Soteria International's Perspective

Freedom of Expression & Religious Rights: Struggles & Challenges

Both the Danish Institute for Human Rights, in their Status Report for 2016-2017, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, who published his observations from a visit to Denmark in 2016 this March, have stated that freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, thought, and belief  are under pressure in Denmark. So there’s an argument to address both of these freedoms in the Danish context.

Let’s first establish a common understanding for the basis of what we’re discussing today. Firstly, human rights law protects the rights of everyone and is based on the principle of non-discrimination. The rights we have are interrelated and equally important, yet are legally implemented in different ways due to the principles of proportionality and the pursuit of a legitimate aim. Any interference with our protected rights must therefore be embedded in national law and be made public in order to protect citizens from inconsistent or unclear rulings.

Secondly, the freedoms we have are composed of both rights and responsibilities that are our obligation to uphold, promote, and encourage at all times. It is also the responsibility of individuals, groups, and associations to promote respect for and foster knowledge of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.

We would like to argue that the two rights we will speak about today, the Freedom of Conscience, thought, and belief and freedom of expression, go hand in hand and cannot be seen as independent and separate rights, but instead we can say that freedom of conscience is a form of freedom of expression and vice versa.

The right to Freedom of Expression states that: everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The right to Freedom of Belief stipulates that: everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Historically speaking, the right to freedom of speech was restricted in Denmark until 1849 when Danes were given the right to speak in an uncensored way, now against the king and the church. This did include certain limitations, which meant that an individual could express what they wanted, yet would bear the consequences if it was not within the responsibilities and obligations stipulated in the national law.

With respect to this angle, and the fact that we have both rights and obligations to uphold, of course we have the right to express ourselves, while others also have the right to express themselves. Yet respecting the rights of others is also an obligation that comes hand in hand with our own right to express ourselves and this includes the obligation to express informed opinions, and the obligation to consider the short and long term consequences for others when we express misinformation or incomplete truths. This is not to say that we must suppress our opinions, but that we are obliged to think and have informed opinions before we express ourselves.

Problems arise when members of society, or even institutions, do not recognize their responsibilities or the consequences of their perceived total freedom of expression. Social media and mass sharing of information has only really exploded in the last 10 years and this means that under the pre-tense of good morals and values we’ve given every individual the right to impart any opinion to an unlimited audience, which can create massive waves of uninformed people with harmful consequences for certain groups or individuals.

Because the current phenomenon of mass social connectedness is so young, we’re only just starting to see the consequences of people expressing opinions without thinking of the consequences for the lives of others. Not only do we not realize the immediate consequence of spreading misinformation, but also the long term consequences.

This is like giving children unlimited freedom without the underlying morals & values. Allowing them to go to bed when they want or eat as much candy as they want, while they don’t have the capacity to realize the consequences of abusing such freedoms. In the short term this may just be a belly ache or being tired and grouchy the next day after having been up all night, but in the long term this creates unhealthy and unproductive adults.

Such a lack of recognition of responsibility happens on all levels of society. For example, almost 1 year ago, a tweet posted by the Copenhagen police stated that (quote) “Some foreigners (gy…) want your pincode. This is now happening on Vesterbro where the thieves want to help you. Kindly refuse.” The police were criticized for using a derogatory term for the Roma people and they did apologize for discriminating against a vulnerable group based on ethnicity.

This isn’t an isolated phenomenon in Denmark, where, according to the national integration barometer, 43 percent of immigrants and descendants of immigrants of non-Western origin have experienced discrimination based on their ethnicity. The concept of “danishness” has been a topic of political and public debate, which has focused on whether or not an individual is automatically considered Danish if he/she is born in Denmark or whether they must prescribe to a particular value set and attitude in order to be considered as such.

The Fundamental Rights Agency has also published findings that discrimination, hatred, or violence against specific groups is seen in the media and political sphere. Especially concerning is the spread of false accusations in our era of social media. In 2015, for example, 60/198 cases of hate crime were religiously motivated, the majority of which were aimed at religious minorities.

So why is physical violence restricted in society, but not verbal violence? What gives me the right to say something hurtful? Freedom of Expression is not just a freedom, but also an obligation not to harm. This is universally accepted and understood in the field of medicine as observed in the hippocratic oath taken by doctors, where the golden rule is to ‘do no harm.’ Thus, we can apply this principle of  ‘do no harm’ to our verbal interactions with others. With respect to expression, this ideal necessitates a certain level of maturity from society, which is not necessarily the case in our present situation where there’s space for any expression without thought.

In schools, it is commonly agreed that we must prevent children from hurting one another verbally, as well as, physically. To stop bullying. Similarly, as adults, we do not have the right to slander, yet there is still a lot of misinformation that gets spread, which can have serious consequences for the life or lives of those involved. In Denmark, much of this rhetoric is based on issues of ethnicity or religion.

So we are at a historic moment where we can merge the freedom of conscience, thought, and belief and the freedom of expression, because currently, what appears as a conflict is in fact just a lower perspective of the issue.

In order to find the right solution we need to see the higher perspective, and as a society as a whole, we need to allocate more resources to facilitate the freedom of expression as a way to cultivate our own inner development. We must encourage all levels of society to speak from their heart and encourage a more eloquent and mature formulation of these questions of conscience, thought, and belief and how we relate to them.

By teaching and facilitating society to exercise both these freedoms in a mature way, we will move beyond this war-like situation that we’re in and realize that they aren’t just freedoms, but also an obligation as a human being to find our individual purpose, just as society must find its own direction. If we can merge these two rights then we can achieve positive growth with direction for all.