Global Forum on Freedom of Expession


Oslo, Norway, 1st – 6th June 2009

The forum was planned by The Freedom of Expression Foundation, Norwegian PEN and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). It was the largest gathering ever held of organisations working for freedom of expression. The first two days of the forum were taken up with the meetings/conferences of individual organisations, including International PEN’s Writers in Prison Conference. This aspect of the forum is covered in a separate report (by Drew Campbell). The remainder of the programme, open to all, is the subject of this report.

The wide variety of sessions reflected current issues and concerns:

Collateral Damage in the War on Terror: Media in conflict: propaganda and counter strategies: Traditional journalistic obligations to objectivity and independence are stretched to breaking point by the challenges of the 21st-century conflict. How safety issues, the rise of ‘embedded’ media and the conflation of free expression, democratisation and western political agendas can obstruct independent journalism.

Where the Law Draws the Line: Law and the Politics of Denial: The clearest cases for sanctions to silence denial of genocide are often made by citizens of nations with the strongest historical reasons for doing so. Does this unique crime against humanity deserve a unique power to silence those who would justify it, and what price must free expression pay for such a concession?

Corporate Control and Private Interests: Managing Change in the Global Media Economy: Bottom-lines, economies of scale and profit margins that were unrealistic a decade ago now drive cutbacks, restructuring and conglomeration across the globe. In a market that can no longer guarantee the pluralism and professionalism that make press freedom viable, employers must sacrifice the watchdog role, though investigative journalism is needed now more than ever. But who will pay?

Collateral Damage in the War on Terror: Digital Footprints and Surveillance: Any democracy depends on freedom of information, and a free exchange of views in the public sphere. Making access to records and archives is vital, but at the same time, participation in the free information society leaves footprints which could be used to identify and persecute unwanted opinions. Is it possible, from a technological, legal or political point of view, to protect individuals from surveillance in an open society?

Where the Law Draws the Line: Law and the Politics Defamation: Human rights groups condemn the use of libel law – especially criminal defamation – to silence critical voices, but their principles are often undermined by their own countries’ practice. How new kinds of censors are picking and choosing from the world’s law books to jail, silence, bankrupt and bully critics.

Corporate Control and Private Interests: Censorship of Science: From global warming to the transmissibility of the aids virus to assessments of environmental disasters – ways in which governments and other powerful interests attempt to silence, control or delegitimise politically challenging scientific research – and looks at the harm censorship of science has done locally and globally.

Where the Law Draws the Line: Law and the Politics of Security: In the wake of shocking terrorist attacks on New York, London and Madrid, many people are ready to reject Ben Franklin’s famous dictum and surrender ‘essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety’ – a look at the high price free speech and human rights have had to pay for small gains in the so-called War on Terror.

Message in the Media: Silenced Women’s Voices: In mainstream media, women rarely represent more than 20% of the sources or voices. This represents a drastic marginalisation of women – their everyday life experience, not to mention the threats they face, and their economic and political roles. Some have gone so far as to call this symbolic annihilation. How will media meet these challenges in the future?

Access to Information in a Hybrid Age: Right to Know, Right Now: The Importance of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression: Increasingly, access to information is viewed as important for political participation and social inclusion – the relationship between access to information and notions of freedom of expression.

Message in the Media: Assimilation, Interculturalism and the Media: Conflict in the Balkans and Rwanda, 9/11, Cartoon crises – they all have shown that reporting on religion, race and ethnicity carries more responsibility and asks for more sensitivity than other topics, making us more aware that no society is homogeneous. How does the media reflect social diversity? What can make the media more inclusive? Does a diverse newsroom bring diversity in the content? Can diversity bring profit?

Message in the Media: Expressing Sexual Identity: Addressing three intertwined human rights challenges: the lack of consistent understanding of the comprehensive regime of international human rights law and its application to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity; the repeated violations of freedom of expression and assembly on the ground of sexual orientation; and the limited awareness, understanding and sensitivity within the media, press and human rights community of freedom of expression as applied to sexual identity.

A Right to Offend for God’s Sake: the Line between Religion and Censorship: Is religious dignity more prone to offence than other kinds of dignity and does this mandate special limitations on free expression? What is the difference between respect for religion and self-censorship?

The programme included the witness of persecuted writers such as Lydia Cacho (Mexican journalist), Sihem Bensedrine (Tunisian journalist) and Malalai Joya (female member of Afghan Parliament). In addition, there were specialised training sessions covering campaign strategies, ways to circumvent internet surveillance, the United Nations’ new Universal Periodic Review system (UPR) for tracking human rights abuses, web activism, the use of cryptography, how to access the African Court and African Commission. As always, the informal discussions and contacts were a valuable part of the forum.

Apart from International PEN and its individual centres, some of the other organisations in attendance were: Oxfam, Amnesty International, Open Society Institute, Article 19, Human Rights House Network, International Publishers Association, International Cities of Refuge Network, Reporters Without Borders, UNESCO, Foundation for Press Freedom, Actors for Human Rights, Index on Censorship.

Robin Lloyd-Jones
June 2009