December 10th is celebrated as International Human Rights Day. That's because on this day in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – UDHR, was adopted by the United Nations.
Happy Birthday UDHR!
The UDHR is a landmark document which proclaims that fundamental human rights are to be universally guaranteed to all people. In Article 19, it also provides for the protection of freedom of speech and free media. I recently contributed to the #Article19ForAll social action, organized by Deutsche Welle, Germany's public broadcaster.
I did this because I have always been a fervent believer in the right to free speech.
And why is it so important? It's obvious isn't it?
This right allows us to express ourselves. To express our opinions and views by whatever means – through writing, print, photos, music, dancing, poetry, cartoons, films, shouting or even...conspicuous silence.... To express opinions that are popular but also those that buck the trend. The non-conformist, provocative or even shocking ones.
All of this is protected.
It is a right to find and demand information from the state and other powerful institutions. The right to demand justice. The right to protest. The right to create, to innovate or to collaborate. The right to speak truth to power!
The great threats to free speech in this time and age really do worry me, and from so many sides. There are so many governments that resort to restriction and censorship, especially online. There are so many governments in cahoots with tech companies which use elaborate surveillance systems to spy on our communications and what we do online. This state and / or corporate surveillance is just wrong and I never understand why more of us are not up in arms about it. Sadly, journalists and activists, especially those working on environmental issues, get killed, prosecuted or are imprisoned for simply speaking out. They are threatened and harassed.
Julian Assange, founder and publisher of WikiLeaks, is my Number One hero of free speech. WikiLeaks has published information about so many wrongdoings, so much corruption, countless war crimes and have brought transparency to so many illegal practices. Guilty governments hate being exposed and in turn twist the truth and pretend that what has come to light is against their national security or state interest... Of course we know it's against their true state interests. They conveniently omit that all the information WikiLeaks has published actually belongs to the people and that in fact the state merely holds the information on behalf of and for the people.
There is simply no justification for secrecy.
These publications have had immense impact. They have changed many peoples' views of governments. They have changed many peoples' lives. They have even changed the way media publish and the way journalism works [for the better] and what it means for and how to protect sources in digital the age.
And so because of this work, several governments are after Julian and WikiLeaks, especially the USA. Julian has faced many smear campaigns and even death threats. He has been arbitrarily detained according to the United Nations since December 2010. This year, his freedom and ability to communicate with the outside world was restricted even more when he was cut off from the world for six months. And to top it off the Democratic National Committee started a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against WikiLeaks simply for publishing their emails and exposing their problematic practices during the presidential primaries.
However especially worrisome are the recent revelations in the US. This November, US prosecutors confirmed something that WikiLeaks and others have been saying for almost a decade; that Julian has been secretly charged in the US by violating the US Espionage Act, which bizarrely criminalizes releasing information about US war crimes.
What Julian and WikiLeaks have had to endure is the biggest attack on free speech and constitutional rights in years and that's just the beginning. Just wait: after WikiLeaks they will aim for other publishers like the NY Times, the Post....the list is endless.
Many international organizations have supported Julian and WikiLeaks and have called for their rights to be protected, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and more than 50 other freedom of expression organizations in the IFEX (International Freedom of Expression) network.
But this is not enough. Simply more must be done to free Julian and to protect free speech...and this will protect freedom for us all.
On this 70th anniversary of the UDHR, on this day of Human Rights, on this day so close to Christmas when we should be thinking of others, I ask you all to spare a thought to the importance of free speech and appreciate those who fight for it...those who fight for us... those like Julian Assange and WikiLeaks!