Authoritarian governments often argue that too much freedom of speech compromises security and stability. RFE/RL asks Dunja Mijatovic, the representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), how she answers the charge. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel conducted the interview.
RFE/RL: In many authoritarian countries, governments argue that if you want security and economic development, you must minimize divisiveness in a society. That means control the press and limit free speech so they do not become disruptive forces. How do you answer that argument?
Dunja Mijatovic: I would never challenge the need for economic development for any country. I would also never challenge the legitimate right of any government to make our societies safer and more secure. I would also never judge the legitimate right of any government to fight terrorism, human trafficking, child abuse, and all these threats that we have in our societies, unfortunately. But not at the expense of free speech, because I think it is wrong and simply misleading to say that we need to curb free speech and that we need to silence differing and critical voices, provocative voices, satirical voices, in order to make our societies develop and be secure.
There is no security in any society if people are not able to freely express themselves and if there is no free flow of information, and at the same time, I do not think that we can freely express ourselves and value our very important human rights if we do not live in a safe and secure society. So how to marry these two, how to make them something that is intertwined and interconnected [is the challenge]. On so many occasions I hear government officials and civil society talking in two different directions, that we need security and, on the other side, we need freedom. Until these two come together I do not think we will succeed anywhere.
RFE/RL: Things get complicated, of course, when the subject of free speech turns to individuals or groups seeking to abuse their rights in order to incite hate or violence. There it becomes difficult to draw a line that both protects freedom of speech and protects a society from those who want to wage war on their fellow citizens. Can a correct balance be found between hate speech and freedom of speech?
Mijatovic: Very difficult. On so many occasions, I realize that many things that are considered hate speech in the part of the world where I come from, the Balkans, in some countries, like in Scandinavia, people would not pay any attention to it. So, how to find a right balance is a very difficult question. But what I always say is that no matter how offensive and provocative speech can be, this is a matter for the courts to deal with and not the governments. That is why I think that any quasijudicial agencies or ministries should not be stopping any kind of offensive speech, it should be something that the courts should be dealing with based on international documents, based on procedures, and the European Court of Human Rights is a very good example. Unfortunately, we do not have this in other parts of the world, but we have different sorts of models.
This is something that each and every country has to deal with, because it very much depends on the culture, tradition, and sensitivities of the societies. But also on so many occasions what I see is that these so-called sensitivities and painful topics, if I can put it this way, are again used to silence critical voices.
RFE/RL: Things also get complicated when one talks about art. This month, Azerbaijani author Akram Aylisli has been the target of protests and book burnings for writing a novel which casts regional rival Armenia in a sympathetic light. The government endorsed the protests by stripping him of his honorary title as "People's Writer" and revoking a special pension he had received. Does a government have the right to step in, ostensibly to defend national interests, when those interests are examined by a creative artist?
Mijatovic: I really do not know about the Azerbaijani author, I did not read the book, and also in my role I cannot judge the content of any book. But what I did was I intervened with the Azerbaijani government and I asked them to provide full safety to the writer and his family because I firmly believe that in anything to do with offensive, critical, or provocative speech -- and no matter how much we might dislike this kind of speech -- the response of violence and threats should never be the answer.
RFE/RL: As the OSCE's representative for freedom of the media, you spend a lot of your professional time on the kinds of questions we are discussing here. How did you personally become so interested in these issues?
Mijatovic: I don't think I would be able to perform this job without this experience, the unfortunate experience that I had in my own country [of Bosnia-Herzegovina]. But this is something that helps me a lot to understand certain sensitivities in certain societies and also, at the same time, I think I can recognize when there are tricks used to say "we are different, we need more time," in order to restrict some people in their critical thinking so that others can stay in power.