Protesterer mot overgrep i Minsk

En av opposisjonens presidentkandidater, den kjente hviterussiske poeten Vladimir Neklyaev – tidligere leder for Hviterussisk PEN og den hviterussiske forfatterforeningen, er et av offrene for myndighetenes overgrep.  I en egen appell til president Lukashenko, sier Polsk PEN blant annet:

We are appealing to the Belarus authorities for the immediate release of the poet and for securing that he receives the necessary medical care. We are appealing for a stop to the brutal repressions against opposition activists and supporters as well as journalists and for guaranteeing adherence to civil liberties, in accordance with the ideals expressed in the International PEN Card which says: “P.E.N. stands for principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and among all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppresion of freedom of expression in their country or their community. P.E.N. declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world toward a more highly organized political and economic order renders free criticism of goverments, administrations and institutions imperative”.

Les hele brevet fra organisasjonene på denne lenken.

Fellesuttalelse om angrep på demonstranter i Minsk

27 March 2008
President Mr. Alyaksandr Lukashenka
220016, ul. Karla Marxa 38, Minsk
Fax: +375 172 26 06 10 / +375 172 22 38 72

The General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Belarus
Mr Miklashevich P.P.
220050 Internacionalnaja 22, Minsk
Tel. +375 17 2264360
+375 17 2264360

The Ministry for Internal Affairs
Mr Naimov, V.V
220050 ul. Gorodskoi Val. 4, Minsk

The Human Rights House Foundation, the Rafto Foundation, Norwegian PEN, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and The Norwegian Union of Journalist condemn the arrests and brutal attacks by riot police of peaceful demonstrators in Minsk. Andrej Liankevich, photojournalist of Nasha Niva was brutally beaten and arrested by riot police on 25 March. We especially condemn the arrests of journalists covering the event, and the ongoing harassment of independent media and individual journalists.

On 25 March thousands of Belarusians came to take part in a peaceful demonstration in Minsk dedicated to the 90th anniversary of Belarusian Democratic Republic. The riot police used brutal force against the peaceful participants. More than 100 were detained. Among them were correspondents from Lithuania and citizens from Poland and Ukraine.

The photojournalist Andrej Liankevich´s case was submitted to the judge Alena Lapceva of the Zavadskoj district, Minsk. The trial started March 26, but case was returned to the Police Office (Savecki RUUS) by the judge “for completion the case with documents stating accusations” on March 27. Another journalist of Nasha Niva Sjamen Pechanko was arrested and sentenced to 15 days arrest by the Court of Maskouski City District, Minsk. They were both charged with violating the order of organizing and holding mass events (Art. 23.24 Code of the administrative offences).

The journalists were detained despite the fact that they were covering the rally. We regret that Belarusian state authorities do not recognize the role and the rights of journalists, who report from ongoing events in Belarus. We condemn the practice of the Belarusian judiciary, which do not acquit journalists, when it obvious that there is no legal basis for the cases.

After the demonstration on 25 March, 75 administrative cases were brought to court against the participants. According to the police reports, they were charged with violating the order of organizing and holding mass events, by participating in a demonstration, not authorized by Minsk authorities. As a result of the trials, 26 people were sentenced to short jail terms of 5-15 days, over 50 people were fined. 20 people were traumatized with different types of injuries caused by police violence. Activists Andrei Babitski, Zmister Dashkevich, Artur Finkevich and Mikita Shutsiankou were all severely beaten. Even an under age girl, Alena Makarevich,was severaly beaten in the Partyzanski police department.
We are very concerned to learn that today, 27 March, KGB started a countrywide search in the offices and apartments of independent mass media and their journalists. The searches are taking place in the apartments of the journalists Eduard Mielnikau, Anatol Hatochyts (Homiek), Alena Stsiapanava, (Vitsiebsk), Tamara Shchapiotkina (Biaroza), Hienadz Sudnik (Mahileu) as well as in the editorial office of Radio Racyja in Minsk.

