Uzra Zeya, U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor recently addressed the Forum for the Future in Cairo, Egypt. This annual forum brings together governments, the private sector and civil society from the Broader Middle East and North Africa with G-8 states to work together on political, social, and economic reform.
After nine years, Ms. Zeya said the member states should be doing better to uphold the spirit of the Forum by emphasizing a meaningful role throughout the year for civil society and by protecting the rights of association, assembly, and expression at home. The meeting purported to affirm commitments to empower civil society, even as activists – including some in Egypt face criminal charges and intimidation for the peaceful exercise of their rights.
Criminalizing speech stifles the free flow of ideas and encourages self-censorship.
The spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rooted in collective humility and reflection following the carnage of conflict, and serves as a reminder that when governments suppress the rights of individuals and minorities, even when doing so is popular or done in the name of patriotism, they do not create greater stability and security. Syria is a tragic example of internal repression destabilizing a country and the region as a whole.
The United States, for its part, said Ms. Zeya, “will always defend peaceful exercise of free expression, which often includes views with which we disagree. Free expression is an indispensable foundation of our own democracy and pluralism. But we also believe that open and free speech encourages understanding, advances truth-seeking, and discredits and rebuts falsehoods.”
Criminalizing speech stifles the free flow of ideas and encourages self-censorship. Legal limitations are not the only threat to free expression. In some countries, journalists are arrested or intimidated for editorial views or censored by restrictive press laws. In others, journalists face threats from non-state actors for reporting the facts and bringing the truth to light.
The United States has committed to uphold the right to freedom of expression through its “Journalist Response Fund,” which provides training and emergency assistance to at-risk journalists to help them conduct their work as safely as possible.
Progress on freedom of expression in the Middle East will require the partnership of government and its citizens. “As you march forward down this path,” said Assistant Secretary Zeya, “we will stand with you in pursuit of a world that is more just, more free, and more peaceful.”