The truth can be a powerful thing - Viet Khang.
Every day, we hear thousands of songs, but we never think about the songs that are silenced.
One evening, the Vietnamese musician Viet Khang turned on the TV and saw that there were huge demonstrations in his country’s capital. The demonstrations themselves were peaceful, but he was shocked when he saw that the police started beating and arresting the demonstrators.
This cannot be happening in my country, he thought.
As a musician, his first instinct was to write a song about how his country, the country he loves, was on the wrong path towards authoritarianism and violence. He put it up on YouTube, hoping that someone would listen. The police did, and after a few weeks they came knocking on his door. He was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of house arrest for making “anti-state propaganda”.
The story of Viet Khang is just one of hundreds of stories that from all over the world, where people are punished simply for speaking up – a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, also known as the freedom of speech.
The right to freedom of expression.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” – Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19.
This means that everyone has the right to hold their own opinions and communicate them to the world. It is not just about opinions; it guarantees free flow of information, meaning that people have the right to seek out and spread information and facts, no matter how much the government, companies or individuals would like for that information to remain hidden. This communication can be trough words, images, pictures and actions – including public demonstrations and protests.
A free and independent media, one that is not censored or controlled, is therefore a prerequisite for freedom of speech. It makes sure that the truth is accessible to the public, and gives a platform for people to express their opinions.
There are some limitations to freedom of speech – sometimes the expression of information and opinions can be harmful. The limitations can vary from country to country, but usually people are not allowed to:
- Encourage discrimination, hatred and violence towards a specific group (based on ethnicity, sexuality, religion etc.)
- Deliberately lying to harm the reputation of another person
- Revealing secrets that can risk national security, meaning information that can be used by criminals, terrorists or foreign nations to cause threats, violence or instability
There has always been, and always will be, debate on when it is justified to limit freedom of speech. Often, governments accuse critics they want to silence of posing a threat to national stability, which is what happened to Viet Khang.
No matter its limitations or controversies, freedom of speech is one of the most important rights we have. A fair, free and equal nation depends of a free exchange of ideas, and freedom of speech allows a dynamic society where people are empowered to do communicate new inventions and ideas for progress. To be free to speak up is also necessary to expose incompetence, corruption, and tyranny.
Freedom of expression under threat
Journalists, artists, writers, musicians and human rights activists all around the world are still being persecuted, censored, threatened, harassed, or even killed. There are currently 269 journalists in jail worldwide, and in 48 journalists were killed during 2016.
Sometimes, it is governments themselves that silence people, such the case of Viet Khang, but sometimes it is groups, organisations or networks doing the silencing; one example is Bangladesh, where 48 bloggers, writers, and journalists were murdered by extremist groups between 2013 and 2016.
This is not something that happens in faraway countries where authoritarianism is the norm: the latest report from Index on Censorship states that many arrests and attacks on journalists occurred in Greece, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey. Even in France and Italy – countries that are considered safe, modern and free – there were a combined 197 incidents of threats or violence against journalists in 2016.
What can you do?
Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a free and fair society, and yet it is an extremely vulnerable right that is increasingly being undermined and violated. So how can we protect it? The most important thing is to take advantage of the right we have and speak up about such violations – to use our voices to speak for those whose voices are silenced. There are many ways of doing this: we can raise awareness through social media, write to politicians, start or support campaigns or try to get the media to write about it.
A great source for inspiration is the Norwegian musician Moddi, who literally uses his voice to speak up about freedom of speech. He recorded a an entire album filled with songs that have been banned in their respective countries, making sure that those silenced songs are heard across the world. As a part of the project, he visited every one of the censored artists featured on his album, and their stories are available as a series of mini-documentaries on his website (www.unsongs.com).
This is a case in which an ordinary person makes an extraordinary act, using his resources and talent to speak up for those who have been silenced. Remember that no one are too small to make a change - use the power and the skills you have to speak for others.
Activity (11-18): The Limitation Game
- Pål Moddi Knutsen. Unsongs – The stories behind the songs.
- Index on Censorship (2016). Mapping Media Freedom.
- Amnesty international. http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/cases/turkmenistan-a-amanklychev-and-s-khadzhiev
- Amnesty international (2015). State of the world 2014/ 2015.