The KGB representatives are presenting search orders, signed by legal investigators from Minsk City Public Prosecutor’s Office. According to the Belarusian Association of Media, it is stated in the orders that the searches are carried out with regards to breaches of article 367 of Belarus’ Criminal Code (“Libel in Relation to the President of Belarus”). This action shows that the Belarusian state does not accept the existence of independent media and civil society and we consider this a grave violation of article 19 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We fully support the efforts of the Belarusian Association of Journalists protecting journalists and defending the freedom of expression.

·    We urge Belarusian authorities to stop the current harassment of Belarusian media outlets and journalists.
·    We ask the Belarusian authorities to immediately release all citizens arrested during the peaceful demonstration.
·    We also urge the Belarusian authorities to start an independent investigation of the human rights violations and abuses of the police related to the Independence Day 25 of March 2008.


Maria Dahle
Executive Director
Human Rights House

Therese Jebsen
Executive Director
Rafto Foundation

Carl Morten Iversen
Secretary General
Norwegian PEN

Bjørn Engesland
Secretary General
Norwegian Helsinki Committee

Kjetil Haanes
Vice President
Norwegian Union of Journalists

Copies sent to:
Council of Europe, Strasbourg
OSCE office, Minsk
ODIHR, Warsaw
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway
Steering Committee on Foreign Affairs, Norwegian Parliament

Fellesappell til Støre etter arrestasjoner i Minsk

23rd of March 2006

Utenriksminister Jonas Gahr Støre

The Human Rights House Foundation, Norwegian PEN and the Norwegian Journalists Association (NJ), condemn the beating and arrests of peaceful demonstrators and journalists that have taken place over the last days in Belarus. Riot police and people in civilian clothes have blocked access to the Oktiabrskaja (October) Square in Minsk, detaining those who bring food and clothes to the protesters.

From 20 and 22nd of March 250 people were arrested on their way to or from the October Square, among them Andrej Dynko, Editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva. Dynko was arrested on 21 March on his way to the main square in Minsk, where opposition supporters continued to gather. Dynko was taken to the Savietski District Court of Minsk 22 March and sentenced 10 days of administrative arrest for “a minor act of hooliganism.” A free-lance correspondent from “Polonia” Radio Station also got 10 days. Human rights defender Aleh Zlutko was also among the detained and was sentenced to 15 days´ imprisonment. The judges of Frunzenski District Court of Minsk sentenced a Ukrainian correspondent also to 15 days´. The student leader Tatsiana Khoma and a lawyer for NGO Assembly Yurij Chavusau received 10 days´ imprisonment. Unidentified civilians beat and robbed a reporter for the Czech daily ´Mlada Fronta Dnes´ as he was covering the rally in Minsk Sunday 19 March, the Associated Press reported.

In addition Siarzhuk Sierabro, a photographer for the independent newspaper the“Vitsiebski Courier” appeared before the Kastrychnitski District Court Wednesday 22 March. Sierabro was arrested together with 15 demonstrators in the center of Vitsiebsk.

According to local and international press reports, the authorities arrested three Belarusian editors without explanation before the elections on 18 March, and barred at least four Russian journalists from covering the vote itself. The detained are Sergei Nerovny, editor of the newspaper Volny Gorod in Krichev, Mogilevsk region, Andrei Shantarovich, editor of the newspaper Mestnaya Gazeta in Volkovysk, Grodnensk region, and Ivan Roman, reporter for the Internet version of the newspaper Solidarnost, in the capital, Minsk.

The Human Rights House Foundation, Norwegian PEN and the Norwegian Union of Journalists consider the Belarusian authorities’ crackdown on national and international press unacceptable and a violation of the freedom of expression declared in Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The behaviour of the police is also in violation of the Belarusian media legislation. We consider the reported treatment of the peaceful demonstrators unacceptable and a violation of international human rights standards.

