Challenging Censorship, Defending Freedom Opening Remarks Delivered by Ismail Serageldin

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Freedom of expression IFLA FAIFE

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Challenging Censorship, Defending Freedom
Opening Remarks

Delivered by

Ismail Serageldin
At the IFLA/FAIFE Conference in

Oslo, Norway – 11 August 2005

Ladies and gentlemen,
I am honored to be here with you today in this event that celebrates that greatest of human virtues: the respect for free expression. Without it we cannot survive on this planet speaking hundreds of tongues, holding a wide range of political opinions and displaying a bewildering array of social attitudes and cultural attributes. Our creative diversity – if it is to survive the growing interaction between peoples – requires that tolerance become inbred, and further that it must be nurtured to go beyond acceptance of the principle of freedom of expression to the commitment to defend that right for all those with whom we disagree.
Indeed, to defend that right even for those whose views we find offensive. For it is precisely offensive speech and obnoxious views that require protection in the name of freedom of expression. Surely conventional thoughts and mainstream speech does not require protection, precisely because they are so acceptable to the majority.
I will not belabor the point as to what constitutes free expression as that has benefited from several centuries of debate with generations of free spirits willing to put their well-being and even their very lives on the line to defend the crucial rights that we now have learned to take for granted. Today, it is expression in any medium, including and especially the Internet, and using any form of expression, be it language, music or the arts.
Yet such rights need to be defended again and again. The natural response of society every time it feels threatened is to stifle dissent and restrict the hard-won freedoms of its citizens in the name of national security and the public good.
In these perilous times of international terrorism, permeable borders, global markets, and the all-encompassing internet, there is enormous attraction in the argument that to protect against the horrific misdeeds of extremists, each of us has to give up a little bit of our comfort, a little bit of our privacy, a little bit of our rights… We willingly accept. Who denies the need for searches at the airports, or the screening of luggage before we get on board the airplane?
In these perilous times of international terrorism, where information is so freely available, where the availability of weapons is so pervasive, where payment for the arms can be cleverly hidden by dummy accounts in the most god-forsaken places… Does it not make sense to ask citizens to subject their financial transactions to additional scrutiny? To catch the terrorists as they are getting prepared to finance their deadly operations? Again we willingly submit to a little more exposure of our affairs, a little more reduction in our privacy. Let a more knowledgeable government protect us by limiting the action of those madmen. Who would deny that good intelligence to prevent criminal acts of mass murder is indeed preferable to awaiting the horrible unfolding of heinous crimes and then trying to track down the perpetrators and punishing them. Prevention is always better than cure…. Or is it?
Regretfully, in our concern to curb terrorism, we sometimes are willing to give up too easily the hard-won freedoms that we have come to take for granted in the democratic societies of today. Protections against unreasonable search and seizure, guarantees of due process, even Habeas Corpus, are all subject to being temporarily suspended. The emergency demands it. National security requires it. From there it is but a small step to acquiesce in questioning the talk of people and even their private reading material and their thoughts as being dangerous, for if they think it, they are likely to do it. But who is to judge which thoughts are acceptable and which are not? Can we possibly forget that our hard-won freedoms, our rights of citizenship, are all based on freedom of speech and freedom of thought?
In these perilous times we must remember that many of the rights that we hold dear were once considered seditious thoughts. Consider questioning the divine right of kings, ending colonialism, ending slavery, the right to vote, the rights of women, religious freedom were all considered dangerous, unacceptable thoughts when they were first advocated by visionary thinkers. So let us today celebrate these hard-won freedoms and rededicate ourselves to the defense of the most important, the first freedom, the freedom of speech in its broadest sense, whether it is expressed in terms of the spoken or written word, or the through the language of music and art, whether the medium is the printed page or the electronic web.
But freedom is not license. It involves responsibility on the part of those who exercise these rights of free speech. So where do the boundaries of free speech lie? Obviously, there must be protection of the rights of others. Not just by protection from slander and libel, but from the incitement to hatred and violence. We must remember that the promoters of hate use speech to create the climate where large scale persecution can take place. We see this happening in so many places to this day, that it requires a brief pause in this paean to freedom of speech.

The Rwandan genocide reminds us, like the holocaust before it, that to move to the large scale persecution of a people, to wage ethnic cleansing and even genocide against them, the future criminals must first start by identifying the group they intend to attack and ascribe to them collective characteristics (they are all liars, thieves, unclean, etc..). Note we are not talking of a person as being a criminal or a group of individuals being thieves…The telltale point is when the negative qualities are ascribed to an entire group of disparate individuals… The next milestone on the path to disaster is starting to define them as not being human (they are cockroaches… they are subhuman…) and then de-humanizing the enemy. Then defining them as “the enemy”… they no longer have an identity a culture .. they are collectively the enemy, and the enemy must be extirpated, it must be destroyed. Did you notice how smoothly one shifts from “they” to “it”?

Have you noticed how every army in the world uses such euphemisms to describe their opponents and the actions that they intend to do? They refer to “the enemy” that must be “taken out” or “destroyed”. They always avoid the use of the words like “kill” or “murder”. Orders are given to “cut off the enemy’s escape routes and pound them with ordnance, take out their forward position and then destroy the main concentration of enemy forces”. No commander would dream of saying about the enemy: “ reflect that our opponents are young men and women who have parents and sons and daughters and families who love them, and who have probably been drafted into service by a government that they probably do not know…” and now we are going to “ box them into a trap and then unleash the power of our weapons and murder a large number of them and maim the rest and we will call that a victory for our side.. more, we will call it a glorious victory for our flag”.
Orwell warned us of doublespeak, and the misuse of discourse to create illusions that can hide reality from the people.
We cannot tolerate that such social destruction be wreaked upon the wretched and the defenseless. Hate-mongering and incitation to violence against minorities must be reigned in. We must ask for social guarantees as well as the personal guarantees that libel and slander laws provide. Yet to do this, I believe that we need more free speech, not less. We need to be able to speak truth to power, to ensure that alternative voices are not silenced, that judicial restraint be arbitrated in independent courts. We need the information that would unmask such Orwellian doublespeak to be available to all.
Society will thrive with more freedom of access to information. There is nothing that can destroy the rot of corruption, whether financial or moral, as much as the light of open scrutiny. That is why all tyrants fear it, and all those who seek to cross lines that they know to be unjust avoid it. That is why executive power often resorts to censorship.
Today as we approach the second part of WSIS, it behooves us to remember freedom of access as well as freedom of expression as we discuss the technological marvels of informatics and communications technology. The power of public opinion is not to be underestimated. It needs to be given the facts, including the facts about censorship.
It is here that greater cooperation between NGOs and Civil Society Organizations can help safeguard the available documentation of censorship, as greater efforts are deployed to document it wherever it exists. As Librarians dedicated to the collection, preservation, organization and dissemination of knowledge, we must be at the forefront of the institutional battles that help define the roles and responsibilities of NGOS and Civil Society Organizations in this new era of the Internet.
Let us try to ensure that equity and fairness are not forgotten, and that large segments of the human family are not by-passed in this ICT revolution simply because they are too poor and live in the developing countries.
I say: let freedom reign, let information flow, let all views be heard.
But let us also place warning signals as to how these freedoms should be exercised. Persons should be held responsible for what they say. Responsibility and accountability go hand in hand, they are two sides of the same coin. For freedom without boundaries is license. Let hate mongers beware… for we will not let you use the cover of freedom of expression to do your dastardly work. Let the oppressors beware … for we will not let you use the cover of national security to muzzle dissent and the contrarian view. Let us reason together. Let us, together, design the wise constraints that make people free.
Thank you.

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