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The fate of imprisoned editor Eynulla Fatullayev is a matter of grave concern. He has been jailed for three years on dubious charges by the Azerbaijani authorities. He is an award-winning journalist who was just doing his job. The European Court of Human Rights decided last month that he should be released immediately.
The court decision said Azerbaijan had violated three articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including article 10 concerning the right to freedom of expression. Azerbaijan signed the convention in January 2001, and ratified it in April 2002. As a signatory, Azerbaijan is legally bound to comply with these rulings. Nothing more needs to be said.
The fate of artist Lars Vilks and cartoonist Kurt Westergaard also concerns me. They have both received death threats. Westergaard barely escaped an attempt on his life. They are both under threat from Islamists for their caricatures of Muhammad and of Islam. They are not in prison, but the threat of violence will make their life a prison.
As secretary-general of the Council of Europe, I strongly believe that freedom of expression is fundamental to our values, and something that all 47 member states must always defend, with neither compromise nor apology.
As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, we see that freedom of expression is threatened not just in Europe but around the world. Google left the Chinese market because of censorship concerns. An episode of the popular American comedy programme South Park was censored after Islamists threatened the show's creators for their depiction of the prophet Muhammad.
In 2010 we mark 60 years of the European convention on human rights. Article 10 of the convention guarantees freedom of speech and expression – not as an absolute right, but as a fundamental right, which needs to be weighed against other rights and carries with it certain responsibilities.
However, we cannot afford to interpret article 10 in a manner that undermines the very fabric of our society. Freedom of speech and expression protects freedom in Europe. It is the very essence of our European identity. Our liberal and secular cultures demand discussion of differences. Freedom of speech and expression is the means by which we are able to integrate the different cultures, traditions, religions and beliefs into a common European home. We cannot allow incitement to violence and hatred, but I vigorously defend both the right to criticise governments, political leaders, religions, their myths and their ideas, as much as the right of people to protest – peacefully – against such free expression, whether in articles, television programmes, art or cartoons.
The fate of our democracy is at stake if we make compromises on freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression there is no freedom at all. World Press Freedom Day is the day to remember that. And to do something about it.