According to OSCE the presidential election violated international standards. We urge the Norwegian government to express its concerns, not only to the Belarusian authorities but also to the Council of Europe and OSCE. In addition we urge the Norwegian authorities to raise the issue of unlawful arrests with Russian PM. Jonas Gahr Støre promised in Dagens Næringsliv 20 March that the Norwegian authorities will discuss the election in Belarus with
Mikhail Fradkov when he visits Norway next week. We call on the Norwegian government to appeal to the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs to release all political activists and journalists immediately and unconditionally and to provide full details about those detained.

We also call on the Norwegian government to support the 15 March statement of the UN Special Rapporteur on situation of human rights in Belarus, Adrian Severin, in which he strongly condemns the escalation of human rights violations committed by the Belarusian authorities against the independent press, opposition candidates and their supporters, and human rights defenders, on the eve of the presidential election in Belarus.

Maria Dahle
Executive Director
HR House Foundation

Ann-Magrit Austenå
Norwegian Journalists Association

Carl Morten Iversen
Secretary General
Norwegian PEN

Fengselsdagbok fra Minsk

Andrej Dynko: Sacrificial therapy. Letter from a prison in Minsk


I am writing these lines on Monday at 11 pm. With luck, these notes will reach the office of Nasha Niva just in time to be printed. The lights are out, but the prison is not sleeping. It is as loud as a jungle in the night. Voices and even laughter can be heard from the cells. The sounds of the prison remind me of a summer camp for children. During the day the prisoners play chess (with figures sculpted from bread), “mafia”, battleship, and solve crossword puzzles. When the night comes, it is time for verbal games. Prisoners recall the riot police and guards they have met, and tell spicy jokes about the dictator and his camarilla, state radio hosts, and sergeants who were gathered from all corners of the Belarusian capital to Akrestsina prison in Minsk. “Calm down, motherf*****!” – the guards remind the prisoners about their existence, but the buzz doesn’t get any more quiet. There is a lit bulb in a small window above the door. It gives me enough light to write.

An hour ago, the guard told the guys in the cell opposite us that 300 more arrested are being taken to Akrestsina. It sounds unreal, it’s difficult to believe him. Who can joke like that after a whole week of continuous arrests? We heard of the last big transport of prisoners on Saturday. First there was a rumour that a 15 000-strong protest march was heading towards Akrestsina. Two hours later the interior minister Navumau confirmed this in his interview with Belarusian state radio. The prison met his words with chants of “Long live Belarus!” accompanied by rumbling and clanking at the radiators. Barely warm now, they are totally cold during the day.

We sit in a new prison building, not yet completed, but already full of those arrested in the square and around it. There are 8 of us in a cell designed for 5, and, by using a method of proportion, we try to estimate the number of internees. We have no idea how many cells there are in the old prison building. There are about 40 in the new one. How many of us are there? In the dinner list we put our numbers as 327, 329… Five hundred? Six hundred? Belarusian state radio, the only means of information we have, doesn’t tell us anything about the numbers of the arrested – a clear sign that the number is huge!

I was standing with my hands back, facing the wall, in the reception of the old prison building, and Aliosha Yanukevich (deputy chairman of the Belarusian People’s Front) was speaking to me from behind the steel door. There is Yury Sidun, Andrej Tserashkou – a total of 11 prisoners in his cell. The old building is warm, but stinks like a homeless tramp. There are no single beds here. As I stand in a line to be searched, I can hear the voice of Anatoly Lyabedzka (chairman of the United Civic Party) in cell number 4, he demands something from the guard. And isn’t it the baritone of philosopher Akudovich that I hear from the sanitary check room?

On Saturday we will receive the new issue of Nasha Niva along with the packages from our relatives. Using the cardboard packs of the toothbrush, we will cut it into separate pages, and I will be amazed to see the advice of the experienced Alpinist Akudovich for those who want to survive in the tents. Did I really hear the voice of my brother?

Two of the prison buildings are completely packed. Enzymes are fermenting in the cells. Obedient citizens get used to prison. There is no depression. We know about the newly arrested and about the widespread protest on Freedom Day (25 March). The prison greets with rumbling applause the people who are chanting “Long live Belarus!” and “Hanba!” [“Shame!”] near the Akrestsina prison gate. My inmates discuss the best ways to suggest the idea of a solidarity movement to their colleagues at work – for example, the people outside could begin to have 2 meals a day, as prisoners do, until everyone is released. The guys read in Valer Bulhakau’s column in Nasha Niva: “Be ready for everything, but don’t give in”.

