A Cornerstone of Democracy

Posted by Esther Brimmer
May 9, 2012
Assistant Secretary Brimmer Participates in an Interview in Tunisia

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.

Comments

Comments

Prakaash J.
|
India
May 10, 2012

Prakaash J. in India writes:

All the fallout from the Jasmine revolution...

real l.
|
Canada
May 10, 2012

Robert L. in Canada writes:

yes indeed!, and it is not only in emerging democracies that the threats against those who would speak for others and so that others may be free of persecution occur,"threats against journalists" is a very topical subject at this moment,,,the use of threats and bodily harm to us is indeed increasing and becoming more violent by the day, and this tells us that what we are doing not only has meaning, but that it is upsetting the order that would take away!!

freedoms and replace them with crime and criminal orginisations,,,we have noted previously that in all the world, in all locations,where we find serious human rights offences and abuses of the basic rights to live and grow,we also will find an orginised crime "gang" in action, it may be well hidden, often behind some kind of "puppet", but it is always! there,,,If we are to have a world that is truly a "global vilage" in its largest sense,, then this very great evil must be exposed for the entire planet to see and react to,..Do not! be taken in by puppet goverments and or false and in most cases evil! persons who would abuse our right to speak the truth, freely and without rancour or willfull manipulations,,, THE TRUTH IS THE TRUTH,ALWAYS WILL BE,.. and no one person or!! "orginisation" will ever succeed in hiding the truth, on the contrary, their very eforts at such abuses will only serve to strengthen the use of media for reporting facts as they happen,,, its a new world, a new day,,well done USA for being so pro-active and taking the lead in this,it will stand you,and us all, in good stead in the days to come,..I wish my country, Canada had the courage and honour to take such a stand,, it does not,,,,yet!!...and thank you, you have been an enourmous! assistance to so many in this,, we are proud of you,..

Rajib G.
|
India
May 10, 2012

Rajib G. in India writes:

Certainly freedom of expression is cornerstone of any democracy. The US is doing a lot for Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, and many others have dared to say what they believe and stand up for their own rights. The US should not close its eyes on what is happening in Syria. It should also see that people in Saudi Arabia and in other totalitarian regimes also get freedom of expression because the US is the only Super Power in the world.

Dejiridoo
|
New York, USA
May 10, 2012

Dejiridoo in New York writes:

This is an excellent post on an important occasion. If you're interest in free expression in Tunisia, check out PEN American Center's interview with journalist Sihem Bensedrine.

'http://www.pen.org/blog/?p=8015'

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
May 10, 2012

Eric in New Mexico writes:

RE; "Freedom of expression is a cornerstone to any thriving democracy."

I would take this notion a step further and suggest that the freedom to express one's reality is not simply a cornerstone to civilization as we know it, but absolutely essential to any thriving society regardless of political or religious foundation.

Human understanding does not evolve without the impetus of a war of ideas just as the dawinian model of the origin of species was based upon the survival of the fittest.

The status quo will always give way to change just as the old give way to the young, generation after generation, and the same is true with reality as we percieve it, and as it becomes manifest in expression through words, through art, through political and religious practice of beliefs upon which reality is both reflected and projected by the mind's eye of the individual.

To deny the individual's ability to express their reality freely is to become swallowed up by it, as has been in evidence in the fall of dictators of late.

While resistance to change is all part of this "war of ideas" there are universal laws that will not change, and govern thev parameters.

Take the universal law of karma as it is manifest on the world stage for instance.

What one gives out , one gets back. Violence begets violence, dialoge begets more dialoge, and diplomacy usually results in compromise.

Unless the other guy is unwilling to listen, being enamored of his status quo.

And that's where the trouble starts.

EJ

Eric
|
New Mexico, USA
May 10, 2012

Eric in New Mexico writes:

note; 'Scuse the typo folks, that should have read "..just as the Darwinian model of the origin of species was based upon the survival of the fittest."

Henry
|
United States
May 10, 2012

Henry in the U.S.A. writes:

According the article in The Nation, Abdulelah Haider Shaye is a journalist being held in a Yemeni prison at the personal request of President Obama. Shaye exposed the fact that a missile strike, which had been carried out in Yemen by the US, killed a substantial number of women and children, but no terrorists. The US had attempted to conceal its involvement by having the Yemeni government take credit for the attack, but Shaye visited the site of the attack and photographed remnants of missiles with US markings. If the US government is acting in such a way to suppress freedom of the press, it makes the State Department's public relations campaign, described on this page, ring hollow.

Sean
|
United States
July 30, 2012

Sean in the U.S.A. writes:

Very nice. I too believe that without the rights to freedom of expression -- religious freedoms among others -- democracy is stifled. Thanks for this post.

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