THE FREE EXPRESSION PROJECT
The Free Expression Project, formerly the Fund for Free Expression, works with the other divisions of Human Rights Watch to examine and investigate abuse to free expression rights throughout the world. This work takes the form of country reports_usually undertaken with Human Rights Watch regional divisions_and thematic reports which seek to stress the connection between freedom of expression and other global social problems. The project also sends protest letters and coordinates legal work and legislative testimony. In addition, the project administers grants to persecuted writers from the estates of American writers Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, and manages the work of two casework committees, the Committee for International Academic Freedom and Filmwatch.
In 1994, the project undertook two important initiatives to demonstrate that censorship is not the solution to problems of discrimination against women and racial minorities.
In February, a report was issued on the applications of the Canadian Supreme Court decision in R. v. Butler which adopted the view that sexually explicit material may degrade women and harm society. Inspired by U.S. anti-pornography activists Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, the ruling aimed to promote gender equality. Instead, the results show that it has been used to confiscate, prosecute, and destroy lesbian and gay publications.
The case originated in Winnepeg where Butler, the operator of an adult video store, was charged and convicted of selling obscene material. The Canadian Supreme Court review found that even though the Canadian Charter protects obscene material, obscenity can be subjected to a "reasonable limit" because of its potential to harm women.
Canadian customs agents have used the ruling to condemn consensual sex between gay men, prosecute a lesbian magazine, and delay delivery of feminist books, videos and journals. Several groups are challenging the constitutionality of Customs' censorship practices. The suit claims that the power of prior restraint violates the Canadian Charter's guarantee of free expression rights and that by targeting gay and lesbian materials Customs is violating the Charter guaranteed right to equality.
The Free Expression Project report demonstrates that censorship is not the answer. Canada's experience shows that laws that permit censorship of sexual expression, while ostensibly aimed at the serious harm caused by violence and discrimination against women, are likely to be directed against people who are already marginalized and discriminated against.
The report served two important purposes. First, because laws along the lines of the Butler decision are being seriously considered by many jurisdictions in the United States, it served to show how they can be applied in ways that are unintended by their sponsors. Second, it lent the support of Human Rights Watch to a broad array of Canadian civil liberties, writers and gay and lesbian activists and organizations who view the Butler decision and its aftermath as a leading threat to freedom of expression in their country.
In March, the Project filed a friend of the court brief supporting Danish journalist Jens Olaf Jersild's appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, asking the Court to reverse a Danish court's decision to convict Jersild of abetting dissemination of hate speech for airing a television interview with a youth gang of racist skinheads. The brief was cited during oral argument by both Jersild's counsel and members of the Court. The decision handed down in September found that "news reporting based on interviews ... constitutes one of the most important means whereby the press is able to play its vital role" in a democratic society. In a 12-7 decision, the Court concluded that Jersild's television program had no racist purpose and ordered his conviction overturned. The Jersild decision is a major free speech victory affirming the primacy of the European Convention on Human Rights over laws of member states.
In addition to these two initiatives, the project joined with Human Rights Watch/Americas to use the occasion of the Inter-American Press Association Hemisphere Conference on Freedom of Speech in Mexico City, to present a Human Rights Watch report on the persistence in the region of laws used to silence criticism and dissent. The report described three forms of censorship which have been codified in domestic law_desacato, defamation and anti-terrorism laws_and detailed their use in Argentina, Cuba and Chile. The report urged repeal of all desacato laws (which prohibit speech that insults, ridicules or offends the head of state or other national institutions); reform of defamation statues to place the burden of proof on the plaintiffs and require that public officials show that the defendant acted with reckless disregard for the truth; and restoration of due process rights including the right to a public trial, time restrictions on pretrial detention and a mechanism for challenging detention prior to trial. Largely due to Human Rights Watch efforts in Mexico City, the declaration issued by the Hemisphere Conference_since signed by a number of heads of state in the region_included a strong plank opposing penalties against the press for truthful reporting.