We are proud to receive packages from the outside. Some women have not chosen the most convenient husbands for themselves. We are glad to see that the people who came to Minsk from other regions also receive packages. We were just as glad during trials, when we saw our lawyers and human rights activists – present, but unable to change the verdicts.

The prison unites. There are a lot of us, and we watch as our optimistic power catches the attention of convoy guards. The novices stare at us, start talking. Some even flash V-shaped fingers through the peepholes of our doors – and this is our victory. “Why so sad, guys?” asks one of them. “Over there, in the women’s cell, there are syringes and porn magazines” (shortly after the tent camp dispersal, Belarusian state television showed the images of the tent camp, allegedly full of drug accessories and porno publications). We burst into laughter.

We are listening to the radio. We hear about the looming social crisis in France, and that as a result of Irish pubs going bankrupt, 1200 people have lost their jobs. We note the week-long silence of the “guarantor of the stability of the socio-economic course”. The victory of Orange forces in the Ukraine becomes clear when we hear that the state radio is reporting Sunday and Monday long the alleged chaos at Ukrainian polling stations. The guys feel that there is a drop of our input in this victory. The Ukrainians noticed early enough what the Belarusian pals of Symonenko and Vitrenko are doing in order to stay in power. Nine times a day we hear the Belarusian Foreign Ministry wrathfully condemning US and EU interference in Belarusian affairs, and we know: they ask our release. Our guys spoiled the “elegant victory” of the regime. That is why Lukashenko is silent.

Before March, it seemed to me that the Republic of Lies (RB in Belarusian means Respublika Belarus, constitutional name of Lukashenka’s republic; Respublika Brachni is abbreviated the same way) would live longer than its creator. In prison, I realized that everything could be over much sooner. I underestimated the force of the moral engine, which keeps the protests moving, and maintains the width of the social base for these protests. Differently from 1996 and 2001, those who went to the square this spring, knew what they were risking.

Who are my inmates? Mostly people who have been imprisoned for the first time in their lives. Mostly young 18- to 35-year-olds. A computer programmer from Minsk (born in the town of Braslau, in the north of Belarus); a DJ from Mahilyou; a sole trader from “Dinamo” market in Minsk (born in Russia, the son of a military officer, came to Belarus when he was 17) – they are walking refutations of stupid nationalistic clichés. There is also a businessman in a cashmere coat, who is also a protestant priest; a worker and at the same time musician from Homel; a journalist from the newspaper Belarusy i Rynok, Vadzim Alyaksandrovich; and Minsk plumber with experience in the leadership of the “Young Front” youth opposition organization, also experienced in translating American cartoons into Belarusian.

Akrestsina cells are living a vibrant spiritual life. The preachers preach about ordeals which God sent to Joseph, dissidents with 20 years of experience tell about the deeds of past times. The younger prisoners don’t know a thing about the protest spring of 1996. Members of “Zubr” (a “Otpor”- or “Pora”-like youth opposition organization) are our special troops – I have learned to recognize and value this only here in prison, where they show their knowledge and skills. There is no grief, no fear. There is a feeling of a fulfilled duty. “Who, if not us?” says the manager from Hrodna, who loaded the trunk of his Ford with ham, cheese, and tangerines and, at 6 am on 21 March, set off for Minsk. He reached the square, and was arrested there.

I was arrested on the morning of 21 March, after the first night in the square. I was not alone in the police bus – riot police loaded it with people who had heard about the tent camp on the Russian television channel NTV or on the Internet. The first reaction was solidarity. Only one was carrying a tent and a fishing-rod for a flag (subjects of Akrestsina anecdotes), all the rest were carrying food. One woman – 8 bread rolls and a vacuum flask with hot tea; another man – 40 sweet cheese curds. When I looked at him, I recognized my neighbour. We knew each other’s faces, but had never said “Hi!” to each other before. In 1996, the courts fined people for scuffling with police. In 2006, they convict young women to 7 days on a plank bed without mattresses for a flask with tea.

