Washington, 19 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan says freedom of speech is a right worth fighting for.
Annan made the comment in Washington Friday during a luncheon sponsored by the World Press Freedom Committee -- a U.S.-based group of international news media organizations focusing on free speech around the world.
Annan says that as Secretary-General of the UN, he is bound by the organization's charter to weigh his words carefully when speaking out on an issue. But he says when it comes to freedom of speech, he is very passionate about speaking out against those governments who deny their people a right to express their own views.
Annan explains: "What if some governments are not defending their people's true interests, or have a view of those interests which the people don't share and do not endorse? What if governments are an impediment to the people's wishes, instead of being the vehicle for their fulfillment? What if some of those peoples in whose name the Charter is issued see the UN not as an instrument of their aspirations, but as a haven for oppressive governments?"
He adds: "Then, we must and we will speak out, for democracy, for human rights, for the rule of law, for the proposition that governments are the servants of the people and not the other way around."
Annan says there are still governments around the world who question the value of freedom of speech. He says some argue that it threatens stability and endangers progress while others consider it an imposition from abroad.
Annan says that what has always struck him about these arguments is that they are never made by the people, but by governments. He urged every nation to put the arguments in the public forum and let the people decide.
Annan says that civilizations have always been enriched, not weakened, by the exchange of knowledge and arts. He adds that in relations between nations, it is rather the lack of education and a dearth of knowledge which is the chief source of dispute and conflict.
He says it is normal that national ideas and interests will clash. But he warns that the clash of ideas must never be confused with the clash of civilizations. He says differences of ideas should always be conducted peacefully and politically to the benefit of all.
Says Annan: "Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda, and in most modern conflicts, the men of war prey on the ignorance of the populace to instill fears and arouse hatreds. That was the case in Bosnia and in Rwanda, where murderous, even genocidal ideologies took root in the absence of truthful information and honest education. If only half the effort had gone into teaching those peoples what unites them, and not what divides them, unspeakable crimes could have been prevented."
Annan says that only by speaking out and promoting the vital exchange of ideas and information regardless of frontiers, will the world be able to defeat ignorance.
Annan concludes: "Freedom of speech is a right to be fought for and not a blessing to be wished for. But it is more than that; it is a bridge of understanding and knowledge. It is the essential vehicle for that exchange of ideas between nations and cultures that is a condition for true understanding and cooperation."