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02 April 2015

sc‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ GCSP Forum for Future Leaders

On March 26th 2015, the first GCSP Forum for Future Leaders took place at the GCSP. Initiated by two interns, Sarah Prutsch and Dora Rencoret, the event opened with welcoming words from Ambassador Christian Dussey . After his speech, Ms Renconret explained the goal of this forum and introduced the moderator of the event,GCSP Associate Fellow Mr Karim Emile Bitar .

Afterwards, Mr Bitar offered welcoming remarks, mentioning how the GCSP became the place to go for timely debates. He then started the debate on freedom of expression by directly referring to its limits. He reminded the audience that this freedom has several dimensions, which all need to be considered: we shouldn’t forget its legal, political and philosophical aspects. Freedom of expression is an old phenomenon, which occured with the creation of democracy. Its philosophical angle is as present as in the time of Socrates, Mill and Kant. Today, the global war on terror is threatening to limit this freedom.

Mr Bitar then remarked that it is easy to agree with the principle of freedom of expression when we agree with the opinions being expressed, but the true test is when we disagree on them. He also talked about context. For example, holocaust denials are more difficult to accept in Europe than in the United States. He also added that laws and declarations are not the alpha and omega of freedom of expression. There is a need to speak the truth about public order without disrupting its maintenance. However, who could decide on what is appropriate and what is not?

Mr Najy, Senior Policy Fellow Europe of Foraus and PhD candidate at the University of Geneva, took the opportunity to suggest that freedom of expression is mainly seen as a “Western” or “European” societal value and right. He then asked the audience the following questions: to what extent is freedom of expression a part of Europe’s identity? Is there something to it that goes beyond what is actually written in the law? Or is it also a societal rule?

Mr Charlet, a trainee lawyer at the Etude Sébastien Fanti, mentioned that freedom of expression was defined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With the digital era, new questions are forming. “Is a retweet on Twitter or a like on Facebook under the freedom of expression?”. For lawyers, such questions are becoming harder and harder to respond to.

He reminded the audience that, as a general rule, the same standards apply online. For example, universities and employers can easily find an individuals’ content and refuse to review their job application or accept them in an academic program. Mr Charlet warned the audience about tensions arising from effective law enforcement and privacy breaches. He explained that many of his contacts had told him that “they have nothing to hide”. He then said: “If you have nothing to hide, why do you have curtains at home? Never tell me you have nothing to hide because you do!”

Ms Clarke, International Policy and Advocacy Advisor at PEN International, spoke about how the work of intellectuals has been censored throughout history. This international issue is as relevant now as it was after World War I when PEN International was established. The concerns remain the same, only the context has differed. Ms Clarke also declared that freedom of religion and freedom of expression are interlocked and mutually re-enforcing. Denying one of them destroys the purpose of the other.

She took the example of Charlie Hebdo, stating that in order to protect the freedom of religion, we need to protect the freedom of expression, even if we disagree with its content (in the case of Charlie Hebdo, not everyone would agree with the newspaper’s articles). There is a need to promote more tolerance. Governments that marched in Paris after Charlie Hebdo’s massacre should be asked to carry their responsabilities. PEN International’s point of view is that freedom of expression is a universal, recognised and sought after value in all cultures and religions. It is a cornerstone of democracy and at the core of development.

Ms Clarke also commented on the increasingly high number of journalists being murdered each year, especially in the year 2014, where 140 individuals were killed and where 85% of their murderers were not prosecuted. In Syria, the number of murders is the highest but journalists are more likely to be killed in times of peace than in armed conflicts.

Mr Zaied, a guest speaker, also stated the need for a collective definition of freedom of expression. He asked: “Who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter?”

After the guest speakers’ speeches, a Q&A session started and the discussion went to several points that had not been mentioned previously such as the concept of objectivity and the principle of harm, where both concepts become limits of freedom of expression. Individuals need to understand that stating one’s opinion can be harmful to others.

Mr Zaied concluded that freedom of expression should be regulated instead of limited, and one should always put oneself into the other person’s shoes to ensure objectivity. Mr Bitar then added that it is important to keep in mind that all individuals are products of interactions with a shared universal aspiration to freedom, human dignity and democracy. We are also emotional, interconnected and living in different contexts in a globalised world.