Freedom of Expression, in practical terms. A review of debates in 2015. In memoriam of Charlie and all others persecuted for their speech and attitude.

Rüdiger Wischenbart

Freedom of Expression, in practical terms.
A review of debates in 2015. In memoriam of Charlie and all others persecuted for their speech and attitude.


Throughout 2015, debates on the freedom of speech, and attitude, have shaped, as a polarizing force, like some restlessly flickering, and menacing neon sign projected onto the screens of media and public debate all over the world.

What converges in German in one single word, “Meinungsfreiheit” (or, in English, in the short phrase of “freedom of expression”), is formally well-founded in a complex hierarchy of legal standards at all levels, from a UN Charter, to the individual level, as a moral premises for one’s personal life. And yet, a choir of multiple dissonant voices gained ground last year, some urging to maintain the universality of the claim, while others either called for limiting its grounds, in order to juxtaposing the universal freedom to other practices, be they religious, or simply customary, or at least by emphasizing that the universal freedom of the word was simply impractical in today’s complicated world.

All these intricate movements run like under a magnifying glass together in a statement by Salman Rushdie, the writer who, by his pertinent experience, speaks from a fairly unique background of authority in that matter. He did, said Rushdie, not think that a book like his novel “The Satanic Verses” might get similar backing now, as was the case when it was originally published in 1988: “We’re in a difficult place [today], because there’s a lot of fear and nervousness around.” Interestingly, Rushdie made this statement not in 2015, but already three years earlier, in an interview with the BBC, in 2012.

The questioning of the freedom of speech, and of the attitudes of 2015, had a lead. However, for this essay, I am fairly disinterested in that history, and instead want to focus on the current practicalities of a controversy which, I presume, will keep haunting us in the months, and probably in the years, ahead.

For Rushdie, the argument condensed in a simple fact: Can a book appear? And, is there an immediate threat to its author, or its supporters (like publishers, critics, or translators), or not?

For all bystanders, the respective question reads: How do I stand by it?

In other words, I firmly believe that the challenges with regard to freedom of expression in 2015 are not so much philosophical, or religious, but very practical in nature.

The Saudi poet Ashraf Fayadh, a writer and also, for many years, an experienced mediator between the cultural worlds of his native Arab lands, and the West, had been convicted in 2008 for a volume of poems, “Instruction Within”, to four years in prison and 800 lashes with a whip, whose execution a person normally cannot survive, and that judgment has recently been exacerbated: Ashraf Fayadh has been sentenced by a Saudi Arabian court to death by decapitation. The 47 executions all across Saudi Arabia on January 1st, 2016, have given additional credibility to this threat.

Worldwide protests across Western countries were the result, often with photos portraying Ashraf Fayadh together with representatives of the most recognized European art institutions, with whom he has worked for many years together, as in the Biennale in Venice or at the Tate Modern in London. Very similarly, earlier last year, the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi had been convicted to 1000 lashes, and 10 years in prison. Badawi, from what we know, is currently on a hunger strike.

Saudi Arabia is such a comprehensive and exemplary case, more so, in my view, than for instance China, which, to a degree, and despite all objections to “the West”, aims at occupying a role with some consensual legitimacy in the global context of nations; though I admit that this is debatable. This contrasts to the Saudi government which has always understood, as a core to its international policy, to project the difference to a higher – namely: religious – ground of legitimacy when it decided to neither sign the UN Convention on Human Rights, nor join nor any other comparable agreement.

Nevertheless, at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2015, the International Publishers Association (IPA ) has voted to welcome the publishers’ associations of Saudi Arabia, and of China, as new members. By that move, IPA’s prestigious “Freedom to Publish Award” will accordingly be co-sponsored from now on, in addition to all the other members, by the publishers associations of those two countries.

The Saudi publishers’ association sent word that it was independent of its government’s decisions. The organization, however, refrained from announcing the newly won international membership on their Arabic website – that is to say, at least as long as the site was online, until early November 2015.

The IPA argues: “Commitment gives us a chance to support our colleagues whereas non-engagement brings nothing“.

Admittedly, it is an ambivalent case. I learn that the IPA is in fact actively lobbying with Saudi authorities in support of both Raif Badawi and Ashraf Fayad, which must not be underestimated, given the very few such channels of interaction that are still open. And IPA’s president, Richard Charkin, of UK Bloomesbury publishers, has recently protested loudly against the disappearance of Hong Kong based disappeared publishing professionals, as Chinese authorities are suspected of being involved.

Once again, the weird oddities could not be illustrated more lively than by the far echoes on the controversy around Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” in recent months. In early fall 2015, it was Saudi Arabia who had its ambassador to the Czech Republic issue a formal protest to the Czech government against a new Czech translation of the book – which was turned down by the government, and also ignored by the Czech publisher.

The invitation of Salman Rushdie, as a speaker, to the opening press conference of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2015 however resulted in Iran’s cancellation of its official participation at the exhibition. The gesture though did not meet any protest from the Saudis, who for some time incidentally lobby all major book fairs for some time now to be invited as a country of honor, and who before Frankfurt, already hoped for being embraced by the IPA.

