Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Feedback on the FRA conference in Paris Dec 8th-9th, 2008

On December 8th 2008, the French Ministry of Justice hosted the first FRA conference on Fundamental Rights called “Freedom of Expression, cornerstone of democracy – Listening and communicating in a diverse Europe”. I attended the first day, as a representative of both Dare and Humanity in Action – France, and would like to share the lessons I brought back from it.

The opening of the conference was representative of the whole day, in a surprising way. While officials and EU representatives talked about caution with regard to freedom of speech, journalists were shocked that others speakers would take that angle rather than that of defending freedom of speech as a fundamental right in Europe. Florence Aubenas, French journalist, reminded us all that while our Justice minister Rachida Dati had made a lovely speech about freedom of expression and its limits in France, it was in France, a week earlier, that the editor of one of the most famous papers had been brutally arrested and humiliated with no justification for the violence of the process (but which Dati officially approved of); it was in France that in the past week, a motion was passed to allow for the President to name and revoke the directors of public televisions; it was in France that in the past week 3 major newspapers had suffered from direct or indirect censorship. In Aubenas’s view, freedom of speech was to be defended, and not questioned as something suspicious and dangerous, as it seemed to be in the conference, and as it was increasingly seen in France.

It seems to me that we can learn from this. Aubenas’s point is definitely valid and important. It was supported by the majority in the room. But it revealed a complete gap between two approaches: protecting freedom of speech at all costs because it can never be taken for granted, and fighting xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance at all costs, because the protection of minorities can never be taken for granted.

It was clear in my mind that the idea of restricting freedom of speech had only to do with being cautious with regard to racist speech, hate speech, discourses encouraging to hatred and/or violence. I was attending to find better ways to do it, and to teach others about it. This restriction already exists in certain legal systems, and it seemed important to discuss it at a European level and make some room for dialogue on this matter, given that some governments consider that this approach only feeds the interests of fanatics, and reduces the scope of freedom of expression too much. But to others, it was quite clear that restricting freedom of speech had to do with corrupt governments, fanatics and censorship.

The difficulty is that after Aubenas’s speech, it was very difficult to get properly into the discussion from the angle I had understood the workshop I attended on diversity in the media. The topic on the negative representation of minorities (which definitely has been an issue in France in the past few years) didn’t really come up. We only discussed how to promote diversity in the media, which, while being interesting, is not as clearly linked to fundamental rights as protecting minorities from hateful and racist speech – or representations – is.

There was, however, the interesting initiative of asking workshop groups to come recommendations for governments and other actors; I mentioned the way the Vienna DARE conference had worked, and how it would be interesting for the FRA to use a similar model for future events – getting people from various fields interested in troubleshooting one specific and explicit issues in small groups, each bringing in their own experience (how to identify and react to racist speech in discourses defending gay rights for instance, or, in this case, it could have been how to promote diversity in the media without giving in to stereotypes, negative or positive) and then coming up with recommendations maybe. In this instance, the groups were very large, and the workshop titles so similar that it was quite difficult to grasp the differences between them in the first place, and therefore to choose the right one to go to.

While it was very fruitful and interesting for all of us, I am sure, to meet with people from such different fields, and on so many different levels of action (government, ngo, media, and so on), and while this is clearly a way to help all of us work together towards a better future, I came home with the feeling that we need to remember that the same words mean different things to people from different cultural, but also professional backgrounds. Maybe this has to do with providing a clear statement of purpose, or some clear goals. Maybe it has to do with smaller groups. Maybe it has to do with patience and listening, maybe it has to do with being more explicit and less allusive to avoid misunderstandings or confusions. I am not sure. Food for thought!

Happy New Year to you all, looking forward to more exchanges in 2009!

Tara Dickman – Humanity in Action