IFLANET home - International Federation of Library Associations and InstitutionsAnnual ConferenceSearchContacts

61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Defending Free Expression is Everyone's Business

Frances D'Souza
Executive Director of ARTICLE 19,
The International Centre Against Censorship


It is argued that the right to freedom of expression is preminent amongst all other human rights because in it's absence it is not possible to know about abuses and therefore protect other rights.

It is impossible to rank countries in terms of their respect for human rights or the lack of it because this implies that one is able to allocate values to such abuses as torture, extra judicial kill ing, illegal detention for several years etc. That said, however, there are clearly some countries which abuse human rights to a greater extent than others. It is ARTICLE 19's contention that the earliest indications of increasing human rights abuse concern restricting free expression, and especially muzzling the press, and increasing direct control of t he media by the government.

It is argued that the human rights community which for the past three decades or more has largely concentrated on documenting human rights abuse after the event, must now become more proactive in its work. In order to achieve this it must be able to a) collect specific information which warns of increasing human rights abuse and b) create a powerful network to which that information can be fed a nd based upon which action will take place. Part of that political network must include organisations such as professional associations which make a strong and positive commitment to defending freedom of expression and at the same time which a re prepared to support this policy with action in the form of protest in appropriate circumstances. In addition such professional associations can off course take a special interest in their own mem bers who may be unduly affected by restrictions on free expression.

It is only by creating a critical mass of information and opinion that we will be successful in persuading governments that they cannot ignore abuses of fundamental right to freedom of expression in their political, economical and cultural dealings with other coutries.


I. Introduction

Freedom of expression is probably the most important of all individual human rights because, in its absence, it is impossible to protect life and liberty. It is no coincidence that the first action o f would be dictators is to muzzle the media in order to control information. Nor is it surprising that the history of censorship is coterminous with the history of political unification, the rise of monotheistic religion, of learning and of the desire to protect public morals. In ancient China, Greece, Rome and India the move towards unity and harmony necessarily entailed reducing cultural and r eligious diversity as well as limiting ideas which threatened the established order, knowledge was restricted in order to disarm the opposition. Information and ideas are powerful and governments kno w it.

The bad old days, unfortunately, are not yet over. We live in worrying, dangerous times. There are new threats to freedom of expression and even proposed solutions which infringe the principles upon which democracy rests. We should remember that the structure of human rights law since 1945 is built as a moral answer to the Nazi ideology of racism. But it would seem that we now live in a world wh ere the moral basis of the integration of Europe, at least, is challenged by the new urge to limit migrants and asylum seekers, the open espousal of racism and xenophobia and the absence of a concert ed resistance to religious terrorism. Of course, there have been wonderful breakthroughs, the most significant perhaps being the ending of the political and philosophical ideology of apartheid in Sou th Africa. Nevertheless, religious discrimination, intolerance and persecution, as old as recorded history, together with the undoubted increase in racial and ethnic intolerance in Europe, are the ch ief spur to war, suffering and conflict today.

We have, therefore, to question the health and well being of the New World Order and we have to look at remedies. Let us look in more detail at some of the new threats to freedom of expression and ways in which they can be counteracted and even prevented.

II. Major Threats to Freedom of Expression

a. Censorship, the media and conflict
We, at ARTICLE 19, have asked ourselves the question "is it possible for governments to wage war internally, or externally, in the absence of popular support?". The answer, we believe, after much research, is no. The temptation for governments to use the media for purposes of propaganda is ever present. This was true in the two great World wars as it was true in subsequent conflicts such as the Vietnam war, the Falklands war, the Gulf war and, today, the war in former Yugoslavia. There is good evidence to suggest that, in t he absence of a truly independent media, it is much easier for governments to coopt the media for the purposes of propaganda and incitement to genocide. Although the media may not, until very recentl y, have been considered to be the cause of war, they have certainly created the conditions whereby governments were able to wage a war of almost unprecedented brutality and based on "ethnic clearance ", without immediate international outrage.

The evidence of the government owned media in Rwanda during the genocide which occurred in 1994 indicates, compellingly, that the media was used as a deliberate instrument of war, to exacerbate triba l hostilities and to incite genocide. Messages were put out, in particular by Radio Mille Collines, in Rwanda in 1994, of extreme distortion, brutality and hatred, to a population which had no real a lternative news channel and which, moreover, has had a long tradition of accepting authority by oral channels. It had a devastating effect and the mechanism is being repeated in Burundi, as we speak.

Propaganda for war is prohibited by international human rights law, for good reasons. The absence of an array of information about what is happening in one's immediate environment and the consequent insecurity and fear that this provokes predisposes people to accepting government messages which are put out for reasons of political and even racial expediency. The clear answer to this crime is to provide a plethora of information and this brings us to the second disturbing, trend which restricts freedom of expression.

b. The Right to Information
The right of access to information is implicit in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as Article 10 of the European Convention. It is also embodied in many other regional and national instruments, including the American Constitution.