When the shock of the first day fades away, these young women will be singing the NRM song “Balloon”, irritating prison guards with their jokes, and ringing the melody of “Long live Belarus!” with a prison bell.

The inmates who were arrested later tell me that these were young women who began chanting “We shall stay!” on the night of March 21, when Kazulin proposed to dissolve the tent camp. Milinkevich hesitated, the men remained silent.

One of the articles in the previous issue of Nasha Niva was called “The first day of the revolution”. There was no revolution, there was a protest. I believe they had a moral rather than a political nature. If there are any reasonable people in power, they cannot help paying attention to the fact that two out of every three cars passing the square during the protests honked as a sign of solidarity with the protesters. People say, beginning on 21 March, traffic police reported the license plate numbers to police blockades further down the road. The drivers were stopped and fined two blocks away from the square. In the square itself, the authorities played the game of “democratic facade”.

I am sitting on a long wooden bench (which I also sleep on). It is 28 cm wide, I measured it with a pack of cigarettes. My inmates have their backs pressed against each other on the plank bed. The night is so freezing that they have to sleep reversed, facing each others’ toes, bundling up their legs with their coats. The cold crawls inside through the iron-barred hole where the fire alarm is, which leads into the corridor. The chilly wind drifts through the chinks in the window with a matted reinforced glass – during the late Soviet times, such glass was used to make doors in the apartment blocks of multi-storeyed panel houses. Akrestsina is finally quiet. Socks dry on a radiator. “Kent”-butts stick out of the ashtray made out of bread – the only accessible building material. The brown wooden floor reflects the light of the bulb, a guard is coughing in the corridor, a small square window with the feeding-trough is oozing out on the tin-enforced door. If you don’t suffer from claustrophobia, it is quiet and calm here. Everything is provided for you, nothing depends on you.

Being imprisoned feels like being pregnant: it’s worrisome in the beginning, and in the end. Prisoners discuss which provocation awaits them at the prison exit. Almost everyone here has an acquaintance who is under politically motivated criminal investigation. It was especially painful to hear from Siarhej Salash (he was sent to our cell one night before court) that secret services stealthily put drugs into the home of Kastus Shydlouski, the museum conservator from Braslau. One can expect everything from this regime. The worst tricks of Soviet times are back, and the repressive machine has grown much larger.

The Soviet Union prepared itself for war with the outside enemy and invested in advanced missiles. Lukashenko’s regime invests everything into fighting the internal enemy. That is why secret paramilitary units such as SOBR, “Almaz”, PMSP, special departments of the Presidential Security Service, and the KGB have grown bigger and multiplied. Above them is the Security Council with Viktar Lukashenka, the president’s son, who is in charge of it all. Internal troops have grown several times larger, in comparison to Soviet times. It seems like each of these structures is active around the square.

All arrests happened differently. One student told that “Almaz” soldiers collected the people they have arrested in the Yanka Kupala park, beat them unmercifully, and took them to Akrestsina, loaded on the floors of police buses in several human layers. “Zubr” and regional activists’ phones were tapped. They were arrested as dangerous criminals on suburban trains or in apartments rented in Minsk for a day or two.

As far as I can tell from personal contacts, the regime will be able to rely on a thousand handpicked fighters from special troops for as long as it can pay their salaries. Elite units are being trained in the spirit of absolute devotion to the orders of their commander; the law is not important for them. The fighters feel totally comfortable falsely accusing other people of “cursing” and the like.

