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When Two Freedoms Collide

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When Two Freedoms Collide

07.05.2010

The recent celebration of World Press Freedom Day reminds us once again about how often this freedom is violated. And this is true not only in countries where tyranny reigns, but in countries that have signed the European Convention on Human Rights but that nonetheless do not pay much attention to Article 10 on an individual’s right to express his opinion.

This issue is accompanied by another problem, when the freedom to express oneself comes into confrontation with another freedom – freedom of religion, and the right of an confession to demand due respect. Sometimes these demands are accompanied by threats, threats which are sometimes carried out. Such actions are mostly in the realm of Islamic fundamentalist, but followers of other confessions can also be temperamental when they believe their rights of this nature are impeded upon.

In the immediate aftermath of the scandalous cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, the aftershocks of which continue to resonate today, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe tried to reconcile these two freedoms, adopting the resolution on Freedom of Expression and Respect of Religious Beliefs. In essence the document states that freedom of expression “should not be further restricted to meet increasing sensitivities of certain religious groups. Such restriction would violate the European Convention on Human Rights. But at the same time and to no less extent, the expressions of animosity toward any religious community also contradict the convention. This is further complicated by the fact that the level of sensitivity toward criticism of religion varies throughout European countries.

So is this a dead end? Not according to the resolution: it can be resolved through public and professional debates. Such debates should be held in national parliaments and also within religious communities. Inter-confessional dialog can also play a role. Such a dialog will help develop common rules for tolerance in a democratic society. And, finally, journalists, for whom freedom of expression is their breadwinner, should not only discuss these problems but also create self-regulating mechanisms that would raise the level of responsibility for public expression. Most importantly, the representatives of these various groups and communities should not get bogged down in the dialog, the success of which is dependent on their multifaceted nature.

PACE also adopted another related resolution on Threats to the Lives and Freedom of Expression of Journalists. This resolution addresses the dangers faced by journalists from religious fanatics. However, the document’s authors strived to maintain objectivity. The third paragraph states that journalists have the right to question religious dogmas and practices, only state in the next paragraph that “to make democracy meaningful, freedom of expression and freedom of religion should go hand in hand.”

Both documents unconditionally confirm the right to human life while at the same time admitting that freedom of religion is no less important than freedom of expression, and that they should not be in conflict. Furthermore, recommendations are given on how to accomplish this. But now several years have passed and no progress has been made.

Writing in honor of World Press Freedom Day, Council of Europe General Secretary Thorbj

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