PEN International/Young Journalists Academy Competition

In August, I had the opportunity to meet students at the Young Journalists’ Academy in London and to talk to them about PEN International’s work. We discussed freedom of expression and why it matters. As part of a PEN International competition ‘Why freedom of expression matters”, young participants then submitted short blog posts on freedom of expression. Here we share extracts from three of those entries from young people as they begin on their journey as writers – Laura McVeigh, PEN International Executive Director.

Extract from winner, Benjamin Gibbons:

“Expression, then, is part of what makes us human – and our ability to express ourselves defines our character. However it is also part of being human that gives rise to selfishness and a want of power – yet this is an infantile emotion, it has no authority, and this is why dictatorship is not a legitimate form of government. One man’s rights end where another’s begins, and everyone has a right to expression, it being so central to our human identity. Why then do so many governments around the world restrict individual expression? They betray their tenuous hold on power through these restrictions…The Arab Spring was another poignant reminder of the need for individual expression in every person. Expression itself means freedom, and that is why it is worth fighting for…It is the diversity of thought in a free press and in a free world – the transference of ideas, any and all of them – that enriches a person’s character immeasurably. This is to me a more human, and a more fundamental reason as to why freedom of expression is so crucial to all of us. Each of us may be wrong in turn, but together, we are truth.”

Extract from runner-up, Amro Nagdy:

“No matter how provocative an idea may be, if it is thought of, it has the right to be expressed. While there is a potential of offense that can come from freely expressing your beliefs, there is a substantial benefit in that we are constantly made to think in new and previously unfathomable ways.

Freedom of expression is not just limited to challenging the beliefs of individuals, as it can also challenge governments and leaders. In areas of oppression, the greatest tool of the population has historically been the ability to express their beliefs. Whether it has been books, cinema or even more recently; social media, the liberation of ideas has given ordinary citizens the power to challenge ideological juggernauts.

When challenges cease to exist and familiarity becomes dominant, we cannot develop as individuals or as communities. Being unable to move past a specific doctrine or way of thinking would be to shackle the mind and waste the potential for creativity and stifle innovation.

I must now acknowledge that some would prefer that we protect the safety of others and believe that in order to do this we must place limits somewhere on what can be said. And to that I would say go ahead and argue your case, for you are proving mine by virtue of engaging in debate and presenting your ideas freely. That is the beauty of free speech; that no matter what you believe, everything has merit, and if you are unable to fully justify your beliefs, then maybe there are flaws.

In this marketplace of ideas, only the most refined products of thought can reign supreme, for they have been through the trials and tribulations of scrutiny, harsh opinion and opposition.

And that is why freedom of expression matters.”

Extract from runner-up, Stefano Hollis:

“Set out alongside commodities which many of us take for granted, such as clean water and food, freedom of expression appears in the Declaration of Human Rights as a way of allowing anyone to voice their opinions and express themselves freely, whether that be through speech, writing, images or any other medium.

Article 19 of the declaration states ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

Along with most other rights given on the declaration, this has become such a norm in many places around the world people often forget there are those who are not granted what is listed as a human necessity.

Unless they’re allowed to express themselves, people lose their status as individuals both to themselves and to society, becoming simply a statistic, a supposedly mindless worker. But people aren’t mindless. Everybody has important thoughts and ideas.

Without freedom of expression, advancement in all industries is hindered. Scientific, technological and artistic development is stifled.

For this reason this right is important in itself. But it’s not just incredibly determining to quality of life. It’s even more meaningful now because there are still countries where it is not allowed, leading to conflict between countries and a fragmented world where countries find it more difficult to communicate and cooperate.”