Conference on “Freedom of Expression: still a pre-condition for democracy”

Strasbourg , 

Check against delivery


Freedom of expression under attack


It is a pleasure to see so many of you here today.

Representatives from all Council of Europe member states…

…plus our observer states…

…plus Belarus…

…and our neighbours from south of the Mediterranean, too.


Thank you Almir.

Thank you Joshua, for being here to help run part of the day.

And thank you Mr Arslan: it is a pleasure to finally meet you.


For those of you who don’t know, Zühtü Arslan is the President of Turkey’s Constitutional Court.

It is a source of immense pride to many here at the Council of Europe that Turkey now has a Court…

…modelled on our own European Court of Human Rights …

…which gives all Turkish citizens the right to individual petition…

…and which is basing its judgment on the case law of the Strasbourg Court.


This development in Turkey has been a clear sign that…

…where there is political will, there is a way.


And while I’m on Turkey, let me say I’m sure I speak on behalf of everyone here when I send out our deep condolences to the victims of the recent terrorist attacks.


Friends, these are not easy times for freedom of expression.

It is under attack from many sides.

From extremists who wish to destroy democratic life.

From politicians who exploit the climate of fear that this creates.

From the business interests who control large parts of the media …

…and who are motivated more by their bottom line…

…than by the idealism of a more traditional journalism.

And, increasingly, from governments who may have the right intentions…

…but who are too quick to sacrifice free speech…

…in the name of national security.


We in Europe should know better about the need to protect free speech.

70 years ago our continent was torn apart by war;

War that was only made possible by the silencing of voices…

…and the mass production of lies.

Not 1000 years ago.

Not even 100 years ago.

Just 70.

And we must constantly protect the rights and freedoms…

…by which we turned a page on that dark past.


If Europe is not a place where you can be, think and say who you are and what you believe…

…free from violence and intimidation…

…then what is Europe for?  


It is time for all of us to come to the defence of freedom of expression.

And I want to set out four principles to guide our way.


First, we need to reframe this debate.

We must move away from the idea that our societies must choose between either more security or more liberty.

Because it is a false choice. 


We live in an age of democratic security.

Instability, uprising, tensions between our communities…

…these things follow when citizens are denied their voice;

When power cannot be scrutinized and kept in check;

When corruption is not exposed by free media;

When individuals and groups are gagged.


Reasoned debate.


Diverse and challenging viewpoints.

These are the lifeblood of societies which are plural, dynamic, evolving…

…and capable of living together peacefully too.


So, before anything, we must reject old assumptions:

Our hard-won freedoms make us more secure, not less.


And, trust me, if this choice is only ever presented as free speech or security…

…liberty will always lose.


Which brings me to my second principle: understanding the real dilemma:

When does exercising your legitimate right to express your views…

…even when they are deeply offensive…

…turn into inciting hatred or violence?


I used to say that freedom of expression has limits.

But I’ve realised these are the wrong words.

Once you are stigmatising and vilifying an entire group of people…

…feeding an anger and hatred towards them…

…which could cause any and all of them harm…

…this isn’t freedom of expression anymore.

It’s something else.

Something ugly.

It’s the hate speech that we, in democratic society, do not accept.


It wasn’t freedom of expression when the Nazi’s handed out cartoons of Jewish people on their knees …

…scrubbing the streets of Vienna, like slaves.


It wasn’t freedom of expression when supporters of the British National Party put up posters of the twin towers in flames…

…with the words ‘Islam out of Britain’. 


It wasn’t freedom of expression when Belgian politicians issued leaflets which said that the answer to voters’ immigration concerns…

…was ethnic ghettos and racial discrimination.


We must not shy away from drawing these distinctions.

As difficult as it can be, we must set the societal norms which shape behaviour.

What are we willing to accept…

…according to the values we share?


Therefore – principle number three – we must do this in the law…

…using the European Convention on Human Rights as our compass….And being guided by the case law of the Court.


Over the years the Court has developed a rich case law, navigating these difficult questions.

On the one hand, there are judgments which uphold our rights, as individuals, to “offend, shock or disturb”...

…a phrase made famous by the judgment in Handyside versus the UK…

…There are on the other hand judgements which uphold our rights to tolerance, social peace and non-discrimination too.

The Court establishes that the British National Party posters and the Belgian leaflets were not freedom of expression.. They were incitement to violence.

The Court sets clear tests for any restrictions on freedom of expression.

Are they consistent and predictable?

Are they based on a legitimate aim?

Are they necessary and proportionate in a democratic society?

And it consistently gives a higher level of protection to publications and speech…

…which contribute to social and political debate, criticism and information.


My message to all states is: use this as your guide.

As you take action to deal with threats to security…

…lean on the Convention, as interpreted by the Court.

It will help you create sound, effective and legitimate laws.


Finally, principle number four.

We need a strong and coordinated approach to defending freedom of expression on the internet:

It is the newest and most challenging frontier.

And governments must lead by example.


Mr Arslan will know all about this:

When the Turkish authorities put a blanket ban on Twitter earlier this year…

…citing security reasons…

…his Court declared it unconstitutional.

It was a welcome decision.

Such responses are disproportionate.

And they play directly into the hands of the terrorists who wish to hurt us…

…and destroy democratic life.


This has not just been an issue in Turkey.

On the contrary…

…we are seeing worrying attempts to block and filter Internet content in a number of states…

…in old democracies as well as new.


We are seeing increased surveillance powers for security services…

…in order to monitor personal emails and social networking.

Not only is this a problem for privacy…

…but it may have a chilling effect on free speech…

…deterring people from speaking to journalists, too.


And we are seeing all of this happen…

…with virtually no international co-ordination at all.


And my fear is that this is heading for a place that is messy, confused and bad for human rights.


So I urge you today, in your discussions, to think about how we can move forward together…

…in order to uphold human rights and the rule of law online.


To contribute to this, I have commissioned a comprehensive, pan-European evaluation…

…which will show us exactly what is going on across member states:

The trends and the common problems.

It will be conducted by the Swiss Institute of Comparative Law.

It will be published as early in 2016 as possible.

And it will form the basis, I hope, for joint action.


So, four principles.

Reject the false choice between liberty and security: we need both.

Decide where we, as democratic societies, draw the line between free speech and incitement to hatred and violence.

Base that decision in law – in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Make it our shared mission to defend freedom of expression online.


These are complex and serious challenges.

But I am sure your meeting today will be a very important contribution to meeting them.

I thank you again for being here.

I wish you all a very good conference.