Challenges for Freedom of Belief & Freedom of Expression

Struggles in the Search for Peaceful and Harmonious Solutions

Freedom of expression is a human right, a universal requirement and freedom that all individuals should enjoy. As a requirement for membership in the European Union (EU) a country must respect human rights, as outlined in the Copenhagen Criteria (Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights). The same is true for non-EU countries who want to enter into trade agreements with EU countries.

In addition to human rights, the European Union also considers the rule of law to be of the utmost importance. In fact, it is one of the founding principles and fundamental values upon which the EU is based. The rule of law was implemented in order to established agreements and bring coherence into the European and national communities in order to protect citizens and create harmony in society.

Through our research, we have encountered many instances in which one or more European Union member states have distorted the rule of law in order to reach political interests. One of the most simple trends is the use of labeling, such as has been done in the examples used in the conference when the individuals were accused of being “terrorists.” Such labeling can discredit an individual or group instantly in our social media society where access to information is immediate and where anyone can express anything they want and disseminate it to millions. Therefore, when a state labels an individual or group as something dangerous or undesirable, it quickly becomes accepted and can permanently devastate the reputation and future of a person or group.

Our organization has observed this phenomenon in the use of, in particular, two words which immediately discredit new spiritual movements. The first is the use of the word ‘sect,’ which leads the general public to instantaneously disregard anything being said or done by the group which has been labeled as such. The second is the labeling of volunteer work as ‘human trafficking.’ This term has obvious legal consequences, if indeed true. However, due to the recurrent misinterpretation of volunteer work, which in fact is an integral part of a spiritual practice in many spiritual paths, including Christianity, it has become apparent that this is extensively damaging to the reputation of those accused. It is doubtful that members of the general public will do their research to understand whether or not these allegations are true, whether a person or group is labeled a terrorist, a sect, or perpetrators of human trafficking. The impact on the lives of those individuals suffering from such labels are far reaching, including, impacts on their mental health, financial stability, family relationships, etc.

The impact on society is an inability to exercise our fundamental rights, such as the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of conscience, thought and belief, without fearing public and legal scrutiny with serious consequences on all levels of our lives.

Other forums have also noticed this trend, and on Thursday June 29 2017, a conference titled “Europe, Fromthe Rule of Law to a State of Exception: Social Struggles and Freedom of Expression Under Attack,” addressing issues related to human rights and the rule of law in the EU, was held in the European Parliament in Brussels.

Among discussion of other abuses of the state carried out on European citizens by European Union member state authorities, multiple speakers discussed the limitation on freedom of speech and the “distortion of the rule of law, allowing police to shape criminal law,” as Eleonora Forenza (MEP for the European United Left/Nordic Green Left) stated.

A theme in the conference was the interpretation of unintentionally illegal actions as a form of terrorism. Italo Di Sabato from the Oppression Observatory made the point that the link between normalcy and emergency has become reversed so that criminalization of marginal sectors in society seems normal and natural. This is due to the fact that life in Western society is now based on a series of perpetual emergencies where terrorism is only the most tragic and extreme. However, the use of preventive measures—which was an instrument of repression in Italy during period of fascism, yet is still in the statute, although slightly altered—are being increasingly applied. This state of “emergency-ism” has become the normal way in which a government functions, and is actually regarded as the most effective and advanced method of contemporary governance. The problem with this is that in such a perpetual state of emergency, the fundamental rights of citizens are being repressed.

A young Spanish student, Cassandra, described her experience, having been arrested on April 30, 2016 in a police anti-tweet operation targeting individuals who had made tweets that were supposedly ‘encouraging terrorism.’ Cassandra had tweeted jokes referring to Luis Carrero Blanco, the last Prime Minister of the Franco Dictatorship—who had been assassinated in the 1970s—and was accused of humiliating victims of assassination. She was appointed a lawyer who was an admirer of Carrero Blanco. She was sentenced to one year in jail (which has been suspended), one year’s suspension of her political rights, now has a criminal record, is prohibited from standing for public office or working in the civil service for six years, can no longer apply for university bursaries, and has a criminal record so may no longer be able to be a teacher as she had wished. The use of anti-terrorism law in such a case, quite clearly illustrates the implications on the civil liberties we should be enjoying in the 21st century.

The need for proper education of lay citizens and the authorities, including rights and obligations with regards to the freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief, is becoming increasingly obvious. The consequences of the misinterpretation that appear due to an improper understanding a situation can lead to vast personal consequences for the individual or group whose rights proceed to be disenfranchised.