GLOBAL FORUM ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
LYDIA CACHO (Inaugural speech)
Last night while walking in front of the balcony where all Nobel Prize winners take their picture, I stepped on the phrase written by Henrik Johan Ibsen in his play “An enemy of the people” (En Folkefiende) “The minority is always right”. I had to smile and think “yes we are” but how on earth will we be able to let the rest of the world understand how powerful human rights are, how important freedom of expression is. That is why we are here, to develop new tools to confront the powers that be, who consistently deny people all over the world their right to know the truth, to write about it, and to read about it.
When I was tortured and imprisoned for publishing the story of a network of politicians, organized crime in child pornography and sex tourism, I was confronted with the enduring question: Should I keep going? Should I continue to practice journalism in a country controlled by 300 powerful corrupted rich men? Was there any point to demanding justice or freedom in a country where 9 out of every 10 crimes are never solved? Was it worth risking my life for my principles? Of course the answer was… yes. Thousands of men and women from Africa, from the Arab countries, to South America and Asia, are saying yes, it is worth it, and for that we will endure imprisonment, torture an even death. Not because we are heroes, but because we believe in our own rights and therefore we defend the rights of others.
You all have the statistics of how many writers and journalists are in prisons all over the world, we know how many were assassinated last month, last week. You all send urgent actions that in many cases –like mine- have stopped an assassination, or freed an incarcerated colleague. Some of us work towards new public policies, and that is how, in many countries defamation charges can no longer silence journalists or writers. We do know we are on the right path. But there are some actors missing in this discussion: the media managers and media owners. They do have their own associations; they invite some of us to be a part of their international meetings, the same way someone brings a Cirque du soleil ballerina to entertain them.
Media executives are in their offices, frantic to serve unforgiving shareholders, and begging investors not to cancel publicity due to the economic meltdown. So, apparently, they have no time for a conversation about the role of the press in a free society; of course no time either to protect reporters. They consider that discourse a luxury. They are busy creating risk free products for the masses, either because a Venezuelan president told them to do so in order to keep their media going, or because Bush decided you are pro-terrorist if you give voice to the “enemy”, or because the Zimbawean dictator will assassinate them, or the Mexican mafias will kill their reporters until self censorship rules.
Justice in many countries is like a deaf and blind dog, it won’t come if you call her, it won’t see you if you are right on her face, sometimes her sense of smell will bring her to you, but you can never be sure it will not attack you as if you where the enemy.
Every time they kidnap or assassinate a journalist in Mexico, we call for justice even though we know it will never arrive. When they imprison a Chinese writer we call for justice, and it does not come (Without a doubt the urgent actions save lives, and free one in every ten prisoners so you must not stop)
But time has come to partner with media executives, to help them understand if they do not protect freedom of speech they will lose their importance, and if they lose their importance, they lose power and publicity, and if they do, they lose money.
At the same time we must unite with those NGO´s demanding different media content; change the supply by supporting ethical television programming, civilly engaged newspapers and websites, community radios and alternative newspapers and magazines.
And for mainstream media maybe giving them an annual qualification on how they take care –or not- of their reporters, will be a good start, if they play the game of public recognition, let’s give them some.
The challenge is to realize this is a global issue, there is no way to understand the war against Irak if we do not listen to Iraqi writers poets and journalists, we cannot see the real tragedy in Afghanistan and Pakistan without the local voices; to understand violence in Mexico we need to listen to our narcocorridos and to local reporters.
As journalists and writers every day we try to enlarge our ability to listen, to understand, to feel empathy, to question, to be truthful, to be ethical. By listening to peoples’ stories we learn ways to add insight and perspective to our coverage of human tragedy and human development.
And also we test our ability to stay alive.
We do understand the macro structures of oppression. We know how the political system works to protect the rights of the elites, at the expense of the majority. And when the mechanisms of state repression are used against us, we need your protection. You must never forget the importance of saving one single person.
Yesterday our fellow journalist and poet from China JIANG WEIPING who spent 6 years in prison, shared with us a story: one day while incarcerated he was listening to a small fm radio when someone mentioned his name, demanding for his freedom. Jiang started to run in his cell as a happy child, someone outside had remembered him, he existed again in the outer world because another person claimed his right to freedom.
In a world so fragile and haunted by demagogy, confusion, fanaticism and war prone politicians; we journalists tend to believe that the ideas provoked by reading our stories cannot fail to unite people of good will. That is one of the reasons we keep going against all odds. We know the power of compassion and the possibility of transformation.
They say a pessimist is a well informed optimist, and that is why we gathered here in Oslo, not only because -as Ibsen said- we are right, But because deep inside, as a friend from Senegal wrote, there is an echo in our hearts of the Yoruba say:
“A lie may journey for twenty years;
soon Truth will break its spell in one day”. We all dream to be alive to see that day… Meanwhile let´s celebrate life and dance to the power of solidarity.