As I prepared my notes in my hotel room some hours before the conference on the freedom of expression in Copenhagen, I was thinking of what I should tell the Danish about freedom of speech. Should I just share my experiences and the horrible consequences of our fight in “non-democratic” countries like Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Tunisia, which would be easy for them to understand — or should I be honest instead, and question just how much freedom there is in Europe? Are the Danish ready to listen and to share my skepticism?
Expecting a small gathering in a quiet city like Copenhagen, I was convinced that the audience would not welcome an examination of the actual degree of freedom of expression in Europe. But I had it all wrong. It was not a small gathering in the end, but an important one, and afterwards, Copenhagen would not be quiet anymore. In the end, it is clear that the audience completely understood why I so often pointed to the fact that today, total freedom of expression is only an illusion, even in supposedly democratic countries.
The very first time I heard the term “freedom of expression” was during the so-called “Orange Revolution” that occurred in Ukraine in 2004: relatively late, given that I was already a teenager at the time, but the notion was simply never mentioned to me beforehand. This was a very important period for Ukraine; people started believing in a democratic regime, and ideas like the “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” that might seem very basic in Western Europe were celebrated and defended on every street corner.
Yet this “europhoria” would not last long, and our hopes rapidly faded. Very quickly, our incredible expectations for a drastic social change were replaced by the constant feeling of deception, reflected during the 2010 elections that resulted in the inauguration of a dictator, Yanukovich. As this happened, I was working as a journalist, naïvely thinking that I practiced my freedom of expression through my profession. However, I soon learned this was not the case: we were allowed to talk about freedom of expression, but certainly not to practice it. Criticizing the government, the power of oligarchs or the profound ties between the church and political power was totally forbidden. This is why I became an activist so quickly. Journalism kept me from exercising my freedom of speech, and as an activist with FEMEN I was arrested, received threats every day, was regularly beaten up and was even tortured in Belarus.
I had to flee my own country for having exercised my freedom of expression.
Yet if all that seems understandable for you, it is because in your minds, the countries I speak of have never been stable or even democratic, and they are so often associated with political violence and corruption.
You probably think, innocently, that the situation is different where you live, and many of you will object if I declare that to think we fully benefit from the freedom of expression in Europe is, most of the time, only an illusion: an illusion, and nothing more.
When we talk about the freedom of expression, there will always be a point of view that says “yes, we are all for freedom of expression, but…” Why do we continue adding this “but”? …
And then my words were drowned out by the sound of an automatic rifle. When I heard the murderous sound of gunshots just beyond the door of the free speech debate in Copenhagen, I hid under the stage in the seconds that followed. The audience hid desperately under tables and other places, some stayed frozen in their chairs, probably unable to admit what was happening. When the emergency exit was opened, we started running outside while the gunfire was still ringing out.
Later, after the evacuation, a young woman came to see me at the police station and told me, “Thank you for everything. I’m so proud to be with you now in this fight. Today I realized just how much this fight is necessary, even here.”
Yes, this fight is necessary. And especially in this moment, we need to share our ideas forcefully, without hesitation and without any “but.” Today, with the sound of gunfire that continues sounding around me and the death threats I constantly receive, I realize that starting now, it’s them or us. I live in fear, but what I fear most is surrendering to those driven by dogmas and whose only response to a different opinion is to point a gun at their opponent. We must win this fight. Why? Because we are right. We do not need guns to prove we are right; our ideas are powerful enough. The idea of total freedom of speech respects the interests of all: whether you are religious or not, left-wing or right-wing, you are welcome to express your ideas — but be prepared that others are also going to express theirs.
What we need today is not just to condemn terrorist violence, but also to take on responsibility and to recognize our mistakes. Not defending our ideals of freedom today would be a crime. We must not fall into the trap of self-censorship and create restrictions for ourselves so as to avoid “offending someone’s beliefs.” If you believe that freedom of expression should not offend anyone, this is because you do not believe in the freedom of expression I am talking about here. For instance, many individuals are offended by the fact that gay people have the same rights as they do. Using precisely this argument, the Russian Federation adopted homophobic legislature outlawing “gay propaganda.” Thus, I believe that the act of demanding that we “not offend someone’s beliefs” only ends in restricting the freedom of others.
Yes, there are limits to freedom of expression, and they are found where someone physically hurts another, or when we call on others to physically attack other individuals. This is where crime begins and the celebration of freedom of speech ends. As for the rest, there should be no reason to not laugh, talk or cry about this most precious right, our freedom of expression. Remaining silent, failing to express this idea of freedom that you believe in — even inadvertently– automatically places those who have the courage to express themselves in danger. This is how people like the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and many others became targets. They became much too visible amidst those who prefer not to publish certain drawings, not to express themselves, not to write, not to protest.
For this reason, governments must not attempt to stop or outlaw, under the pretext of security, events on freedom of expression or blasphemy, drawings, protests, books, and so on, because otherwise we fall into the hands of the terrorists — we give up. We should instead obtain more protection and more visibility for these events.
Even if you do not personally agree with me, or you remain skeptical, let me assure you, having experienced coming within an inch of being killed for what you think and for what you do allows you to realize to what extent fear has never been a solution, how it has never saved anyone’s life.
I call upon all defenders of freedom to join the ideological battle; now is the time to set pluralism against dogma; drawings, books and peaceful protests against guns; secularism against religious dominance.
Let’s make our voices heard over the sound of their bullets!
Let’s win this battle.