Ahead of WEXFO, attendees gathered on the island Utøya, the site of the terrible terrorist attack in 2011. The site is now a centre for ‘facilitates political engagement, debate and participation’.
The Conference proper opened on Monday 22nd with a focus on the situation in Iran featuring a video address from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. The following panel presented the reality inside Iran and how freedom of speech is stifled. They then tried to imagine a democratic Iran and how to get there.
Staffan Lindberg, Professor and Director V-Dem Institute, University of Gøteborg, delivered a compelling presentation of the frightening loss of democracy in the past decades around the world, and how that is related to the loss of freedom of expression, from V-Dem Institute’s latest comprehensive and authoritative Democracy Report.
From this cold but necessary analysis-by-numbers the room was silenced and shocked as Oleksandra Matviichuck — human rights lawyer and Head of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties — presented individual case after individual case of the atrocities being experienced by people in Ukraine. She lamented the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of these crimes and the inability of the international human rights system to stop the barbarity. She closed with a heartfelt plea for action.
IPA Vice President, Gvantsa Jobava participated in the panel entitled ‘Silenced and Marginalised?’ and spoke of the need to make sure that protesters against government suppression are heard by the outside world. In Georgia, the government tries to silence opposing words, but the protesters are adamant that the government no longer speaks for them and their determination to be attached to the values and structures of the EU.
The spectrum of Islamic positions was illustrated by the discussion between Imam Seyran Ateş and Mohamad Usman Rana. Ateş is a lawyer and Muslim feminist who set up the only liberal mosque in Germany where men and women can pray together and which welcomes LGBTQI people. Ateş is the target of three fatwas and said that it is only because of German police protection that she can continue. Wearing a ‘Liebe ist Halal’ badge, she called Turkish President Recep Erdoǧan a terrorist. Rana, by contrast, acknowledged a tradition of criticism within Islam but said that freedom of expression might be a core value but it is not absolute.
The day closed with a gala dinner which featured the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire ceremony. The moving ceremony saw missing Iraqi publisher Mazin Lateef Ali announced as the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire laureate. The IPA also announced a Prix Voltaire Special Award for murdered Ukrainian author Volodymyr Vakulenko. Read more about the ceremony and the prize here.
Day 2 opened with two rounds of workshops. IPA organized one around how to tackle the challenge to the freedom to publish which featured a mix of presentations from different countries on challenges or initiatives to raise awareness of the importance of the freedom to publish. The participants then set about discussing practical ways publishers and their associations could work to achieve this.
After lunch, security was increased appreciably with the unannounced appearance of ‘surprise guest’ Christo Grozev, the lead Russia investigator for the international organization of independent researchers and citizen journalists, Bellingcat, who is on Moscow’s ‘wanted list’ for his investigative journalism. Grozev spoke about the successes that open-source investigation in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Renowned Indian writer, Pankaj Mishra, sent a video message in which he denounced the double standards in Western media which denounces atrocities by non-Western governments while remaining silent about the West’s rich history of brutality.
Discussions then turned to the Middle East. Rasha Al Ameer, co-founder of Dar Al Jadeed, the 2021 IPA Prix Voltaire laureate, joined Burhan Sönmez, President of PEN International and Karam Nachar, Syrian journalist, academic and co-founder of Al-Jumhuriya, an award-winning independent media platform. They looked at the situation in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria but also further afield. Sönmez was in a combative mood. Al Ameer summed up the atmosphere: The world is bleeding but we have to have faith and work towards making it better, happier.
The diminutive Irene Khan filled the stage for her session and, despite her 16 hour trip to Lillehammer, her energy remained undimmed. Freedom of expression is not a luxury for good times she stressed. Those of us who have the voice must use it against the suppression of expression.