The construction of the repressive system is over. The “ideological vertical” substitutes itself with the party structure. It coordinates the indoctrination process of society and controls the behaviour of the people. The “vertical” joins its ranks with the apparatus of secret services (ideology specialists often fulfil the duties of staff managers). Together they organize or forge the pseudo-election procedures. All this is orchestrated by the manipulated mass media. The protests are being strangled by law enforcement structures most eagerly – in advance, with courts, election committees, etc. – just affirming the decisions which are approved from “above”. The favourable economic state of the market allows its participants to believe in its durability and, more importantly, in its fairness. Lukashenko’s system will create unlimited spiritual corruption and propaganda idiotism. But in the beginning it is causing nearly totalitarian devotion in those who receive pecuniary benefits and ideological satisfaction. This can be seen in the example of Lidziya Yarmoshina, the chairwoman of the Central Election Committee.

We, the inhabitants of cell number 13, saw an example of this in another person. We didn’t understand completely who he was. Neither have we understood why he visited us. It happened on Friday, 24 March, in the evening. It is important here to remember that on the night of 23 to 24 March, the tent camp was dispersed by force.

Two men in plain clothes entered the cell. They were accompanied by the Akrestsina cops, all of them high police officers. The first person had blond hair and was wearing a mink hat. He had a piercing stare, with unblinking eyes. He could easily get the role of SS-officer in the “Belarusfilm” casting. He demanded that we tell him who we were working for. He told us that they decided to go and check the cells, to see “what kind of people caused all these disturbances”. “The minister of education and I are going to get all of you together for a chat,” he told the youngest of us. Then he swooped down on our programmer, “What do you need? Don’t you get enough money?” The exchange with the DJ ended with a short lecture, saying that:

1. Kazulin is a traitor and a Gapon priest, he doesn’t have any supporters, except for those who accompanied him to the Palace of Railroad Workers on 2 March. Kazulin’s aides wrote a programmme in which you can easily substitute the name “Belarus” for “Nizhniy Novgorod region”;

2. Milinkevich is a mumbler;

3. We are used to making money, big money. While we were freezing, Milinkevich wined and dined his family in restaurants;

4. A country for the people is being built in Belarus, and no one has the right to question the will of 83 per cent of voters;

5. Any protests will be stopped severely.
At this point he appealed to another plain-clothes man, calling him “my university friend who is now working in Moscow”.
The visitors vanished when Vadzim Aleksandrovich began to argue with them in Belarusian. The Russian “colleague” asked the Akrestsina director, “Which language does this prisoner speak?” “Belarusian”, was the answer.

The visitors left, and we began to wonder who they were. We asked the guard, and he answered: “A deputy minister”. But the ways and manners of the visitor did not resemble a deputy minister of the interior. He was more like a secret service agent. Or a special unit man. I spent a lot of time trying to recall where I have seen his face. Wasn’t he sitting between A. Lukashenka, S. Sidorski, and M. Paulau during the “Belarus-Spain” tennis match? Yes, that’s him! Lushnikau, chief of presidential personal guards! And what was this Russian secret agent doing together with this man in plain clothes? Does this mean that between 19 and 25 March there was a (were) Russian consultant(s) in Minsk? What an interesting turn.

What did this visit mean? Perhaps just a desire to see the “prisoners of war” with his own eyes. Who are they, who dare to challenge the empire? The most pleasant thing this man in plain clothes said was that nobody left the tent camp before the assault “except for our people”.

It is getting light outside, which means that cell number 13 will wake up soon. I have to finish this letter: it is impossible to write when the inmates are talking, smoking, or satisfying themselves by your side.

The country made another step in the opposite direction of normality. The atmosphere of terror was created before the elections, and there were mass arrests during the March protests.

It doesn’t matter anymore whether you break the law. You can be expelled, fired, beaten up, detained, or imprisoned any time you begin any activity which is considered to be oppositional.

The regime wanted to strangle the tent camp by blockading it, to take it over by starvation. The very essence of the regime showed itself by arresting people who were going to the toilet, by grabbing young women with thermoses, and by hiding the ‘autozaki’ — trucks for transportation of detainees — behind the billboards reading “For prosperous Belarus!”. For this regime, the television image outweighs everything else. The authorities locked up everybody they saw as potential organizers of protests; then they arrested everybody who seemed to stir up the protests. But the unexpected happened – three new people took the place of each one arrested, and people began to carry food on their bodies. Photographers documented a boy who, happily smiling, undressed and took down the sausages wrapped around his waist.