Any restriction on the free flow of information precludes knowledge, debate and action and, consequently, the absence of pressure on governments to deal with both vulnerability and impending disaster . One area which has become of increasing concern is the clear desire that some governments have to withhold information about policies and actions which can create greater hazards in the environment . Those who stand to suffer most are the poor, the disenfranchised and, therefore, the vulnerable. Most people will be aware of the murder of Chico Mendes in Brazil, but perhaps less familiar with th e violence that continues against rural activists who protest the destruction of the rainforest.

Recent research has revealed that there is reportedly a death list of 25 people, drawn up by local landowners, many of whom have subsequently died under unusual and suspicious circumstances.In 1989, the journalist Barbara D'Achille, Peru's leading writer on ecology and the environment was stoned to death by the Shining Path guerrillas. She had written frequently on the environmental effects of cocoa cultivation, which include deforestation, chemical pollution and erosion.

The mechanisms used by governments to create a culture of secrecy vary from the enforcement of a strict official secrets act, which is based on the presumption that all information is restricted unle ss the opposite is specifically declared, to the threatening and even murder of those brave souls, often journalists, who report on government duplicity. The abuse of national security laws to concea l information on vital issues such as radiation levels and radioactivity within the environment is one that could and should be challenged in national and regional courts.

c. Religious intolerance
This is perhaps one of the most visible areas of censorship and one which is most hotly argued. To me, the basic issue is whether or not an individual or a group is allowed, under international human rights law, to impose his or her beliefs, often by violent means, on another individual or group. And, once again, the answer has to be that this is wholly contrary to international human rights law . The case of Salman Rushdie, who continues to live under the threat of a death sentence issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran for having expressed views in a book of fiction considered to be blasphemous, is symbolic of many other cases where religious leaders believe they have the right to infringe not only international human rights laws but also the law of another country in attemptin g to impose their views. In other parts of the world, fundamentalist Christians who oppose, for example, abortion, also claim the right to deny women the right of access to information on abortion, t hereby impeding the free flow of information with disastrous results.

III. Preventing Censorship

What can be done? There clearly are alarming inroads on the right to freedom of expression in the world today. The job of human rights organisations, with their long standing traditions of documenting such abuses, is to try to make it impossible for democratic governments throughout the world to ignore these abuses in their political, economic and cultural dealings with countries wh ere violations take place. However, the essence of our work is documenting human rights violations with great thoroughness but usually after the event. There must now be a move towards more proactive work by these organisations and this necessarily means creating a community which can endorse fundamental rights and freedoms and insist that they are taken into account. In order to achieve this, o ne has first of all to create a network or community and this, I believe, is where professional associations such as the International Federation of Library Associations comes in.

However, before looking in more detail at what professional organisations can do, we have to ask a question that must occupy us all: why if the human rights community has grown so rapidly in the post World War II years and, at the same time, has become so professional are there still so many spectacular failures, such as the atrocities in former Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, the state of terror in Algeria, the increase in religious brutality in a wide swathe of countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia to name but a few? W hy is it that those erstwhile models of democracy, Kenya and Nigeria, have deteriorated to the point where the international community is no longer able to ignore the violent suppression of democracy? Why is it that there has been an almost direct jump from communism in the former Soviet Union to extreme nationalism, capitalism and free market philosophies which have all but eroded the basis for any form of democracy?

These are very clear failures on the part of the international human rights community which require some analysis. Of course, one can argue that without human rights pressure, the situations in many of these parts of the world might have been even worse than they are today. Certainly it mus t be the case that worldwide demand for civil and political rights helped to bring down communism in Central and Eastern Europe and bring about the death of apartheid in South Africa. But this is r eally not enough.

Much debate is now taking place amongst various human rights organisations, including ARTICLE 19, and slowly some truths are beginning to emerge. One of these is that human rights is not an exclusi ve or elitist business carried out by the few for the good of the greater number. Human rights, as a basis for democracy, is the responsibility of everyone in the sense that individuals and groups within society have to assume responsibility for monitoring government and its actions and for insisting that the government is accountable.

ARTICLE 19's way of doing this is by attempting to be ever vigilant about the smallest infringements of freedom of expression in the belief that great atrocities are built upon small, almost imperc eptible, infringements of a seemingly benign kind: The introduction of privacy laws in order to protect members of the government or even royalty which, in turn, once on the statute books can be used to prosecute journalists who may well be acting in the public interest. The passive acceptance that a given government is the appropriate body to decide on what constitutes obscenity which, in turn, may lead to laws which ban great literature.

The introduction of a public order Act which is then used to forbid political demonstrations. In every case where we see freedom of expression savagely undermined, these small beginnings are discer nible with a very small amount of research. We are all very much wiser after the event.