So, most weirdly, the arch enemy governments of Shiite Iran, and Sunni-Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, who are ferociously engaged in their proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and in Yemen, find themselves united in that one and same camp of opposing a novel written by Salman Rushdie, and published, and read, time and again, by readers from around the world.


There are many good reasons why governments and international organizations should maintain the conversation between each other, in cases of conflict, or even warfare.

In return, there are also sound arguments, too, emphasizing why, and how, non-governmental organizations should be more selective in their attitude. And thirdly, there is always good ground for scrutiny in the case that governments intervene directly, as self-appointed judges, in cultural, or artistic, creation and expression.

Freedom of expression is not a liberal fancy at all. For those who get challenged in the event, the liberty of doing, and saying, what they choose is equal to the right guaranteeing their physical integrity. Either one cannot be relativized without the clear risk of a total loss. This is not an abstraction, but a very practical assessment.

In May 2015, just four months after the murders at Charlie Hebdo and at a Jewish grocery shop in Paris, the International PEN, the most important organization in defense of persecuted writers, had decided to award the editors of Charlie a “Freedom of Speech” price. Incidentally, six prominent writers and members of the PEN protested in advance against the decision, and announced to stay away from the ceremony, because Charlie Hebdo represented, in their view, a case of “cultural intolerance“.

Wolinski in Charlie Hebdo, no580, 23 Dec 1981

Wolinski in Charlie Hebdo, no580, 23 Dec 1981

From Salman Rushdie’s perspective, which I share, the direct consequence of such an assessment is equivalent to “The Satanic Verses” not having hardly a chance to be published today.

The PEN has fortunately not backed down, but awarded Charlie the price, similar to the Czech publisher who, unimpressed, released the new translation of Rushdie’s book.

The International Publishers Association, IPA, thus far, has no written guidelines in its statutes, defining who can be a member, and thereby acting as a co-sponsor to their prestigious “Freedom to Publish” award. The controversy surrounding the decision on accepting both Saudi Arabia and China as new members in 2015 has very much highlighted the importance of having such a statute.


Fortunately, decisions on those matters are not necessarily about life or death.

In German – and more broadly in European – newspapers, magazines and online forums, over the past year, the expected philosophical arguments have flourished, debating which fundamental concepts, principles, or morals must reign for European ‘values’ (this was the most common term for defining the battle ground) to prevail.

Frankly, I got deeply frustrated with the debate, and so for two reasons. First, and foremost, most of these discussions got quickly caught up in battles along pretty much sectarian, and abstract, ideological fault lines, so that by default, ‘values’ were taken as hostages to defend relative causes. For example, the murder of the Charlie editors (or the threat against Danish Mohamed caricaturists earlier on, or before that, Salman Rushdie, etc.), were reverse engineered, with the victims, and not the aggressors, being challenged to defend themselves why he or she had been aggressed in the first place. I clearly doubt it that this is a reasonable approach to organize the world of 8 billion humans on the planet.

The other, admittedly less pressing, concern was the attitude of the debaters who would brush off anyone not settling on either camp in their ideological turf wars. In my case, it did not do great harm, but simply resulted in my essay being refused, cannily, with the argument that everything had been said about the matter anyway already. Granted.

I want to return to my point: Freedom of expression is practical, and it is important as such. It is very much about stating: How do I stand by it?

In Poland – and that is, purposefully, a long shot from Saudi Arabia, or China – a new government has recently chosen a theater performance as a battle ground over values, the State, and Freedom of Expression, just a month after gaining power.

The theater of Wroclaw was rehearsing the play “The Death and the Maiden” by Nobel Laureate author Elfriede Jelinek, when the new Minister of Culture, and the Deputy Prime Minister intervened, days before the opening, calling for the suspension of the production, because of suspected “porn”, and “porn actors”, being involved in a stage show that had received public subsidies. For clarity, it must be said that hardly any municipal, provincial or state theaters in continental Europe, featuring a broad and diverse selection of plays and genres, can do their job without such public money.

The crucial point in our context, though, is not the critical intervention by the politicians per se, but their main argument. In a letter, explaining the cause, Adam A. Kwiatkowski, Director at the Financial Department Ministry of Culture, expressly stated that the call for an interdiction was not based on any breach of a Polish law, but for “breaking commonly accepted rules of social coexistence”. (“…łamiącej powszechnie przyjęte zasady współżycia społecznego.“, quoted in wPolityce )

This is the point: When any informal “commonly accepted rules” are gaining the upper hand over law and independent justice, we have lost the rule of the constitutional state.

The often vague, and opaque, debates of 2015 about Freedom of Expression, and whatever fluid and relative alternative norms, directly undermine the rule of law, and do so with a purpose. The legal norms that come here under attack have not been imposed, once and for all, by some outer worldly instance, but have evolved, over time, materializing in a broad consensus among the people concerned. Replacing that process by referring to some diffuse “commonly accepted rules of social coexistence”, is certainly no fit formula for the many diverse citizens to co-exist in today’s complex societies.

© by ruediger  (at) 2016

Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get notified about new reports, blogposts and events