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European Commissioner responsible for Justice, Freedom and
Annual meeting of IFEX (International Freedom of Expression
Let me start by putting one thing beyond any possible doubt: the freedom of press, of expression and speech, including the right to critique, constitutes one of they key pillars upon which the EU is founded and is non-negotiable. As Commissioner responsible for the respect for and promotion of fundamental rights and freedoms I have from the very beginning of the unfortunate “Danish cartoons”-issue underlined that position, and stressed at the same time that I do not have the legal powers nor the political intention to limit this fundamental right in any manner whatsoever.
From the very outset I have also made it crystal clear to all that violence, intimidation, and the calls for boycotts or for restraints on the freedom of the press are completely unacceptable to me and the European Commission, nor will they bring about a constructive discussion between communities. Indeed, no dialogue is possible with those who would threaten fundamental human rights, nor with those who would resort to terror. We have to make that very clear today, when groups of violent people, with the tolerance of some undemocratic states, continue attacking embassies and consulates of EU and its Members States, burning flags, attacking Christian churches and Christian people.
So we must defend freedom even when that means letting those we disagree with have their say. Indeed a difference of opinion, even if it is bitter and disrespectful, often feeds into free polemic debate, in which satire plays a full part. We often discuss matters, sometimes passionately or even rudely, not only in our Parliaments or in the press, but in all manner of public arenas. This is the rule now, replacing armed and violent conflict, using words and ideas to create a society bound by the rule of law. Freedom of expression must be defended, possibly most of all when ideas shock or disturb.
Just as Europe respects freedom of speech so it must, and does, respect freedom of religion. Religious freedom is a fundamental right of individuals and communities; it entails respect for the integrity of all religious convictions and all ways in which they are exercised. But we all should encourage a responsible exercise of the fundamental freedom of speech, and so to avoid offending gratuitously other religions.
Now where do we stand, as neither freedom of religion nor freedom of expression– forming part of European values and traditions – are negotiable? Like all freedoms, their preservation depends on responsible use by individuals. Governments or other public authorities do not prescribe or authorize the opinions expressed by individuals. Conversely, the opinions expressed by individuals engage these individuals, and only them. They do not engage a country, a people, a religion. Freedom of expression is the basis not only of the possibility to publish an opinion, but also to criticize it.
As European Commissioner responsible for integration policy as well as the promotion and respect of fundamental rights, integrating communities with different religions, cultures and political affiliations is at the hart of my strategy and an objective that I strive for in my everyday activities. Last September, in the Commission Communication on the prevention of violence and radicalisation and recruitment of terrorist (how to reconcile the pillar principle of freedom of expression with the need for eradicating the profound roots of violence) we confirmed that freedom of expression remains at the heart of the European strategy (a pillar) but we also pointed out the risk that some times the diffusion of some particular messages coming from terrorist organizations (terrorists threatening hostages) risk to inflame young people and to encourage them to commit criminal actions.
Following the publication of this Communication, I am in close contact with various representatives of the media, including the European Federation of Journalists, on this particular difficult question and on others issues linked to freedom of speech. I have offered to facilitate a dialogue between the media representatives and between them and faith leaders if that would be found useful by both parties.
Such a dialogue would aim at discussing a number of pertinent questions which we are confronted with nowadays. One of them being “How are we to reconcile freedom of expression and respect for each individual's deepest convictions?", a relevant question as formulated by many actors, including the International Federation of Journalists . It is a dialogue on such a question which I would be wiling to facilitate but again let me stress I will not impose such a role on any party if such a need would not be felt.
Let me be again as clear as possible to you here and now, There have never been, nor will there be any plans by the European Commission to have some sort of EU regulation, nor is there any legal basis for doing so.
During a meeting hosted by the International Federation of Journalists last week, 15 February 2006, at which media professionals discussed the publication in Denmark and elsewhere of cartoons in Europe and around the world, a statement was agreed which I very warmly welcome.
This statement states, amongst others, that “all media, on all sides, must act professionally in dealing with religious and cultural issues and rights of minorities, and should not do anything that would create unnecessary tension by promoting hatred or inciting violence”. This to me is exactly the kind of approach we need, the kind of, what many commentators over the last couple of weeks have called: “civic responsibility”.
In that context, I am happy to note the very professional, ethical and deontological responsible practice European journalists have been taking throughout those last 50 years.
The mentioned meeting also reiterated that it did not need “new supranational codes of conduct or other guidelines or new laws are needed. Existing voluntary codes, some of them in force for more than 50 years, serve journalism well.“. Indeed in my home country, Italy, for instance I know the CARTA DI TREVISO 1990 on children rights, signed by amongst others the Italian Federation of Journalists, has been an important tool in reporting about children and children’s issues. Another relevant example I find a charter agreed upon in Seville last year, the Seville Charter, 2005 and presented by COPEAM (Conference Permanente de l’Audiovisuel Mediterraneen).
This Seville Charter does not intend to lay down normative rules, limit the freedom of expression, or influence the editorial lines of the media. The signatory media intended to, as they stated: assert their willingness to privilege an open information that integrates the patrimony and specificity of the cultural heritage of each one, within a framework of respect, tolerance and dialogue; comply with the fundamental principles of professional ethics; guarantee a professional approach in dealing with current events, and to “ban, in full respect of the freedom of expression, all forms of discrimination and incitement to violence, intolerance as well as to racial and religious hatred”.
But journalists and media representing organisations are right; any deontological rules are the business of media and of media only. What we can do as Commission, what I can do as Commissioner, is to facilitate dialogues. The European Union and its Member States have for a long time promoted dialogue between different communities both within the EU and with neighbouring Muslim countries and Muslim countries in other parts of the world. And it is my strong conviction that we have the real chance to improve the Euro-Mediterranean dimension of interfaith dialogue, and at the same time to strengthen our initiatives aiming at fighting racism, xenophobia as well as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. I strongly wish that under the Austrian Presidency of the EU we will be able to make progress on the relevant legislative initiative already on the Council’s agenda for too long. We need both a strong EU stand against violence and extremism and in favour of mutual understanding and transparent dialogue.
But most importantly, it is not through laws or codes but through a vigorous but peaceful dialogue of opinions, under the protection of the freedom of expression, only that mutual understanding can be deepened and mutual respect can be built. I am fostering and will continue to foster dialogue between cultures and with religions. This dialogue must be based on tolerance, not prejudice, and on freedom of expression and religion and the values connected with them. Violence is the enemy of dialogue. We must not allow the minority of extremists to win. Let the best of our values win against the worst of prejudices.