The existence of the tent camp inspired thousands of people to heroic deeds, both large and small. These deeds will stay with these people for years, lightening their hearts.

Sacrificial therapy – that was the sense of the 2006 protests. The regime understood that it had lost. They clumsily cleared the tent camp. This didn’t help, so the authorities staged a truly primitive provocation on Freedom Day, March, 25. This is my vision of these days, most of which I had to spend behind bars. Please forgive me if I am wrong.

Alaksandr Milinkevich said that after 19 March, Belarus would wake up as a different country – creourageous and free. I was not sure then whether it was just a propaganda trick. I don’t know what is happening out there, outside the prison walls. I don’t know who is still free. I am spending these 10 days among people who have undergone sacrificial therapy, and these are bright days among bright people. Perhaps Milinkevich was right.

27 March 2006, 11 pm – 28 March 2006, 6 am

The responsibility of a free press

The responsibility of a free press

By Kjell Olaf Jensen, president, Norwegian P.E.N.
Speech given at a seminar in Minsk, Belarus, October 19. 2002

In many parts of the world, the Scandinavian countries are looked upon as models of democracy and human rights.

To a certain degree, this picture is correct: We are a happy corner of the world, maybe partly because no major powers seem to be very interested in what is going on in our small societies, maybe also because not very much is really going on. And on this year’s survey made by the UN, Norway figures as the one country in the world where living conditions are the best, followed by Canada, Sweden, Denmark and the USA.

Still, even our people did learn, some time ago, that political freedom, freedom of expression and other human rights were something one had to fight for. But this was 60 years ago, and it concerned my parents’ generation. Today, this seems to a certain degree to be forgotten knowledge. We are happy, so why care?

The obvious answer to this question, “Why care?”, is formulated by the Finnish 19th-century poet Runeberg, in a beautiful poem entitled “Paavo, the Peasant”. Paavo is a poor peasant with only a small field of rye somewhere in the Finnish forests. One year, the rye seems to yield a beautiful crop; but just before harvesting time, there comes a hail storm destroying most of the corn. And Paavo tells his wife: Grind 50% pine rind into the bread flour, so that we shall survive the coming winter. Every year, this scenario is repeated. Each year, the crop looks great, but then some calamity occurs – frost, hurricane, thunderstorm, destroying the rye; and every year, Paavo tells his wife to grind 50% pine rind into the bread flour, in order to survive the coming winter.

But finally, one year, everything goes well, and Paavo is able to make a magnificent rye harvest. Now at last, we can make real rye flour for our bread, says his wife. No, says Paavo, you just grind 50% pine rind into the flour, for behold: Our neighbour’s field lies there, frozen, and he needs bread to survive the coming winter.

The second answer to the question “Why care?” when you live in an idyllic society, is less altruistic and maybe more realistic. If we do not maintain a continuous fight for our right to freedom of expression, it will die; a freedom which is not used continually, will get lost. An emblematic illustration for this is the famous Lutheran priest Martin Niemöller from Nazi Germany and his laconic remarks: “First, they took the communists,” said Niemöller, “and I did not protest, since I am not a communist. Then, they abducted the Jews, but I did not say anything, for I am not a Jew. Afterwards, they arrested the catholics, but why should I bother, I am not a catholic? And when they came to get hold of me, there was, strangely enough, nobody left to protest.”

The Norwegian government established some years ago a commission under the leadership of the former President of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, history professor Francis Sejersted, whose task it should be to reformulate the constitutional article guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression, which is article 100 in Norway’s almost 200 years old Constitution. The commission should find out whether or not there was any reason to change the wording of Article 100. They arrived at a conclusion which was dangerously erroneous according to my view, namely to leave unchanged the old idea that the right to freedom of expression should be granted by the Parliament since it is essential for the maintenance of a free society. But if this is the case, the Parliament may also, any time, decide that the right to freedom of expression is no longer essential for a free society, and if so, the Constitution would make it the duty of the Parliament to abolish the right to freedom of expression, according to this logic. If the constitutional reason for having this right was not defined by what is useful for society, if it was defined by some sort of natural law like it is in the French Revolution’s Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, or even by some sort of divine law, it would not be possible for any given Parliament to abolish our right to freedom of expression.

