Free expression groups from around the world gathering in Brussels today at the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) conference pledged themselves to confront a “growing number of attacks against the media”.
“It’s no news to anyone here that the war on terror has put freedom of expression under threat” said Christopher Warren, the International Federation of Journalists’ President, in his opening speech. “Freedom of expression is in retreat in too many emerging democracies. However, in mature democracies, governments are also tightening access to information, restricting coverage in the name of national security and broadening the scope of unacceptable speech”.
These trends were backed up by a report presented by the IFEX Clearing House, which highlighted a 20% increase in the number of alerts outlining attacks on free expression issues by the organisation in the last 18 months. During this time, 27 joint campaigns were organised to focus attention on specific abuses of free expression around the world.
Franco Frattini, Vice President of the European Commission and EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security addressed the meeting making a trunchant defense of free speech referring to the recent cartoon crisis. “We must defend freedom of expression,” he said. He called for “a frank, transparent and even tough exchange of views” which should include a “strong rejection of violence”.
“Freedom of expression must be defended mostly when ideas shock”, the Commissioner said. “The difficulty is to reconcile free expression with the deepest individual convictions, which should also be respected”.
He also referred to a number of initiatives taken to encourage a dialogue between media representatives and faith leaders, but denied any political bid to impose further rules related to media ethics. The Commissioner expressed his willingness to promote dialogue both within EU boundaries and in neighboring countries.
Members of the IFEX network highlighted the need to tackle the broader issue of freedom of expression and notably the freedom to say unpopular things, which was presented as an integral part of it. “One of our major tasks is to touch wider issues of press freedom,” Luckson Chipare, Convenor of the IFEX Council told the conference.
In a panel discussion on terrorism and free speech and the cartoon crisis, Shadaba Islam, Senior Correspondent Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) said that “the cartoon crisis has taken place in the context of a pervasive climate of intimidation against 20 million European Muslims, a situation which the EU has failed to address before the crisis erupted”. “The war against terrorism and extremism is not only a struggle for European values. Democrats from all countries are oppressed in what has to be described as a civil war for the soul of Islam. What is shocking here is the lack of understanding for basic Muslim values, despite an apparent political engagement for the establishment of a multi-religious society,” she said.
Hélène Flautre, Chairwoman of the European Parliament Sub-Committee on Human Rights, denounced double standards in the treatment of Human Rights in Europe. “Journalists should not be held back by external pressures,” she said.
Joining the debate, Tony Bunyan, Director of Statewatch, a civil liberties NGO said that “absolute freedom could also lead to absolutism. Freedom of speech should not endanger other people’s lives”.
Later in the day, speakers highlighted concerns over media concentration and consolidation. A panel discussion revealed fears for pluralism and editorial independence in the face of restructuring of the media industry.
“The consolidation of media control can represent a subtle and discreet form of censorship” said Andrew Schwartzman, President and CEO of Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm that represents civil society groups on FCC related issues (USA). Participants in the debate called for a strong commitment to pluralism, media quality and public service values in media policy making.
But the media crisis is not a “northern” issue, of concern only to people living in developed countries. Jane Duncan, Executive Director of FXI - Freedom of eXpression Institute (South Africa), said that “the dangers of media concentration could be as bad or even worse in the South than in the North”.
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The IFJ represents more than 500,000 journalists in over 110 countries