There is perhaps another reason for the failure to protect individual rights and that is that the concentration of human rights work has been in countries of the North for far too long. Although th e work of such organisations has been absolutely invaluable in creating awareness amongst democratic governments and in standard setting, there must in future years be greater reliance on the stren gthening of local organisations which are the only appropriate bodies to monitor their governments actions on a day to day basis. The rationale for this shift in emphasis lies in the fact that when a window of opportunity occurs in a country such as the ousting of a military dictatorship, democracy will not automatically fill the power vacuum that follows unless there has built up, over a pe riod, of years a core of individuals and organisations who have a good and workable understanding of the steps needed to build the institutions of democracy at the local level. Ideally, human right s organisations existing in the North should become watchdogs for their own governments and a vehicle for amplifying the voices of those organisations which live and work in the South.

IV. IFLA as a Force for Free Expression

The question has been posed as to what kind of commitment should professional associations make and how they can, upon occasion, work with human rights organisations in order to ensure the freedoms for which they themselves stand. It is thus extremely fitting that IFLA should be concerned with promoting and protecting freedom of expression and the free flow of information. Its support, given that it is an international organisation working in national contexts, would be invaluable.

IFLA has rich resources in its buildings, its books, its information systems, its trained personnel and, above all, in its partnership around the world best exemplified by the congress here today. It would seem to me that IFLA can use these resources to good effect and I would like to emphasise three main ways in which I feel IFLA as a professional association operating worldwide could be an invaluable resource for the work that NGOs such as ARTICLE 19 do.

  1. If IFLA were to adopt a positive and strong formulation of its commitment to freedom of expression, perhaps following closely upon the main treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil an d Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, then this would exist as an overt and publicly stated standard to which all individual branches and affiliates of IFLA would strive to adhere. This would immediately put IFLA in a position to protest, precisely because of its policy, infringements of freedom of expression, including any restrictions imposed by a government on the fr ee flow of information, any restrictions placed upon individuals related to the work of libraries which immediately includes writers, poets, journalists, artists, academics, lawyers, students.
  2. By its example, in adopting a strong public stance on freedom of expression, IFLA would be setting a standard for other professional associations to adopt similar standards. This could be the beg inning of a very large community of professional associations, all of which are committed to protecting and defending individual human rights, whatever they might be.
  3. As an association with a statutory requirement to protect freedom of expression, IFLA and all its affiliates would be sending a clear message to the governments of those countries in which it ope rates that freedom of expression is considered to be a fundamental right which must not be violated.

Given a framework of human rights organisations working in the North, in partnership with those working in the South, together with a large number of professional associations upholding human rights , one already has a formidable framework with which to gain further support to prevent human rights tragedies such as those that occurred in Rwanda. Rwanda, as you will all know, was not a sudden spo ntaneous and unexpected outbreak of savagery but a carefully orchestrated and planned genocide which began with the repression of any dissidents and especially that which was exhibited in the media. Furthermore, the media quickly became a tool of the government to incite further genocide. The question as to what could have been done at what stage is one which preoccupies us greatly at ARTICLE 19 and we hope to be able to come up with guidelines on intervention and the indicators for such intervention. However, even if we as a single organisation were perfectly informed as to exactly what wa s happening when and, indeed, what the international community could and should do, our impact would be small unless we could call upon a worldwide community of associations, organisations, individua ls, which would act to endorse the need to protect individual rights and which, at the same time, would act as a critical mass of opinion and opposition to inactivity on the part of governments. This may seem far too idealistic and impossible to achieve but I do believe that by creating links, partnerships, all of which adhere to and maintain the same universal standard, then it is a very commen dable basis for human rights work.

V. Conclusion

The role of standard setting and communication in effecting changes which have occurred in the political map of the world and in helping to shape new political systems in which basic human right will prevail is not to be underestimated. The end of censorship in the former

Soviet Union, for example, has allowed a reunification of language. Words and concepts such as democracy, justice and law, now have a shared meaning between east and west. And there is at least the h ope of universal human values which transcend the interest of social class. But what we still need to do is to create a worldwide culture where even the small beginnings of censorship are successfull y challenged. It is only when the culture of secrecy, still so evident in the vast majority of countries in the world, begins to fade that people will develop the necessary confidence to challenge an y infringement, however peripheral, and also to have some real expectations that they will be successful in their challenges. Freedom of expression is a fragile right and maintaining it is difficult enough. The task of developing an open culture where it follows on from many years of stringent restrictions is even more difficult.

The ingredients must include a strong and overt commitment to the right to freedom of expression, legal redress in the event of any infringement, technical resources to transfer any information freel y and above all a vital network of individuals and groups who are prepared to keep alive the notion of democracy by fighting for the individual rights upon which it is based.

Frances D'Souza
London, 21 July 1995