The Norwegian Commission for the Freedom of Expression, as this commission was called, also stressed the importance of having a continuous debate going on in what the commission called “the vast public space”, if we want to keep our right to freedom of expression and a real democracy in which the whole population has a right – and a duty – to participate. This space, or this permanent forum of debate, is defined, managed and governed mostly by what we, a little derogatively, call the mass media, which puts an extremely heavy responsibility on these media, both on the written press and on radio and television. (Maybe on the Internet users as well, but since Internet is neither edited nor published by anyone, the responsibility in this case falls on every individual user of the medium.)

So far, everything seems quite logical and without problems. And yet, when we take a closer look at the media in our free society, we immediately feel that something is very wrong.

I come more or less directly from the International Book Fair in Frankfurt, where there were, as always, interesting and essential debates all over the place for a week, also concerning the right to freedom of expression and how to conserve a free society. Little of all this was reflected in our Norwegian media, and mainly in the smaller newspapers, magazines and early morning and late night programs on the radio. One of our largest newspapers, priding itself of being a cultural paper caring for the right to freedom of expression on which it lives, had three journalists at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Excellent. But these journalists spent three days on following one Norwegian publisher around everywhere, reporting on all his doings. The reason for this peculiar interest for one single, small publisher was that he had just published a book written by the Norwegian King’s young daughter, the Princess of Norway, in which Her Royal Highness described her marriage ceremony earlier this year – an event which had already been most plentifully covered by the media at the time. This was seen as more important than all other events going on at the Book Fair.

Some years ago, Moris Farhi visited Oslo. Several of you will know Moris Farhi – he is a very interesting novelist and essayist, at that time he also was Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. He is a Jew, born in Turkey, half Greek, with family roots in Egypt and Lebanon, living in London as a British citizen. Brief, an international figure of the highest interest for “the vast public space”. We organized interviews by several interested journalists. But in some of the main Norwegian newspapers we met a problem. Yes, the editors saw the point and understood why they ought to be interested, but the problem was that Monica Lewinsky was visiting Oslo at the same time, promoting the book about her eventual relationship with then president Bill Clinton, so all the journalists were busy with a problem much more interesting and important than poor Moris Farhi. Television, both public and private: same thing.

This begins to resemble the society described by Aldous Huxley in his famous novel from 1934: Brave New World. In Huxley’s society, no repression is necessary, because everybody is conditioned to think that the existing society is wonderful, and that they all are extremely lucky to live in just this society and to have just this position in this society. All literary classics, with Shakespeare as the foremost example, are banished: “We are not interested in such things”. Instead, citizens play stupid ball games and drug themselves. The American professor Neil Postman approached the same question several years ago, by calling his most well-known book We Are Amusing Ourselves to Death – in this book professor Postman states, among other things, that American university students today are not able to concentrate their attention for more than 20 minutes at a time, this being the average time between two publicity spots in most American television channels.

In Aldous Huxley’s society, there are no expressions worthy of the name. And what does the right to freedom of expression mean, in a society where there are no real expressions because all meaningful expressions are deemed to be “unnecessary” or not to be funny or “cool” enough?

This is where the activities of many of the larger media in the West may be bringing us today – this is, quite simply, what may happen when the media do not know their responsibility in a free society, namely to be a watchdog for the society, to scrutinize the society continually and put it under continuous debate, as the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes said more than 100 years ago. In the post-communist societies, you know from personal experience what George Orwell’s society from his novel 1984 would look like. Today, we have to guard our media against the danger of falling into Aldous Huxley’s trap, amusing ourselves to death.

Do you remember Homer’s episode about Scylla and Carybdis, from the Odyssee?