Ismail Serageldin


To Speak and To Hear: Two Sides of the Same Coin

 04/06/2009 | Remarks Delivered at the Seminar: “Access to Information in a Hybrid Age”, Beacon for Freedom of Expression, Oslo, Norway




Ladies and gentlemen,


Thank you for this invitation to speak at this important seminar, and to share a few reflections on “The Importance of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information”, topics that are close to my heart and which loom large in my mind.



Importance of Freedom of expression


Allow me at the outset to put my cards on the table:  I am a totally committed supporter of freedom of expression even when it is difficult, perhaps especially when it is difficult.


Like Jefferson, I have “sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”… Without free speech no search for truth is possible, no discovery of truth is useful, and no progress is possible. 


Freedom of expression requires that we protect abusive and obnoxious speech, because it is precisely that speech that requires protection.  Acceptable speech requires no protection, precisely because it is acceptable to the majority.


It is the contrarian view that is the birthplace of innovation, of change and of progress. For progress is all about change and innovation, it is not about stability and the status quo.

Not every obnoxious talk leads to progress, but we cannot tell which unusual idea, which seditious thought will be tomorrow’s accepted truth and enshrined right..after all, all that we take for granted, was once deemed extremely objectionable.


Just reflect:


·         Rejecting the divine right and absolute power of kings

·         Legitimacy of government comes from the consent of the governed

·         The people have the right to elect their own rulers

·         All are created equal

·         Gender equality

·         The right of people to self determination (an end to colonialism)

·         The rights of women

·         The rights of minorities, whether ethnic or religious

·         The right to freedom of religion

·         The rights of non-conformists




·         That all these are human rights, not something to be given or denied by the ruler, rights that people possess by virtue of being human…


All of these ideas were once considered seditious and treasonous.


So, not knowing where the next big step in the progress of human civilization will come from, we open our ears, our minds and our hearts to the new, the unusual and the contrarian..


We promote pluralism, not dogma

We critique, we do not accept uncritically

We question and we debate, and over time we will separate the wheat from the chaff. We will separate the worthwhile from the misguided in all the new ideas and new voices that we hear..


But we cannot do that if we close ourselves from the contrarian view, or simply suppress the views of those who would challenge the accepted and the known.


To my compatriots and co-religionists, I say listen to the voice of Ibn Al Nafis, from the 13th century, in the midst of the obscurantism and bigotry of that distant past, listen to his modern voice on accepting the contrarian view subject only to the test of rationality and evidence:


“When hearing something unusual, do not preemptively reject it, for that would be folly.  Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies.  Truth is truth unto itself, not because [many] people say it is.” 


--- Ibn Al-Nafis, (1213-1288 A.D.) Sharh’ Ma’na Al Qanun.


Limits on freedom of expression?


Yet there are boundaries to our freedoms that are set when they impact negatively on the rights of others.    The UDHR has recognized some of these aspects and its own statements can be seen to require judgment in enforcing freedom of expression.  Thus note in article 7:



Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.


Incitement is a form of expression.  How do we curb that without getting onto the slippery slope of curtailing all dissent and all troubling and contrarian speech?


It is a difficult region to navigate.  Legislation can play a role in changing attitudes: thus segregation in America was ended by legislation.  As Martin Luther King Jr. said about civil rights legislation:


“Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.  Judicial decrees may not change the heart but they can restrain the heartless.”



And the fruits of King’s efforts came to pass with the election of Barack Obama, who realized the dream that King had spoken of in his memorable 1963 speech, when he said:


“…I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they are judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin!”


Or consider this statement in article 12:


Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.


How do you criticize corrupt public officials without attacking their honor or reputation?  Unfortunately, the attacks may also be misplaced and against innocent people.   Laws of libel and slander protect against that in old fashioned media, but internet attacks are virtually immune from these laws by easily disguising the authors. 


Or take the following from article 29 (b):


Article 29 (2).

In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.


How do we protect free speech, when it may well be seen by the majority of the population as something that undermines the “just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society”?


It requires judgment.  As Justice Holmes memorably said:


“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic”.


[Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841–1935), U.S. jurist. Supreme Court opinion. Schenk v. United States, Baer v. United States, 249 U.S. 52 (1919)].


But legislating against free speech is always dangerous.  Worse, in some countries and contexts, lawsuits have been used to harass those who hold dissenting or contrarian views.


My friends,


It is clear that this is partially contextual and partially time and space specific.  Thus The Last Judgment of Michelangelo was deemed obscene by the church leaders of his time and others were commissioned to paint over the genitalia of the nudes in that masterful fresco in the Sistine Chapel.   Today, everyone, including all the Catholic Church hierarchy, recognize it as a masterpiece of western art, exalting Christianity.  The once shocking has become not only accepted, but much honored.


And societies need to hear the dissenting voices, the contrarian views, the new ideas, the new findings in research.   Censorship tries to deny the public access to these dissenting voices, to these new ideas, to these contrarian views, to these unsettling findings.  The public does not necessarily want to hear, much less to act on unsettling or disturbing findings, as was brilliantly exposed by Ibsen in his Enemy of the State.


Thus, troublingly, censorship can be, and is frequently supported by the majority of the population, and therefore many would criticize my position as being undemocratic on insisting on the right of freedom of expression, and as we shall see for freedom of access…  But I remind them that democracy must be more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.  Democracy is as much about protecting the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority, as it is to seek the consent of the majority on actions to take.


Censorship denies the right of that innovative or dissenting minority.  Censorship does this either by directly silencing the dissenting or innovative voice, or more recently, and insidiously, by denying the public the right to hear that voice, by denying access to large segments of society to the fruits of that voice.  That is the heart of my topic today.


