Archive for May, 2011

A short talk for World Press Freedom Day celebrated at ExPPACT (Ex-Political Prisoners’ Advocacy, Counselling and Training) given Mae Sot, Thailand, May 1, 2011


The defense of genuine freedom of speech is one of the most critical issues in the world right now. It will decide a lot of things about our collective future. It also faces a lot of challenges. Everyone knows the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo is still behind bars despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and that his colleague the artist Ai Wei Wei has disappeared; that the great U Gambira still languishes in a Burmese prison; that writers like Arundhati Roy in India receive regular death-threats for trying to expose government injustice; that Thai intellectuals, just this last week, are spuriously charged with insulting the Thai king; and that journalists all through the war-zones of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are lucky to find the truth, let alone free to report it. Last month in Tibet a Buddhist monk performed self-immolation in protest against Chinese abuse: the only way, he doubtless felt, to have his voice truly heard. I’ve been talking about China, and other Asian countries, but press freedom also has a hard time in so-called open Western societies. Everyone also knows about the investigative journalists and rights workers in Russia, who sixty years after Stalin, are assassinated at the hands of political or ideological hit-men. But the problem is also much closer to home. The courageous but perhaps slightly crazy Australian whistle-blower Julian Assange is someone who with Wikileaks has challenged American neo-imperial self-interest in a way that changes the rules of the game for good. Whether or not you agree with Assange’s shock-tactics is your own decision, but few could deny that he deserves the full protection of the law, and certainly in the U.S. the First Amendment, before being demonised as a ‘criminal’ as even the Australian Prime Minister did of him as soon as the Pentagon whispered something in her ear. No-one knows yet precisely how Assange and Wikileaks should be judged and that’s how it should be. Freedom of speech, including freedom of the press, also implies that we are each free to come to our own informed opinion given all the facts we have at our disposal. I’m not suggesting it’s an easy task to find the right level of responsibility towards different stakeholders, as a writer or a reader. But the bottom line is that the more true accounts of an event we have, the more informed we are. That is what Wikileaks seeks to do and in presenting previously withheld facts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Assange has done us all a great service. What really justifies Wikileaks’ guerilla tactics? The fact that these are our nations’ wars, we started them and now we have the right and responsibility for intelligently understanding them. The same thing can be said for the recent exposure of Guantanamo detainee documents. It often seems that freedom of speech is endangered, and I think that’s true, but Wikileaks, among many others, also proves that the defenders of press freedom are alive and well and ready to expose abuses of power; and that millions of journalists and concerned citizens stand behind them. But is it just by chance that Assange is currently also behind bars? Somehow I don’t think so. The long dark tunnel towards extradition has already begun for him, and he’s probably forfeited a real degree of freedom for the rest of his life, even if the U.S. Justice Department loses its case against him, as it probably will. Orwell once said that some of us are ‘more equal than others’, and it seems that in the U.S.A. as elsewhere, some are ‘more free to be free’ than others. But who has the right or power to decide who that is? No-one should have that right, or else everyone should. We know, of course, that genuine media freedom doesn’t really exist in Burma. Recently Burma was classified as the 2nd worst country in the world for Internet freedom, though recently President Thein Sein has promised more relaxed direct government censorship of print media. I’m not really qualified to talk about free speech in Burma, in front of men and women who have sacrificed so much for their beautiful country. But when I was there, in November last year during the so-called election, I did realize one thing I’ve never felt anywhere else. For more than a week during the election, Internet access where I was was completely shut down. I realized that at any moment, if they chose, the military could roll the tanks in, put up wire barriers and lines of troops, and there would be nothing me or anyone else could do. But what was almost worse was that it might prove pretty difficult, even impossible, to tell the rest of the world about it. For a moment I felt a fear I’d never known before. I could have been deaf or mute, completely locked in. That’s how it is for many in Burma and the world today, in their prison cells, or even in the privacy of their own homes: they can’t talk to us, or not easily, and tell us the truth. Or not until it’s sometimes too late. Think about this: were the passengers on the 9/11 planes, or the Twin Towers workers, any more free when they could phone their families and loved ones from cell-phones before the Towers went down? Perhaps it made all the difference to them to tell people how much they loved them, a radical freedom inside a certain hell. And in fact that is what Liu Xiaobo said, from his Chinese prison-cell. His Nobel Prize address was a love-letter to his wife; one of the most moving and original messages to come from any prison anywhere. I think all prisoners of conscience are really sending love-letters, sometimes in silence and sometimes in words, to those whose freedom they are trying to safeguard. Today we should recognize those who keep the value of free and transparent communication literally alive for the rest of us. They keep not only hope but the future itself alive. And the evidence is there: look at Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. They already prove there are no guarantees, but they also prove that hope dies last or not at all. The Burmese regime may be the next to fall, however long it takes. And it will be because of great defenders of the truth, like you here at EXPPACT, that freedom may be at hand. And for that we honour you.

(Originally published on the ExPPACT sites: http://exppact.org/?p=538http://borderlinereport.blogspot.com/2011/05/world-press-freedom-day-2011.html)

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