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.

In 2018 we are celebrating the 70-year-anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, which was motivated by the hope that the atrocities of World War II should never happen again. The Declaration represents a universal recognition that basic rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to all human beings. Although many things have changed positively in the last 70 years, fundamental rights are still denied to human beings on a daily basis.

One central right of the UDHR is enshrined in Article 19, the right to freedom of opinion and expression. It is a fundamental human right to express your opinions, ideas or any information you may possess without the interference of others. Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of any functioning democracy as it enables the public to make responsible, educated choices rather than misinformed and ill-judged ones. It can most effectively be exercised within the means of a free press but also encompasses the rights of writers, authors, artists or simple citizens to freely express their thoughts and tell their stories.

However, freedom of expression all over the world is being limited, suppressed or curtailed.

It is not just political criticism and democracy that is silenced when freedom of expression is restricted. The ability to access information allows us to become more educated, open-minded and responsible. It enables us to understand more about the world and the political, social and cultural influences that shape our everyday decisions and we need to do everything to preserve this important right for us and everyone else on a daily basis.

A particular interesting aspect of the right to freedom of expression is the freedom of artistic expression and creativity. The vitality of artistic creativity is necessary for the development of vibrant and plural cultures. Even the United Nations dedicated a specific report on the topic, written by the UN-Special Rapporteur in the fields of cultural rights (A/HRC/23/34), which addresses laws and regulations restricting artistic freedoms as well as economic and financial issues significantly impacting on such freedoms. The underlying motivations for such restrictions are most often political, religious, cultural or moral, or lie in economic interests, or are a combination of those. Artists – in the words of the Special Rapporteur – “have proven their ability to bring counterweights to existing power centres in many countries and inspire millions of people to discuss, reflect and mobilise”.

However, artists all over the world are being censored in their work, silenced by many means, from harassment to imprisonment, from blunt censorship to accusations of blasphemy. In some societies the censorship is more subtle, for example when public funding for culture or support for independent cultural institutions are being cut by the government, which leaves artists without economic income and often leads to devastating self-censorship.

At the same time we have to admit to ourselves, that very provocative and controversial art and performances often put our commitment to freedom of (artistic) expression to the limit. Questions are being raised of why not let the majority's morality and taste define a framework within which art should be consumed by the public?

Everyone of us has to answer this question for him/herself, but we should not forget the basic underlying idea of freedom, for which our founding fathers (and mothers) have fought for centuries and in many places in the world are still fighting for: a free society, in which we all want to live, is based on the principle that each and every individual has the right to decide which information, opinion, or artistic expression he or she wants – or does not want – to receive, enjoy or create. Once you allow censorship, in particular in the artistic world, you give up not only the freedom of the concerned artist but in the end a part of the freedom of yourself.

We honored this special freedom through the German-speaking literature festival Zeitgeist, organized jointly with the Goethe-Institut Washington and Embassy of Switzerland, for which three outstanding authors – Meral Kureyshi from Switzerland, Philipp Winkler from Germany and Nava Ebrahimi from Austria – have been invited to present their books in DC, dealing with multiculturalism, migration and xenophobia. 

More information about the event on March 21, 2018 is available here.