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Photo: Hellebardius / flickr.com (by-nc-nd)
The Speaker's Corner in London in 1975. Still today the place is UK's symbol for free speech. Anything is allowed, except for calling for a revolution or insulting the Royal Family.

the myth of the European right to freedom of expression

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." George Orwell

Last month Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the annual ceremony in Oslo, but he was not there to collect it. After co-authoring "Charter 08", which called for democratic reforms in China, Liu Xiaobo has become one of the most prominent victims of an attack on free speech in recent years. The case has attracted worldwide attention, with political leaders and NGOs calling for Liu's release. When a court upheld the original sentence in February, EU delegate Simon Sharpe said, "The EU calls on the Chinese government unconditionally to release Mr Liu and to end the harassment and detention of other signatories of Charter 08". On the 10th of December, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reiterated the call for his release, and the Council of the EU issued a further declaration to the same effect on the 14th of December.

Nothing unusual there – promoting human rights in countries beyond our borders seems an admirable aim. But how can European authorities expect this message to be taken seriously when they continue to ignore freedom of expression violations taking place on their own soil? These civil rights of freedom of expression are under serious threat in some European countries. It is a myth that Europe is a continent of free speech.

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Photo: Brad Crittenden / flickr.com (by-nc)
This is the impression Europe would like to maintain about itself.

The European Parliament doesn't dare to intervene

Paris-based campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its annual World Press Freedom Index in October: over half the EU's member states are outside the top 20, with some significantly lower entries – such as Romania in 52nd place and Greece and Bulgaria tied at 70th. A number of Western European countries also rank surprisingly low; the media in France (44th) and Italy (49th) suffer from "major interference" from political leaders. Silvio Berlusconi, for example, controls roughly 80% of free Italian television channels. Despite having denounced the conflict between the Italian prime minister's political position and his media interests in 2004, the European Parliament dismissed this as a national issue last year, when it rejected a resolution criticising the lack of media freedom in Italy.

The Nordic engines of freedom

The shining exceptions - Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland - share the number one spot this year, described as "engines of press freedom", and other countries from northern Europe appear in the top 10. But even some of these nations have experienced threats to freedom of expression recently. Murder attempts against artists Kurt Westergaard (Denmark) and Lars Vilks (Sweden) for their controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed are a good example, and RSF suggests that cases like these encourage self-censorship.

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Photo: Tom Taylor / flickr.com (by)
However, this is what the human rights organisations claim. Recent developments in Hungary might support it.

Beyond EU borders, the situation is even gloomier

Outside the EU, geographical Europe fares much worse. Ukraine (131st) and Turkey (138th) have fallen to "historically low" rankings, and despite a rise of 13 places, Russia remains in the worst 25 per cent of countries at 140th — lower than Zimbabwe. Earlier this year, American human rights organisation Freedom House described the current state of political rights in non-Baltic former Soviet states as "now comparable to that of the Middle East and North Africa".

Worst of all is Belarus, ranked 154th out of 178 countries. The shocking threats to the safety and freedom of media workers there were brought into sharp focus by the death of journalist Oleg Bebenin in September, who was found hanged in his home just hours before he was due to meet a delegate from UK-based free speech group Index on Censorship. Belarusian authorities dismissed the death as suicide.

Problems in the UK and other western European countries

In the UK, where the press doesn't have to face such dangers, defamation laws – penalising threats to one's reputation – are the biggest threat to freedom of expression. Freedom House describes 'libel tourism', where foreign cases are brought to the UK to take advantage of British libel laws – which presume that the derogatory statements in question are false – as a "menace to intellectual inquiry", making it difficult for academics to criticise fellow scholars' ideas, for instance.

There continues to be both a fearful response towards criticism of religion and an aggressive response towards the displays of religiosity.

Another problem for the UK and other western European countries is tension created by the expression of religious beliefs. France and Belgium's decision to ban the wearing of full face veils has been denounced by human rights organisation Article 19 as "incompatible" with those states' obligations regarding freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censorship, believes that Europe's "freedom of expression has suffered" from the fallout of 9/11: "There continues to be both a fearful response towards criticism of religion and an aggressive response towards the displays of religiosity", she says.

So as the gap between 'free' and 'not free' countries in international rankings continues to widen, Europe must act now to ensure its legislative commitment to freedom of expression is translated into real progress for all of its members. This is not only important for Europeans themselves. It is also vital if we want to strengthen the positive influence we can have over those countries which are violating human rights in other parts of the world.

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