In 1869, John Stuart Mill adopted a utilitarian approach to the problem of authority versus liberty. In On Liberty he argued that the individual has the right to self-expression as long as they did not harm other individuals. Furthermore, the good society was one where the majority enjoyed the greatest possible amount of happiness. Applying these general principles of liberty to freedom of expression, Mill stated that if we silenced an opinion, we would be silencing the truth. He concluded that the individual freedom of expression was therefore essential to the well-being of society.
Between April and October 2017 the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen and Deutsche Welle organised the CrossCulture Tour, a series of debates in seven German cities addressing intercultural expression and freedom of expression.
The framework was formed by the acknowledgment that debates on freedom of expression, satire and its limits have been shaping intercultural dialogue in Europe for many years. This observation was particularly true and relevant to exchanges within multicultural environments, such as many German cities, with particular attention paid to the relations between Christians and Muslims.
Abdul Rauf Anjum, from Lahore, Pakistan, and initiator of the panel discussion addressing freedom of expression, said: “Concerning the discussion about freedom of expression between the so-called Muslim and the Western world, I think the religion should be put last on the list. There are many other wonderful and universal values. We can talk of democracy, of women rights or of education. Let’s not start with religion. If we start with the religious doctrines, it creates problems.”
As noted by Anjum, managing to put religion aside to discuss issues related to different points of view, allows for other perspectives to emerge and a number of contentious elements to come to the fore. It is not easy within today’s religiously and ethnically charged political environment in Europe, but an important exercise to be made. Pursuing such a road may open up other areas where tensions exist in the relations to freedom of expression, as well as provide insights into elements that cut across different geographical and social contexts, that may not experience the same levels or kinds of religious exchange. Furthermore, observations gleaned from non-religious contexts may throw light and help address inter-faith dialogue in indirect, and refreshing, ways.
Another area where contentions about freedom of expression have grown in the past years in Europe is related to journalism. While coverage of religious matters has a great deal to contribute to the fluid and at times risky position of journalists and their relation to freedom of expression, there are also other aspects of social life that deserve attention. Extending its concerns to journalists working all around the world, Freedom House has noted how:
By being critical, they are being relevant. By drawing reactions, they are drawing attention to what may not be right and what needs addressing
“Press freedom is facing new threats in major democracies as well as in repressive states, where authorities are focusing their efforts on social media and other online platforms after subduing the independence of major print and broadcast outlets.”
Introducing its analysis drawn from its findings published in Freedom in the World, Freedom on the Net, and Nations in Transit as part of long-term research carried out in its in-country programmes, Freedom House argues that media independence is under pressure in every region of the world, making the work of dedicated journalists contribute towards a most vital role of monitoring, exposure and critique in many hostile environments.
One area intimately threaded into the fabric of society that is also drawn into the conflicts and tensions related to the freedom of expression is that of cultural expression through the arts.
The most recent Unesco publication evaluating the importance and impact of the Sustainable Development Goals on global cultural policy and management of the arts highlights how people in the cultural sector, including artists, regularly report a climate of fear and intimidation, developed by oppressive state institutions, purportedly independent media channels and other apparatuses that support the majoritarian and dominant cultural hegemony, often made worse by creative works that try to expose and challenge, rather than paper over or propagandise, contradictions and exploitative practices within their societies.
Earlier this year, the International Music Council (IMC) issued a statement in favour of the freedom of artistic expression to counter constrictive thuggery and bullying by state officials and their offices in Egypt.
IMC Music Rights Champion Ramy Essam, known as “the singer of the Tahrir Square”, and who left Egypt to seek European exile in 2014, released a new song in February. It was reported that Galal El-Behairy, the lyricist, while in Egypt, was arrested, beaten and tortured. Trumped-up charges against him include those of terrorism, false news, the abuse of social-media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion and insulting the military. A similar arrest warrant has been issued against Essam, in absentia.
In reaction to this action by the state, Ramy said:
“With this song we wanted to remind everyone of the freedom we once had, granted by the revolution. We wanted to remind everyone of the right to speak, the right to criticise, and the right to dream of change... It is music, it is how we feel. It is a song.”
What people do, and what they say, in the public sphere with the intent of communicating their impressions to a wider public and engage in a dialogue, debate and exchange of ideas, is classified and dealt with variously by different stakeholders within society. Artists who make creative statements, in various physical or intangible forms, ranging from architecture to music, and accompany their expression with verbalised formulations of their thoughts in written or spoken form, play a sensitive role within their communities. By being critical, they are being relevant. By drawing reactions, they are drawing attention to what may not be right and what needs addressing by whoever is in or is seeking a position to change things.
In this light, it seems to be disingenuous for people in a position of power, influence and one would hope knowledge, as well as a responsibility to open up and encourage debate as well as a process of change, to argue in favour of one particular position, while opposing another, and then claim freedom of expression as a blanket cover, with a pacifier included, to maintain the status quo.
While artists and creatives, as ordinary citizens, have every right, if not a duty, to speak up and address societal situations through their craft and skill, people in authority, be it political, cultural, media-related, national as well as international, risk putting personal and group interest before an honest and open community exchange when they resort to pacifying and stagnating calls for tolerance in expression while defending the status quo of visionless and morally vacant posturing.
As with the Greek doctor Empedocles who wanted to test his divine nature, hailed by his followers to such a degree that he started thinking it may be true, by braving Mount Etna’s volcanic lava and jumping into its crater, all that may remain of present delusions of grandeur may be a simple sandal. Artists, storytellers and other creatives who tell us about who we are and where we are going, speak and act in urgency. It is a pity that those who inhabit the higher ground, which should allow for a better perspective of things, also claim it morally, without pointing towards any way forward.
Karsten Xuereb is a researcher in cultural policy and relations.
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