The Free Expression Project wrote letters protesting to the Indonesian government over the closing of three newsmagazines; expressing concern about confiscation of books in Suriname; on behalf of Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi writer who was in hiding and under death threat from Muslim fundamentalists; and for Saidi Sirjani, a prominent Iranian essayist who "disappeared."
Elsewhere in the Human Rights Watch World Report 1995 are accounts of other work by the Free Expression Project. In collaboration with Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, the project investigated and protested the Hungarian government's interference with personnel and programming at the state-run broadcast media. With Human Rights Watch/Middle East, it reported on government restrictions on freedom of the press in Egypt.
The United States section describes the Free Expression Project's follow-up coverage of repression of moderate voices in Miami's Cuban exile community, including the use of violence and intimidation to silence those who advocate dialogue with Castro; and project letters to the Treasury Department urging removal of U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba.
The Free Expression Project administers a program of annual grants to writers all around the world who are in financial need as a result of political persecution. First established in 1989, the program is funded by the estates of writers Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett who stipulated in their wills that their legacies should be used to help persecuted writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The grants are awarded every spring after nominations have been reviewed by a five-person selection committee composed of members of the Free Expression Project advisory committee. Throughout the year, the selection committee makes smaller grants to politically persecuted writers who need emergency funds to leave their countries, or for medical or legal aid.
In addition to offering financial assistance, the grants highlight individual cases, helping focus attention on repression and censorship around the world. In some instances, however, Human Rights Watch is asked to withhold the names of recipients because of the dangerous circumstances in which they and their families are living.
The 1994 Hellman-Hammett recipients, a diverse group of thirty journalists, novelists and poets from 17 countries, received grants totaling approximately $175,000. Among those whose cases can be safely publicized are: Dodojon Atovullo, a Tajikistani journalist who fled to Russia because paramilitary groups were stalking him for publishing an independent newsweekly; Hwang Suk-Young, a South Korean novelist who was convicted of espionage for accepting a fee from North Korea for the right to make a movie of one of his novels; William M. Mandel, an author of books on the Soviet Union who is still hampered by his 1953 refusal to name names to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee; Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi poet and novelist who fled to Sweden under death threat by fundamentalists who claim her feminist views are anti-Islam; Shahrunush Parsipur, an Iranian novelist whose books about the challenges women face in Iran have been unofficially banned since 1989; Nguyen Chi Thien, a dissident Vietnamese poet who spent the majority of his life in prison for writing poems critical of the communist regime; and Wu Xuecan, a Chinese journalist and essayist who was imprisoned for his role in the 1989 Democracy Movement and insists that he was wrongly convicted.
Ten emergency grants, averaging $2,000, were given to writers from China, Algeria, Croatia, Cuba, Sudan, and Turkey.
International Academic Freedom
The Committee for International Academic Freedom acts on behalf of professors, teachers and students around the world when they are harassed or imprisoned for exercising their rights of free expression and inquiry and when their work is censored or universities are closed for political reasons. The Committee sends cables and letters to appropriate government authorities and publicizes the cases of abuse in the U.S. academic community.
In 1994, the Committee wrote about situations in China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Peru. The letters protested the arrest, beating and removal from her job of a noted Chinese professor of ethics; urged the end of harassment to two professors for their efforts to help the victims of Tiananmen Square violence; inquired about the Ethiopian government's interference in academic affairs at Addis Ababa University and the detention without charge of the University's former president; protested the dismissal and harassment of Indonesian professors who were targeted for speaking out against the government; protested the arrest and detention of a Peruvian university economist for his advocacy of greater freedom for trade union activity.
The Committee is composed of twenty-three university presidents and scholars and co-chaired by Jonathan Fanton of the New School for Social Research, Hanna Holborn Gray of the University of Chicago, Vartan Gregorian of Brown University and Charles Young of the University of California at Los Angeles.