Where is the audience?


Freedom of expression is meaningless without the right if the audience to receive my expression

Access to knowledge is as important as freedom of expression; they are two sides of the same coin.


Conscious of this aspect, Article 19 of the UDHR states:


Article 19.

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 reality of our world is more subtle than the heavy handed government bans or imprisonment of dissident writers and voices, although that certainly still happens.


There is social intimidation by the self appointed brigades of the thought police… they exist in every society, whether they are of the religious, nationalistic or atheistic variety.   Dogmatists, who are convinced that they know better, that only the way they think is acceptable and who would deprive others of their right to hear differing and discordant voices..  They try to achieve this by either silencing the author or scaring away the public.  People are chased away from political meetings, they are intimidated from attending artistic performances, they are challenged from publish in a work, they are banned from showing their films except in remote and inaccessible places and so on…


Then there is the denial of access by cultural, political or economic barriers:


Cultural, by denying translation into other languages of particular works;

Political, by foreclosing the entry of particular products into a political territory; and

Economic, by leaving the material available, but at a price that few can afford in the vast bulk of humanity that lives in poverty and squalor.


Surely, the most insidious of these is the economic.  For it is far more subtle.  Protected under the guise of IPR, it keeps the material available but unattainable.


Traditional obstacles: money and power


The traditional obstacles of money and power limited access to the old media of printing, radio and TV.


There is a difference between someone speaking freely at a public park to a few passersby, and someone speaking on national radio or television to an audience of millions.


There is a difference between someone handing out photocopied tracts in the street, and someone whose work is published in newspapers with huge circulation, or in books with a whole publishing and distribution system behind it.


Technology to the rescue:


Some of us had hoped that technology would help us resolve that.  The Internet has indeed helped a lot... but still far too much material, necessary material, is locked away.


We are seduced by the emergent power of the Internet bloggers, and their so far victorious march against the efforts at censorship.  Where one is silenced, dozens will take his or her place.  But that is not absolutely true.  Censorship can have a chilling effect. One prosecuted case can result in a dozen others self-censoring themselves.  The loser is free expression, and when that is curtailed, all of society is diminished.


In this new hybrid age, the age of Facebook and You-tube, the users are also content providers.  Yes that is fine for certain forms of expression, but not necessarily as far as useful scientific information and tools of research are concerned.




Old barriers in new forms:


Traditional obstacles of money and power remain in new guise:  they are not barriers to entry but barriers to usage of the most important materials.  Let me mention some examples: licensing fees, book prices, inputs in research


Books whose prices are astronomical for the poor students in the south… and yet that we cannot scan and digitize and make available because publishers will not allow it, even if authors would welcome it.


Journals whose subscription rates are many multiples of the monthly salaries of the educated in the developing world. research tools and technologies where the license fees exceed by far the budgets of all but the most well endowed of the institutions of the south


Databases, that are treated as commercial property not as reference material for scientists the world over.  Thank god that the scientific community refused to allow the human genome data to be privatized, and it remains in the public domain.


But with the private sector funding approximately two thirds of global research, and with their eagerness to recoup their investments through a tight IPR regime, much of the inputs into scientific research are proprietary.  You cannot use a probe or a reagent in biological analysis that is not proprietary. The same is true of data bases.  The prohibitive costs of accessing them are putting a real barrier on the ability of the poorest countries to use them in their research.


True we have access to use that material for the so called research exemption.  It can be used, without too much difficulty, as long as there is no useful result, for example to teach or to lecture or to write a paper.  But if the result is deemed useful, i.e. patentable, then there is no automatic licensing, and IPR must be negotiated for every input used in the research.  That is simply prohibitive and takes far too long for society in the deprived areas of the world to benefit.


Counter moves:


But many are responding to the challenge of access in this hybrid world in which we live.  They are developing open source systems.  Scientific leaders have created PLOS.  The USNAS makes its material available for free for those who are located in the developing countries. 


People like myself are not only arguing vehemently to make all information available to all people at all times, we are actively involved in major projects that will make this a reality: from the internet archive to the WDL, from the million book project to the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL).


It is time to recognize that IPR needs an overhaul.  The authors and innovators must be rewarded, the consumers of knowledge must be served.  But the servers, publishers, libraries and museums, must not be allowed to hijack the authors creation and claim perpetual property over it.  All of that is another long discussion, of legal and technical aspects that I will be happy to go into another time.


Suffice to say that the new technologies offer us enormous opportunities to think in fresh and innovative ways.  New business models must be promulgated.  For myself I favor one where people can consult for free, but download for a price.  That and many other business models need to be elaborated in this new era of the internet age, where bits and bytes and the flight of an electron can determine fortunes and move mountains.





Ladies and gentlemen,


Let us dedicate ourselves to ensure not just the rights of free speech, but the rights of audiences to have access to that speech.  Knowledge is the lifeblood of societies.  Access to knowledge and the constant exchange of it ensures that society lives.  Deprived of it, society dies.    The flow of knowledge keeps the body politic healthy; it allows for vigorous growth and above all ensures that every part of that body is served fully and correctly.


Knowledge is the only thing that you can give freely and still retain, making the person receiving the knowledge richer, without yourself, the giver, being any poorer for it.


Let us all contribute to establishing a new world, where boundaries disappear, and where young citizens of the world can reach out and build a community across the political, geographic and economic divides, celebrating their common humanity and rejoicing in their diversity.  A community where each is accepted for their ideas and their ways of expressing them, unaffected by their race, sex, or the god they choose to worship.


It can be done.  It must be done.  It will be done.


Thank you.

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